MONDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2020
"Terrifying," FBI honcho says: For the past several decades, Ron Suskind has been working at the upper end of American journalism.
Last Friday, the New York Times published a long analysis piece by Suskind. For whatever reason, the Times has chosen to list Suskind's essay as Opinion—to the extent that the Times has been directing attention to the essay at all.
For whatever reason, Suskind's essay hasn't appeared in the newspaper's print editions. We'll start the week with Suskind's essay because it helps us ask a basic question:
Could it happen here? More precisely, could it start to happen here this very week?
In preparation for his essay, Suskind interviewed several dozen people, asking them about Donald J. Trump and his possible plans for the week. Below, you see Suskind's description of his sources, and his initial account of their concerns:
SUSKIND (10/30/20): I’ve spent the last month interviewing some two dozen officials and aides, several of whom are still serving in the Trump administration. The central sources in this story are or were senior officials, mainly in jobs that require Senate confirmation. They have had regular access to the president and to briefings at the highest level. As a rule, they asked for anonymity because they were taking a significant professional and, in some cases, personal risk in speaking out in a way that Mr. Trump will see as disloyal, an offense for which he has promised to make offenders pay.
Several of them are in current posts in intelligence, law enforcement or national security and are focused on the concurrent activities of violent, far-right and white supremacy groups that have been encouraged by the president’s words and actions. They are worried that the president could use the power of the government—the one they all serve or served within—to keep himself in office or to create favorable terms for negotiating his exit from the White House. Like many other experts inside and outside the government, they are also concerned about foreign adversaries using the internet to sow chaos, exacerbate divisions and undermine our democratic process.
Of Suskind's two dozen sources, only "several" are still in office within the Trump administration. For whatever reason, Suskind chose not to use a specific number.
Suskind's "central" sources were or are are senior officials. Based upon certain passages in Suskind's essay, we'll guess that his sources includes former officials James Mattis and John Kelly, along with Christopher Wray, current head of the FBI.
Suskind's sources have all seen the sitting president up close and personal, while he's been in office. According to Suskind, they're concerned about what he may attempt to do starting this week.
In part, these people are concerned because of what they've seen and experienced. They've seen Trump behind the scenes—and according to Suskind, this is what they've observed:
SUSKIND: Many of the officials I spoke to came back to one idea: You don’t know Donald Trump like we do. Even though they can’t predict exactly what will happen, their concerns range from the president welcoming, then leveraging, foreign interference in the election, to encouraging havoc that grows into conflagrations that would merit his calling upon U.S. forces. Because he is now surrounded by loyalists, they say, there is no one to try to tell an impulsive man what he should or shouldn’t do.
“That guy you saw in the debate,” a second former senior intelligence official told me, after the first debate, when the president offered one of the most astonishing performances of any leader in modern American history— bullying, ridiculing, manic, boasting, fabricating, relentlessly interrupting and talking over his opponent. “That’s really him. Not the myth that’s been created. That’s Trump.”
Still another senior government official, who spent years working in proximity to Mr. Trump, put it like this: “He has done nothing else that’s a constant, except for acting in his own interest.” And that’s how “he’s going to be thinking, every step of the way, come Nov. 3.”
One of the first things senior staff members learned about Mr. Trump was that he was all but un-briefable. He couldn’t seem to take in complex information about policy choices and consequences in the ways presidents usually do in Oval Office meetings.
What they saw instead was the guy from the first debate. He’d switch subjects, go on crazy tangents, abuse and humiliate people, cut them off midsentence. Officials I interviewed described this scenario again and again.
According to many of Suskind's sources, this president behaves in extremely strange ways, even when he's behind the scenes, surrounded by senior officials.
He can't ingest basic information. He can't focus on the subject at hand.
He tends to "go on crazy tangents," abusing people as he does. According to Suskind, the senior officials to whom he spoke "described this scenario again and again."
How strong is this president's apparent cognition? As he continued, Suskind reported this example:
SUSKIND (continuing directly): In the middle of a briefing, Mr. Trump would turn away and grab the phone. Sometimes the call would go to Fox television hosts like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs; sometimes the officials wouldn’t even know who was on the other end. But whoever it was would instantly become the key voice in the debate.
In one meeting about the border wall, Mr. Trump called a person “who built a flagpole at one of his golf courses,” said an official in attendance that day. Mr. Trump explained that because this person “got in a big fight about the size of the flagpole” and because it was “really big,” “the president thought, of course, they would understand how to build a wall.”
“Obviously,” this official said, “it is not the same.”
In the course of a discussion about the border wall, Trump decided to call the guy who built the very large flagpole. There is no transcript of this alleged event, but Suskind presents it as an example of the sitting commander-in-chief's routinely bizarre cognition.
This portrait of Trump's crazy behavior certainly isn't new. Along the way, other senior officials, not excluding James Comey himself, have described the craziness which may result when a person is unlucky enough to get caught in a conversation with the monomaniacal president.
In this case, Suskind is saying that a significant range of senior officials, past and present, have told him about this weird behavior. He also says that these senior officials are deeply concerned about what Trump may do, this very week, if it seems that he may be losing his bid for re-election.
What might Trump try to do this week? At this point in his essay, Suskind says this about his sources:
"They are loath to give up too many precise details, but it’s not hard to speculate from what we already know."
What follows, therefore, is (informed) "speculation" on Suskind's part. That said, Suskind's long array of potential events starts out like this:
SUSKIND: Disruption would most likely begin on Election Day morning somewhere on the East Coast, where polls open first. Miami and Philadelphia (already convulsed this week after another police shooting), in big swing states, would be likely locations. It could be anything, maybe violent, maybe not, started by anyone, or something planned and executed by any number of organizations, almost all of them on the right fringe, many adoring of Mr. Trump. The options are vast and test the imagination.
"The options are vast," Suskind says. For what it's worth, some strange attempts at disruption have already occurred in the first few days after Suskind's essay appeared.
As he continues, Suskind's sketches a long menu of possible acts of disruption and sabotage. Such events could create a situation in which a disordered president attempts to challenge the Pollyannas who have long said that it can't happen here.
Could it happen here? Well yes, of course it could! In Suskind's account, the FBI is especially concerned about the conduct which may unfold. Here are excerpts from Suskind's essay about what could occur this week, and about where these events could take us:
SUSKIND: Violence and conflict throughout that day at the polls would surely affect turnout, allowing Mr. Trump to claim that the in-person vote had been corrupted, if that suits his purposes. There’s no do-over for Election Day.
Under the 12th Amendment, which Mr. Trump has alluded to on several occasions, the inability to determine a clear winner in the presidential election brings the final decision to the House of Representatives. The current composition of the House, in which Republicans control more state delegations even though Democrats are in the majority, favors Trump. But the state count could flip to the Democrats with this election.
There are many scenarios that might unfold from here, nearly all of them entailing weeks or even months of conflict, and giving an advantage to the person who already runs the U.S. government.
No matter how the votes split, there’s an expectation among officials that Mr. Trump will claim some kind of victory on Nov. 4, even if it’s a victory he claims was hijacked by fraud—just as he falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton’s three million-vote lead in the popular vote was the result of millions of votes from unauthorized immigrants. This could come in conjunction with statements, supported by carefully chosen “facts,” that the election was indeed “rigged,” as he’s long been warning.
The F.B.I., meanwhile, is bracing for huge challenges. “We are all-hands-on-deck for the foreseeable future,” the F.B.I. official I mentioned earlier told me. “We’ve been talking to our state and local counterparts and gearing up for the expectation that it’s going to be a significant law-enforcement challenge for probably weeks or months,” this official said. “It feels pretty terrifying.”
Suskind imagines sets of deeply disordered behavior leading to a power grab. He quotes a (senior) FBI official saying that the situation "feels pretty terrifying."
Could such things really happen here? Actually, yes—of course they could!
That doesn't mean that they will happen here. But anthropologists keep insisting that yes, of course they could happen here, just as such events have happened, at various times, all across the globe.
(Mordantly musing in the Muir Woods, Carlotta Valdes concurs.)
For whatever reason, the New York Times chose to publish Suskind's long essay though not in print editions. So it has tended to go ever since Candidate Trump descended the escalator, with Rachel Maddow hemming and hawing about his disgraceful behavior that day and over the prior five years.
Who is sitting in the White House? Why has the crazy behavior Suskind describes largely gone undiscussed?
More specifically, why have medical specialists been banished from our public debate about this badly disordered person?
Tomorrow, we'll recall Mary Trump's analysis of her grandfather and her uncle, the sitting president. Who in the world is Donald J. Trump?
Tomorrow, on Election Day, we'll show you what Mary Trump said.
Tomorrow: The meaning of "sociopath"