Every president has the ability to dominate the news, but none has dominated it quite like this one, in much the same way as a flaming car on the side of the highway dominates the attention of the drivers passing by. Donald Trump's eruptions (for lack of a better word) have a gravitational pull on the entire political world, making them impossible to ignore even if one might step back and ask whether it really matters if the president thinks he had the biggest inaugural crowd in history, or that millions of people voted illegally, or that Barack Obama tapped his phones.
But these controversies are in some ways a dress rehearsal for all concerned, for the time when it really does matter. That moment will come, and probably before long. Every president faces crises with potentially dramatic and life-threatening consequences, whether it's a confrontation with a foreign power, a terrorist attack, or a natural or man-made disaster. We don't know how Donald Trump will act when that moment comes, though the signs are not encouraging. But with each new Trump eruption, we learn a little more about the contours of the danger we'll face.
That brings us to what happened over the weekend, when Trump rose early on Saturday to make this stunning accusation:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
There then followed a series of similar tweets, ending in this:
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
Having thus blown the lid off the greatest presidential scandal since Watergate, Trump sent another tweet insulting Arnold Schwarzenegger, then went to play golf.
Trump apparently learned about this from an article on Breitbart by right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin, and instead of saying, "I'm the president of the United States—I'm sure there are people I could ask about this who could explain to me what the real story is," he just went public. Had he picked up the phone and asked someone, he would have been told that presidents can't just order wiretaps—if there was any such surveillance of anyone in Trump Tower going on, it would have only been because a judge found sufficient evidence of criminal activity or foreign espionage to approve a warrant.
One might muster a small degree of pity for Trump's aides, who have to treat every hairball of a tweet their boss coughs up as though it were a carefully considered, highly informed, and urgent instruction on a critical matter of public policy. They then scramble madly to fulfill his apparent wishes and find some way to defend him, all while enduring uncomfortable questions from the media and widespread ridicule. Which is exactly what happened this time, just as it has many times before.
But their struggles are a minor part of the story. Let's imagine we're in one of those crises. What voices will the president be hearing from—and perhaps more importantly, how much will he listen to them? If, for instance, there's a confrontation between American and Chinese vessels on the high seas, is Trump going to be reading Breitbart to get the "real" scoop on what's happening, and then making decisions accordingly?
There are some around Trump, like Defense Secretary Mattis or National Security Adviser McMaster, who appear to be reasonable people with an ability to calculate risk and perhaps even the self-possession to tell the president he's about to make a mistake. But what if Trump hears them out, they leave the Oval Office, and he's all alone with his smartphone? And then Steve Bannon walks in and counsels him to take "bold" and "decisive" action against those crafty foreigners. What happens then?
The media sources Trump relies on—and from which he seems to take information uncritically—are not just full of misinformation, whether it's about wiretaps or fictional terrorist attacks in Sweden. They also construct and maintain a world of threats and fear, in which America is besieged by evil forces trying to destroy us, forces that can only be defeated through macho posturing and displays of force.
Yet sometimes, even though we're undoubtedly the strongest country in the world, we have to pass on an opportunity to look strong in favor of being smart, or even give someone else the opportunity to save face. Can you imagine Donald Trump doing that? Especially when he's watching Fox News and reading right-wing websites all day, getting whipped into a tizzy?
A lot of the small-scale Trump eruptions end with a whimper. He makes a wild claim, a chorus of people from outside the White House shout "Are you nuts???", his aides try lamely to defend him, and eventually the promised action never materializes—for instance, he'll be getting to the bottom of those three million illegal votes for Hillary Clinton around the time that O.J. tracks down the real killers. Before long, it's nothing but a punch line. But eventually, we'll face a moment when lives are literally at stake in the crazy things he believes. And then it won't be so funny.