The question in the title of Timothy Egan’s latest column for The New York Times is “Who Will Save the Republic?” My answer is Donald Trump, of course.
I mean this in the Anna Sebastian sense – Madame Sebastian being the shrewd, sinister and very Teutonic mother played by Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, “Notorious.”
Anna’s adult son, Alexander (Claude Rains), is part of a group of well-heeled Nazis living and scheming revenge in Brazil when he marries Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful young woman he deems trustworthy because her father was a convicted German spy.
Too late, Alexander realizes that Alicia is really a U.S. agent and that exposure of the fact will mean certain death for him at the hands of his fellow Nazis. When he confesses the problem to mother, she responds with the most reproachful reassurance in movie history:
“We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity – for a time.”
Just so with our 45th president. His views are often malevolent, and his conduct might ultimately prove criminal. But we, too, are protected, for a time, by the enormity of his stupidity.
So much was clear back in January, when Trump dropped his refugee ban on the public, like a dunce trying to squash a snail by dropping a brick on it, only to have it land on his own foot.
Tuesday’s dismissal of James Comey as FBI director fits the pattern. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that a man whose signature line in showbiz was “You’re fired” turns out to be spectacularly incompetent even in this respect.
The president’s letter dismissing Comey revealed more about the president’s legal anxieties than it did about the director’s job performance.
What was meant to quash an investigation into the obscure tangle of Trump’s possible Russia connections is now certain to revive it. The Senate will be hard-pressed to confirm an FBI director who is an obvious political lackey. And anyone who takes the job will feel honor bound to pursue the investigation with maximum legal and bureaucratic muscle.
This is how we save the Republic – one self-inflicted Trumpian political wound after another.
All the more so since Trump seems to be digging in. The president is now threatening to cancel all live White House press briefings while issuing ill-concealed threats against the former director. On Friday, he tweeted that “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
In corporate life, the usual practice when firing someone is either to say nothing or to say something nice, on the theory that the unlucky person is likelier to respond in kind. Trump has now given his former director the opportunity and incentive to do the opposite. Congressional hearings, should they happen, will be fun.
What makes all this so much more astonishing is how unnecessary it is, at least from Trump’s point of view.
If the president has nothing to fear from a Russia investigation, then why not let it run its course toward exoneration or irrelevance? If he does have something to fear, then Comey – distrusted by Republicans and Democrats alike – would have been his ideal foil. Trump’s critics can now take heart that, no, we won’t soon be moving on from l'affaire russe.
On Friday, I asked an astute source with long experience in the intelligence community if he suspects a smoking gun.
“I would guess there is something on paper or derived through witness questioning that has given the bureau an opening, assuming that Trump’s actions are in response to growing concern about the Russian probe,” he replied, while adding the caveat, “Since we’re talking about Trump, a rampantly insecure ego, such an assumption isn’t mandatory.”
I’d add another caveat: Incompetence may protect us – but as Madame Sebastian knew, only for a while. The blunders may often be self-defeating, but not always. Trump is our president. The enormity of his stupidity, inescapably, is also our own.
The writer is a columnist for The New York Times.