nterrupting a previously scheduled “Briefing on Drug Trafficking on the Southern Border,” President Trump called reporters into the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon and personally announced the grounding of every Boeing 737 Max in America. The move surprised White House advisers, two of whom told the Washington Post that Trump had earlier agreed to allow the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the legal authority to ground the planes, to make the announcement. Why was the United States acting so long after other countries had ordered the planes out of the sky, following a deadly crash in Ethiopia? Is this really how America’s air-safety decisions are supposed to be made? Nobody seemed to know. But one thing was apparent: Trump—a self-styled aviation expert, who cites his ownership of a Boeing 757 and his brief time running the Trump Shuttle airline, which went bust, in 1992, as the basis of his expertise—had once again inserted himself where he loves to be, right in the middle of a big story.
A few minutes after Trump’s announcement, I began a previously arranged conversation with one of the President’s most acerbic Republican critics, George Conway, who is also, as much of America now knows, the husband of Trump’s White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway. George Conway, a successful conservative lawyer, who turned down a top job in Trump’s Justice Department, has, in the past year, become an unlikely social-media celebrity, and his frequent tweets skewering the President whom his wife serves has made their home life a staple of late-night-television jokes. Conway recently made a rare public appearance, at a Georgetown University conference devoted to threats to the rule of law under Trump, where he warned that the country risked becoming a “banana republic.” I wanted to know more about what Conway meant, but, in the meantime, Trump’s decision to ground the planes had caught the attention of both of us. Was it a distraction? A scandal? An example of Trump doing the right thing? On the merits, no one seemed to disagree with the move. And yet the announcement in the Oval Office, followed by a lengthy rant about there being “no collusion” with Russia and about the border wall that the President says he is building, even though he isn’t, seemed so Trumpy.
“You have to look at everything through the prism of his narcissism,” Conway told me. “This is all about him exercising his authority and power to be at the center of attention, and, for whatever reason, he’s decided he’s going to get the most juice out of exercising this decree on this day in this way. That’s the way he makes himself important and special; there’s an arbitrariness to it.” Isn’t that pretty much the definition of a “banana republic”? I asked.
“Yes,” Conway responded. “It would make it a banana republic.” But he went on to offer an important caveat to the remarks he made at Georgetown. “If it were not for the inherent checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution,” Conway said, “we would have a banana republic. But that also makes him an inherently weak President, because the office requires you to have the power to persuade. Ultimately, you become a powerful President only if you are able to persuade others to go along with you. His narcissism means he has to retreat to the people who worship him. He cannot reach out and persuade, like every other President tries to do. His narcissism causes him to be a weak President, and the checks and balances mean he is a weak President. And that’s why we don’t have a banana republic.”
The Trump show is endlessly distracting in a way that would be familiar to any connoisseur of the Latin-American strongman. The Wednesday-afternoon Oval Office appearance alone had enough fodder for countless talk-show segments: Trump grounds the airplanes! Trump lies about building the wall! Trump lies about being vindicated in the special-counsel probe —even when a federal judge says, in court, that he hasn’t been!
And, indeed, after our conversation, Conway spent much of Wednesday evening on Twitter complaining about the long stream of untruths that had come from the President in recent days, from the ridiculously pointless (refusing to admit his flub of the Apple C.E.O.’s name) to the acutely relevant (“no collusion!”). “Have we ever seen this degree of brazen, pathological mendacity in American public life?” Conway asked his Twitter followers. News outlets, including Fox News and The Hill, wrote stories about Conway’s Twitter storm, which included a call for a “serious inquiry” into the President’s mental health. Philippe Reines, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton, tweeted an offer for Conway to take up residence in his guest bedroom. In many ways, it was all just another day on the Trump-era Washington merry-go-round: Trump says crazy stuff; people get mad about it.
Up on Capitol Hill this week, however, two key votes demonstrated Conway’s point about the weakness of Donald Trump and the incredible shrinking Presidency his massive ego might well be bringing about. Although he acts like an all-powerful strongman, Trump could very well make himself the first President in decades to leave the office with less power than it had when he entered.
On Wednesday, even as the Boeing 737s were being ordered to land, the Republican-controlled Senate was voting to rebuke Trump on a major foreign-policy issue, invoking the rarely used War Powers Act to demand that the Administration halt its military support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen, with seven Republicans having joined Democrats in supporting the move. The House is now poised to follow suit, which would force Trump to issue a veto, the first of his Presidency. Trump doesn’t seem to have tried to stop the loss, though it marked the first time in many, many years both houses of Congress have asserted their prerogative to insure that the President consults with the legislative branch before making war.