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The Snake

Donald Trump’s favorite story perfectly describes his first 10 days in office.

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the immigration ban that was imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump at Los Angeles International Airport on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There is a story Donald Trump liked to tell on the campaign trail. The story of the snake.

The fable goes like this. A “tender-hearted” woman finds a wounded snake on the road. She takes it in and nurses it back to health. The snake, revived, bites her. The woman, dying, asks why.

Trump loves recounting the story. He makes a performance out of it. He puts on his reading glasses. He lingers on the antiquated, florid language. And when he reaches the climax, he delivers the punchline with particular showmanship, deepening his voice and switching to a sharp, declarative cadence.

“‘Oh, shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin. ‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’”

“Does that make sense to anyone?” Trump says to cheers.

The fable of the snake, in Trump’s rallies, was about Syrian refugees. For that issue, it is worse than useless — it is slander. Precisely zero Syrian refugees have launched terrorist attacks against the United States of America. But the fable of the snake is not without value. It is a powerful metaphor for Donald Trump’s presidency.

Donald Trump has only been president for 10 days. But he has shown that his administration will combine the worst ideas of his campaign with the worst aspects of his temperament. Those who confidently told the country to take Trump seriously but not literally should be ashamed of themselves. Those who rationalized their support by assuming staff would rein him in, or the Oval Office would humble him, have been proven wrong.

There is nothing Trump has done that should surprise. His policies have aligned with his promises. His actions have aligned with his history. His conspiracy theories, his thin skin, his strange obsessions, his impulsive behavior, his poor management, his bizarre tweets — all of it was present in his campaign too.

Protestors rally during a demonstration against the Muslim immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City. Maite H. Mateo / Corbis / Getty

The weekend’s events showed how the different sides of Trumpism converge into catastrophe. The executive order banning refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, though cruel, is a softer version of the Muslim ban Trump campaigned on. Its sloppy drafting was predictable given candidate Trump’s persistent disinterest in policy details or policy advisers. President Trump’s insistence that the ban was “working out very nicely” — spoken as chaos engulfed the nation’s airports — was typical for a man who believes what he wants to believe and sees what he wants to see.

All of this was predictable. We knew damn well what Trump was when we took him in.

The vengeful conspiracy theorist as president

Even before the weekend’s events, Donald Trump’s young presidency was bedeviled by, well, Donald Trump.

“Rocky First Weekend for Trump Troubles Even His Top Aides,” read the New York Times headline. The story, published barely two days after Trump took the oath of office, detailed the panic gripping Trump’s inner circle as they watched their boss’s first hours in office:

To the extent that there was a plan to take advantage of the first days of his administration, when a president is usually at his maximum leverage, Mr. Trump threw it aside with a decision to lash out about crowd sizes at his swearing in and to rewrite the history of his dealings with intelligence agencies.

The lack of discipline troubled even senior members of Mr. Trump’s circle, some of whom had urged him not to indulge his simmering resentment at what he saw as unfair news coverage.

The Washington Post published a similar story based on “interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants,” none of whom sounded reassured by Trump’s fixation on the size of his inauguration crowd. Trump’s circle, the Post reported, worried his “ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism.”

Were they surprised? And if so, why? We had seen all this before.

On July 21, Trump took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to accept his party’s nomination for the presidency. It was a stunning moment — he had done what everyone said he couldn’t do. He had won. He was the GOP nominee now. It was time to consolidate the party.

Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination for President at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, USA on July 21, 2016. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Less than 24 hours later, Trump held a press conference lashing out at Ted Cruz, who had pointedly refused to endorse him at the convention. It was, and remains, the strangest thing I have ever seen in American politics.

“I don’t want his endorsement,” Trump said. “If he gives it, I will not accept it. Just so you understand. I will not accept it. It won’t matter.”

Here is what happened next:

His father. I don't know his father, I met him once. I think he's a lovely guy. I think he's a lovely guy. All I did was point out that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast. Now, Ted never denied that it was his father. Instead he said, "Donald Trump!" — I had nothing to do with it!

This was a magazine that frankly, in many respects, should be very respected. They got OJ, they got Edwards. If that was the New York Times, they would've gotten Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. I've always said, "Why didn't the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards, and OJ Simpson, and all of these things?"

But anyway, so they have a picture, an old picture, having breakfast with Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, I’m not saying anything. Here’s how the press takes that story. This had nothing to do with me. Except I might have pointed it out, but it had nothing to do with me, I have no control over anything. I might have pointed it out. But nobody ever denied — did anyone ever deny that it was his father? It’s a little hard to do, because it looks like him.

The sun had not set on Trump’s day of triumph before he went in front of the cameras and revived his insane accusation that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It was all there. The way Trump is at his most sensitive when he is at his most powerful. His tendency to wield bizarre conspiracy theories against his opponents. His flagrant disregard for the truth. His anger at being held accountable for his own words and actions. His desire for vengeance against those he feels wronged by.

There is no mystery to how this man spent the 48 hours after his inauguration insisting that the photographs were wrong and his inauguration crowd was massive. There is no surprise to his belief that the polls are rigged and he’s actually popular. There is nothing unexpected about his insistence that he really won the popular vote and Hillary Clinton’s margin was the result of fraud.

It is not Trump that has changed. What has changed is how much his words matter — and that a cast of officials must now must carry them out.

The power of the presidency in service of grudges, obsessions, and score settling

The day after his inauguration, Trump directed press secretary Sean Spicer to call an impromptu press briefing that would permanently damage his credibility. Trump himself had already stood in the CIA’s Hall of Heroes and defended the crowd that attended his speech. “I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people,” he insisted, speaking in a room devoted to honoring those who had fallen in service to their country.

Now he wanted Spicer, in his official role as press secretary and surrounded by the official trappings of his office, to do the same. Either no one was willing to tell Trump that forcing Spicer to echo this absurdity would damage his future effectiveness or the president simply didn’t care.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer makes a statement to members of the media at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Spicer did as he was told. He lashed the press for reporting on crowd size when “nobody had numbers, because the National Park Service does not put any out.” He then, ridiculously, turned and said, “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, both in person and around the globe.”

For a few days afterward, Washington debated why Spicer humiliated himself so thoroughly so quickly. “This is called a statement you're told to make by the President,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first press secretary, in a dark commentary. “And you know the President is watching.”

The economist Tyler Cowen, in a much-read column, offered an explanation borrowed from studies of authoritarian regimes:

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

The real answer is likely simpler. Trump is the same man he was during the campaign. But now his intuitions, grudges, impulses, and obsessions are backed by the full force of the executive branch and everyone who works for it. And that makes them much more dangerous. Exactly how dangerous became clear a few days later.

Trump has maintained, since November, that fraud cost him the popular vote. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he tweeted, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

This is false. Most assumed Trump would drop this lunacy as president. He did not. He seems, rather, to have become more obsessed by it, more committed to it. The New York Times reported:

President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority, a return to his obsession with the election’s results even as he seeks support for his legislative agenda.

The comments reportedly took aback everyone in attendance. Trump’s outburst was met with uncomfortable silence, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus moved to change the subject.

Soon after, Trump made it clear he intends to use the full force of the presidency to prosecute his obsession:

Trump, among other things, now controls the Justice Department, which is about to be run by Jeff Sessions, a longtime critic of the Voting Rights Act. As German Lopez notes in a thorough examination of the issue, the kinds of voting restrictions that Sessions and other Republicans typically support disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.

So here, then, is where we are: Trump looks ready to devote the resources of the federal government to a biased investigation meant to prove he really won the popular vote. He intends to use the results of that investigation to “strengthen up voting procedures,” which, when combined with the predilections of his attorney general and congressional majority, probably means targeting minority voters’ access to the polls.

The federal government takes Trump literally and seriously

There was, throughout the campaign, a debate on whether Trump should be taken literally or seriously. The line came from Salena Zito, who was discussing Trump’s tendency to say “fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work” — a statistic that is simply, flatly, false. “When he makes claims like this,” Zito said, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

That Trump should be taken seriously but not literally quickly became a favored shield among his more grounded supporters. Here, for instance, was venture capitalist Peter Thiel, responding to a question about Trump’s proposed Muslim ban:

I don't support a religious test. I certainly don't support the specific language Trump has used in every instance. But I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always is taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. So when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, or things like that, the question is not are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China, or how exactly are you going to enforce these tests. What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy. We're going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between cost and benefits.

The idea took hold among voters, too. I recently interviewed J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, who reflected on how his family members who know and love undocumented immigrants interpreted Trump’s promises. “The response is always, ‘He's not going to deport them. What he's going to do is fix the system that forces them to live in the shadows. He's going to fix the system that allows other people to get ahead of them in line,’” says Vance.

In truth, Trump was taken neither literally nor seriously during the campaign. No one quite believed that he believed what he was saying, and so he became a vessel for whatever they wished he was really saying, because they were certain he would later become convinced of it. They were wrong.

President Trump seen speaks on the phone to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, with Senior Advisor Jared Kusher (center), and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, in the Oval Office of the White House on January 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The machinery of the federal government is forced now to take Trump both literally and seriously, and so it is. Top staff who want to remain in Trump’s good graces must compete to show they serve his will and are not mere careerists. Civil servants who have to carry out Trump’s sloppily drafted directives do not get the luxury of taking Trump seriously rather than literally: It is their job to follow the law, and they need to figure out what the law is.

In the days since the election, Trump has shown he meant what he said on the campaign trail. He has signed an executive order beginning the building of a wall on the Mexican border, and his staff are incompetently, but nevertheless determinedly, floating ideas to make Mexico pay for it through tariffs and taxes.

Similarly, Trump said he wanted a ban on Muslims and said he wanted a ban on Syrian refugees, and the executive order he signed Friday night reflects both promises. A direct Muslim ban would likely be unconstitutional — and it would certainly be indefensible — and so Trump has instead banned refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, but left a loophole for “religious minorities” from these countries. So Muslim refugees from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya are barred, but Christian refugees are not. In a Friday interview with David Brody from the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump made the subtext text:

BRODY: Persecuted Christians, we’ve talked about this, the refugees overseas. The refugee program, or the refugee changes you’re looking to make. As it relates to persecuted Christians, do you see them as kind of a priority here?


BRODY: You do?

TRUMP: They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States?

Tell the Muslims trying to flee the hell of Aleppo, or the Iraqi translators who helped the American military and are now targeted in their home country, that Trump should be taken seriously, but not literally.

Trump’s staff works for him. He does not work for them.

Many Trump supporters assumed that whatever the president’s hopes, his worst instincts would be beaten back as his policies were tempered and changed by career civil servants, and as he was given the briefings and information that surround any president. Some of Trump’s early Cabinet nominations seemed to buttress this view: His choice of retired Gen. Jim Mattis, a figure widely respected on both sides of the aisle, for Defense Secretary was taken as a particular comfort.

Both the process and the optics behind the refugee ban have dashed those hopes. The executive order was written in absurdly vague language — so much so that the administration’s own top officials can’t seem to agree on what it means. Its rollout caused chaos at airports, which didn’t know how to handle affected travelers who had already landed on American soil but had no choice but to implement the new directive. Additions as simple as a delayed start date would have avoided much of the confusion, if not the backlash. Congressional Republicans were aghast — they were willing to defend Trump’s policy, but they didn’t want to defend his incompetence.

Nor were the most basic preparations made throughout the government to prepare for this sharp shift in policy. As Matt Yglesias wrote:

An order intended to be cruel seems like it’s being implemented in a manner that is actually crueler than intended simply because the president of the United States and his senior staff are careless. Trump didn’t even take the time to have the State Department change the refugee arrivals sections of its website, which currently states that the US “is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

The cause of the poorly drafted order and government-wide confusion quickly came clear: CNN reported that the text wasn’t run through the Office of Legal Counsel and that the Department of Homeland Security’s objections were overruled by members of Trump’s inner circle.

This is something I’ve heard from elsewhere in the government too. Trump does not trust the bureaucracy — perhaps with reason, given the number of leaks and subtweets in his first week — and so he’s locking them out of processes they would normally help manage.

The result is more extreme, less careful, policymaking. And the result of that is legal vulnerability. Already, Trump’s deportations have been stopped by a Brooklyn judge who skewered the government for its complete lack of preparation. I’ve spoken to angry, experienced lawyers who say the one silver lining of this order is that it is so weakly drafted that it will be easier to challenge in court.

Mattis, meanwhile, was quickly humbled upon joining the administration. Trump made a point of signing the executive order at the Pentagon moments after Mattis was sworn in. He then handed the document to his new defense secretary when he finished. How much Mattis knew about the text is unclear, but given the process, it seems safe to assume he wasn’t intimately familiar with its details. Nevertheless, he is now deeply implicated. As Ryan Evans wrote at War on the Rocks, “The order was signed in the building Mattis runs and — as Trump intended — Mattis is in all of the pictures.”

Republicans hoped they could control Trump. They were wrong.

The deal Republican elites made with Donald Trump has always been cynical. He can use their party and benefit from their protection so long as he wields his power in service of their agenda. But their agenda is not his agenda. And now it is too late to stop him.

Take House Speaker Paul Ryan. Throughout the campaign, Ryan made clear he thought Trump a loose cannon, an embarrassment, and possibly a racist. But he endorsed him anyway. In the days after the election. Ryan told associates that he was thrilled — Trump’s strange campaign had opened the door to Ryan’s agenda. His bet had paid off.

The year is young, but Ryan’s future looks dimmer by the day. In recent years, Ryan’s agenda has had a few consistent tenets. He wanted to slash spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and, though he has been vague on the details since ascending to House leadership, Social Security. He wanted immigration reform and renewed Republican outreach to minority voters. He wanted a replacement for the Affordable Care Act that spent less and covered less. He said the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of his top five priorities. He wants to reform the tax code so the rich and corporations pay less.

Trump has, thus far, imperiled Ryan’s agenda in both the general and the particular. He has begun his presidency by spending political capital on projects that either distract from Ryan’s priorities — like building a wall on the Mexican border or sparking nationwide protests over a refugee ban — or directly violate them, like spending a trillion dollars on infrastructure. He has reiterated that there will be no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security on his watch. He has made the promise — which is incompatible with Republican priorities — that his health care plan will offer insurance to everybody, and will come with lower deductibles than Obamacare. He has killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his nominee for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, has promised that there will be no reduction in the taxes the rich pay.

Trump has also, through the fights he has picked and the nominees he has named, sparked massive counterprotests against his presidency, and driven his approval numbers, depending on which poll you believe, into the low 40s or high 30s — unheard-of unpopularity for a new president. Trump, of course, will not face voters for another four years. But Ryan and his colleagues will face voters in 2018, and Trump is doing everything in his power to ensure the Democratic base is activated as never before for a midterm election.

But the most grievous blow Trump has inflicted on his allies is on their potential place in history. Everything Trump is doing has been enabled by Ryan and his colleagues. He has not released his taxes because Congress has not forced him to. He has not reined in his conflicts of interest because Ryan and his colleagues thought their agenda more important than his ethics. He won the election, at least in part, because top Republicans like Ryan consolidated the party behind Trump. They are implicated in everything he does.

President Trump, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Vice President Mike Pence talk as President Trump finishes his speech at the GOP Congressional retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Pool

And now, as their standard-bearer, Trump knows that congressional Republicans have no choice but to stand by him. As I write this, there are more than 260 Republican members of Congress who have remained silent on Trump’s refugee ban. If they supported it, they would say so. They do not, at least not as written and implemented. But they are too afraid to run from it, either. It seems increasingly likely that Trump’s presidency — which began unpopular and has only gotten more so — will become a national humiliation, and those who stood with him will be blamed for it.

All of this was, of course, predictable. This is who Trump was in the primary. It was who he was in the general election. It was who he was when he said Judge Gonzalo Curiel was unfit to preside over the Trump University case because of his “Mexican heritage.” It’s who he was when he blithely suggested the US abandon NATO, and when he promised not to raise taxes on the rich, when he announced his Muslim ban the first time, when he refused to raise his hand and forswear a third-party candidacy if he lost the primary.

The Republican Party hoped to make Trump one of them. Instead, he is making them his. And they have no one to blame but themselves. Republicans knew damn well what Trump was when they took him in.

There will never be a pivot

Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting on something Steve Bannon, the ex-Breitbart CEO who has become Trump’s chief strategist, said.

“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Bannon told the New York Times. “I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

The quote ricocheted through the media. Some took it as an opportunity for further self-laceration. They didn’t understand why Trump is the president. Others took offense. The media performs a crucial function in the working of American democracy, and Bannon’s declaration of war chilled them.

But the comment was more interesting for what it says about Bannon and the man he serves. There are many reasons Trump is president, but the one that towers above them all — the one without which he simply would not be president — is the Electoral College. Bannon and Trump appear to have taken his victory as a popular validation of their approach. But Trump lost the popular vote by about as much as George W. Bush won it in 2004 — and that election prompted a national round of soul searching on the part of Democrats fearful they had permanently lost touch with their country. Bannon is telling the media they need to understand this country, but are Bannon and Trump trying to do the same?

The most comforting case for Trump was that whatever his flaws and failures, he was exquisitely sensitive to public opinion, obsessed with polls and media coverage, and so he would try, as best he could, to govern in ways that made him popular. If Trump would listen to nothing else, he would listen to the plurality that voted against him, and to the polls that showed him dipping into historically unpopular territory.

This is where I, at least, was wrong about what Trump was when we took him in. Both Trump and his chief strategist appear to have cocooned themselves in a world of friendly media, conspiracy theories, and imagined enemies. Trump believes the polls are rigged, the crowds are yuge, and the popular vote was his. Bannon is demanding the media listen to the voters but has no interest in doing so himself. They are making policy to appeal to the Breitbart base and telling themselves that their occupancy of the Oval Office means they were right all along.

Trump advisor Steve Bannon is seen in the Oval Office before US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May meet at the White House January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Thus, the one moderating force we thought might restrain Trump — public opinion — has been tossed aside. And so we are getting the worst of Donald Trump. We are getting his anger, his resentment, his grievances, his obsessions, and his fears, channeled by an increasingly embittered circle of loyalists and hacks. Abandoned by the center and hated by the left, he is finding his cheers far on the right. Faced with a bureaucracy that fears him and institutions that frustrate him, he is retreating to the people and places that tell him what he wants to hear, because that is all he will believe.

Trump’s presidency is only 10 days old, and already we are snake-bit.

Watch: Donald Trump's refugee ban, explained