Today’s lesson in How Washington Really Works begins with the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt retain documentation of all communications with the boss.”
If anyone understands that, it’s James B. Comey, a highly credentialed lawyer who had a couple of decades’ worth of top-level federal experience under his belt before taking over the FBI in 2013. Whatever mistakes this bureaucrat par excellence committed amid the political turbulence of the past year and a half, failure to follow the 11th Commandment was not one of them — it never would have been.
By contrast, and in hindsight, President Trump’s attempted manipulations of the G-man-in-chief seem not only utterly inappropriate but also amateurish — laughably so.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” the president taunted on Twitter — whereupon, as any Washington veteran could have foreseen, Comey’s memo was duly leaked. Indeed, his firing was undoubtedly one of the contingencies for which it was drafted. If the president really has anything on Comey, now would be a good time to produce it, but so far — crickets.
To be sure, Trump would not be the first outsider to come into the White House overrating his ability to contend with the insiders.
Yet even Jimmy Carter had enough savvy, born of military and government experience, not to attempt a too-clever-by-half routine like Trump’s apparent effort to make Comey his stooge.
All Trump brought to town was a very mixed record in business and entertainment. That, plus a towering ego and an abiding contempt for, well, pretty much anyone. Admittedly, he used those attributes as weapons — brilliantly — to defeat and humiliate a series of more politically seasoned Republican rivals, and Democrat Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election.
Those who speculated that the burdens of office would modulate Trump guessed wrong. To the contrary, victory seems to have reinforced Trump’s belief in his own brilliance, and everyone else’s stupidity, clouding his perceptions of elementary political reality.
“Thou shalt never mistakenly size up a situation” is Washington’s 12th Commandment, and survivors here follow it even more religiously than they observe No. 11. Trump, because of his self-absorbed nature, finds it difficult.
Former Republican senator Bob Dole has lasted a good long while in the D.C. snake pit. He’s had high moments — winning the 1996 GOP presidential nomination — and lower ones, such as offering his elder statesman’s apologia for Trump at a key point in the 2016 GOP primary. But overall, Dole handled himself better than most.
From an early age, he was well served by awareness of his own limitations. As a new second lieutenant late in World War II, Dole took over a bloodied Army platoon fighting desperate Germans along a hilly front in Italy.
On Day One, the 21-year-old prudently approached the unit’s veteran sergeant, who was exercising interim command pending Dole’s arrival. “All right soldier, there won’t be any changes,” Dole told him, according to “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s 1993 book about recent presidential contenders. “We’ll run it like you’ve been running it until we get the knack.”
Of course, Dole was later permanently injured in combat, proving there’s no sure protection against misfortune. But within the platoon, his humility and willingness to listen actually helped establish his leadership during the brief time he exercised it.
It is far too late in life for Trump to learn this lesson, no matter how many times he’s taught it by fiascos such as his still-developing clash with Comey.
In taking over the Republican Party, Trump mocked, ridiculed and discarded many of the sergeants who might have helped him govern.
What remains in the Trump administration are opportunists, ideologues, sycophants, family — plus a few genuine professionals, who lent their talents and reputations to Trump for what they saw as the good of the country. Some of the latter are now being compromised by Trump’s antics.
Elsewhere along the trench line, the GOP’s congressional majority is growing demoralized under Lt. Trump’s mercurial command but, contrary to much wishful thinking from the president’s multiplying critics, still dares not stage an intervention, much less a mutiny — the only thing, probably, that could bring Trump down before 2020.
It’s unclear what Republican politicians fear more: the Democratic enemy or their own rank-and-file voters, more than 82 percent of whom support the president, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, conducted from May 4 to 9. A backlash from the dreaded GOP “base” may await those who turn on the boss.
As White House dysfunction deepens, the political process hemorrhages legitimacy, which is definitely not how Washington is supposed to work.