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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Dangerous delusions of The Donald

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th February, 2017)

How much has Russia’s malevolent President Vladimir Putin influenced Donald Trump? For months this frightening suggestion has rattled around the free world, with suggestions of dark deeds and nefarious dossiers. Last week, we saw one answer with an astonishing press conference straight out of the Kremlin textbook. It was filled with falsehoods, phoney claims and vicious verbal assaults on his enemies, like nothing seen before in the White House’s long history.

From the moment he strolled up to the East Room podium to present an epic one-man show, the delusions and the delirium of the 45th President of the United States were on full, and frankly, disturbing display. It marked a new low in the nation’s political history. Behind the trademark bluster and bombast, the world’s most powerful person revealed burning resentments and bristling insecurities rarely seen in a President, let alone one just four weeks into office.

Trump’s rambling soliloquy was punctured with self-pity, sarcasm and sheer fury before the world’s press – presenting an alternative reality to that seen by almost everyone else here in Washington. There was one truth at the outset when he declared: ‘I don’t think there’s ever been a President elected in this short period of time who has done what we’ve done.’

Certainly he has shaken up his nation, although not necessarily for the best. After just 30 days – yes, it seems much longer – Trump’s approval ratings have plunged to historic lows, while his administration has been plagued by chaos. There has been the divisive inaugural speech, bungled immigration ban, bumbling talks with foreign leaders, swirling rumours of Russian links, and chaotic appointments culminating in the humiliating sacking of his key security adviser.

The buffoonish 70-year-old billionaire with orange face, small hands and strange hair has picked ceaseless fights with judges, journalists and television jokers. And he seems to expend huge political capital pursuing silly feuds on social media.

Yet as he stood before the cameras, his yellow bouffant lost in glitzy golden drapes behind him, this strange insurgent politician claimed to be a great success still adored by the American people who had handed him power against all expectations. ‘I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos,’ he said. ‘Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine – despite the fact that I can’t get my Cabinet approved.’

The 77-minute event, hastily arranged and featuring surreal flights of fancy, led one Senator to text: ‘He should do this with a therapist not on live TV.’ Another Republican insider described it to me as ‘performance art’. Others simply wonder if their President is a bit bonkers – prompting the psychiatry professor who defined narcissistic personality disorder to write to the New York Times saying it was stigmatising the mentally ill to be ‘lumped with Mr Trump’.

For all the crass bragging and bogus claims, it was great theatre, although opinion is split whether it was comedy, tragedy or some inventive form of political drama that speaks to those voters turned off by traditional discourse who put him in power. There were demands for ‘friendly’ questions, discussion of cable TV ratings, constant assaults on ‘fake news’, attacks on defeated rival Hillary Clinton, even telling an Orthodox Jewish reporter to ‘sit down’ for daring to ask about anti-Semitism.

At times it was terrifying, such was the detachment from the truth. Trump’s travel ban went smoothly (despite being deterred by courts). Claims of Russian collusion were ‘fake news’ (despite the sacking of his security aide). And he won the biggest electoral college margin since Ronald Reagan (despite facts to the contrary).

At some points it was appalling. A black radio reporter raised a question, only to be asked if she was ‘friends’ with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and might set up a meeting for the President.

It was unintentionally funny. Trump disclosed he had known his wife Melania ‘for a long time’. And after his briefing on nuclear issues, the new President could assure his people that ‘nuclear holocaust would be like no other’. And at times it was even touching. ‘I’m really not a bad person, you know,’ he mused.

Above all, it was compelling – a car crash of a press conference by a politician who is a unique showman. Name another world leader you might watch for more than an hour and a quarter – even if it is with horror through your hands.

‘Tomorrow they will say ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press’,’ he said. ‘I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.’

At least someone in Washington is enjoying the Trump takeover of their town.

Most remain perplexed at best, fearful at worst – and there are 1,353 more days of this until the next election. Perhaps this is the new politics amid anger against the established order. Yet one day this man and his ‘fine-tuned machine’ will be tested by real conflict, possibly with the spilling of American blood rather than silly skirmishes on Twitter.

And this is why, as you wander Washington’s corridors of power amid those splendid neo-classical buildings reeking of history, the mutterings grow louder about America’s bizarre new leader and his chaotic team. ‘There are always going to be growing pains in any new administration but we have never witnessed such dysfunction and incompetence as this,’ said one former White House aide, now advising a prominent Republican Senator.

This cerebral conservative rightly fears Trump is demeaning his office, fuelling US divisions and corroding his moral authority – and that this could cause problems in a crisis if he must ask his nation and other Western powers to trust his actions.

Others put it more starkly. ‘This is the most dangerous President in my lifetime,’ said Eliot Cohen, a prominent defence analyst who served under George Bush. He was utterly scathing to me about the ineptitude and nastiness of Trump and his team.

Such fears are intensified by events such as last week’s press conference. Hours later came news that Robert Harward, a retired admiral who was next pick for National Security Adviser, had turned down the post. This role determines intelligence seen by a President, so could not be more crucial. General Mike Flynn, Trump’s foolish first choice with a fondness for conspiracy theories, was dismissed amid controversy that still rumbles over undisclosed links to Russia.

Yesterday, there was a rally in Florida, following a brief stopover at Boeing’s plant in South Carolina on Friday to promote Trump’s ‘America First’ focus on jobs. ‘We want products made by our workers in our factories stamped with those four magnificent words – Made In The USA,’ he declared, standing in front of the aircraft manufacturer’s new 330-seat Dreamliner.

It is a popular message. But behind him sat a glistening example of globalisation – and not just since it shrinks the planet. For the huge new plane has parts from across the world: British engines, French gears, Indian floor beams, Italian fuselage, Mexican thrust reversers, South Korean wingtips and Swedish cargo doors. Trump’s proposed import tariff could hurt firms such as Boeing with highly complex supply chains, which underlines the difficulty this disruptive political force has in turning campaign rhetoric and simplistic pledges into hard political substance.

Already he has turned political certainties on their head. First with his astonishing victory against all odds – and now with his ranting, his use of social media, his assaults on mainstream media and his amazing ability to brazen out falsehoods. Then there is the breathtaking hypocrisy. One minute he is on the campaign trail encouraging hacking that undermines American democracy; the next he stands before his people as President demanding an inquiry into security leaks.

Yet one of the weirdest aspects of his ascendancy is a seeming determination to carry on in power as if still campaigning. Witness the Florida rally, continuing shrill attacks on Clinton and ceaseless torrent of tweets to his 25.1 million followers.

This behaviour defies expectations of establishment Republicans who reluctantly fell in line after he seized their party’s nomination. Several told me they thought he would tone down his antics in power and were alarmed by his actions. Mitch McConnell, the highly disciplined Senate majority leader, has said Trump was making life harder for himself with distractions ‘on a daily basis’ and would be ‘ten to 15 points higher if he allowed himself to stay on message’.

So will there be more of these revealing and disturbing shows in the White House? One Republican source told me that even one of Trump’s closest friends says there is a good Trump and a bad Trump, before adding: ‘The trouble is that while the good version is like Ronald Reagan, the bad version is Richard Nixon.’

The big question is whether this turbulent presidency will settle down – perhaps restrained by establishment forces in courts, security and Congress already flexing muscles – or end up like Nixon, forced to resign in shame?

Just one month into the Trump epoch, this astonishing suggestion is already being discreetly aired as the dark shadow of Putin looms large. ‘It is not impossible if uncomfortable evidence emerges over Russia,’ said a foreign policy expert in the Senate.

A Republican predecessor in the White House famously said nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. That person was Abraham Lincoln, often acclaimed as the greatest President for steering the nation through its most challenging crises. So have that dignified leader’s wise words ever rung truer than with his dismal successor, Donald Trump?

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