Is Donald Trump’s misfiring presidency spiralling towards impeachment? We delve in to the chaos engulfing Washington
There’s a theory doing the rounds on Capitol Hill that Donald Trump suffers from a condition called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
In short, it’s a phenomenon in which an incompetent individual is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence.
Or, to put it in the more scientific words of the eponymous Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, it’s a ‘cognitive bias wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, by mistakenly assessing their ability as greater than their actual capability. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability people to recognise their ineptitude’.
The duo’s highly-respected 1999 study was partly-based on the case of notorious American bank robber McArthur Wheeler who covered his face in lemon juice under the illusion it made him ‘invisible’ to CCTV cameras.
The notion of Trump as a Dunning-Kruger case was first floated by New York Times columnist David Brooks who labelled the president as the ‘all-time record holder of Dunning-Kruger Effect’ in an article headlined ‘When the World is Led by a Child’.
Brooks argued that although Trump can seem like ‘an authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist’, he is ‘at base an infantalist’ another characteristic of delusional Dunning-Kruger sufferers.
But it’s been quickly seized on Capitol Hill both by Democrats shouting ‘impeach him’ and more so by rattled Republican leaders looking to explain the craziest week yet in the scarily wacky world of the Trump presidency.
In The New European last week I described the president’s extraordinary sacking of FBI director James Comey as ‘beyond satire’.
But ‘beyond satire’ now seems inadequate in light of developments during two days of back-to-back media revelations that have rocked America and may indeed turn out to whip a smoking gun out of its holster.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Trump had shared highly-classified information with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (one of Putin’s closest allies) and the Russian Ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. All the more extraordinary as it happened at a controversial White House meeting the day after the FBI boss was axed and that Kislyak is the man at the centre of the Russian connection investigation that’s widely seen as the real reason for Comey’s dismissal rocked Republicans and Democrats alike.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that before he fired him, the president had asked FBI director Comey to drop a probe into General Mike Flynn, the national security adviser and longtime Trump campaign ally who was himself fired for lying about his links to Ambassador Kusylak. But only after intelligence sources linked that uncomfortable truth to the media.
The crucial importance of the New York Times report — if proven to be correct — is that Comey is said to have made contemporaneous notes of Trump’s request and that it raises more starkly than ever the scent of Watergate hanging toxically over The Donald’s White House. Already, despite White House denials, Democrats and some senior Republicans are arguing it amounts to a prima facie case of ‘obstruction of justice’ – a key component of Richard Nixon’s downfall.
With terms like ‘smoking gun’, ‘history is watching’ and ‘echoes of Watergate’ being bandied about by politicians on both sides of the Washington divide, the President and his increasingly chaotic White House team are on the rack big time.
The timing also couldn’t be worse because the crisis erupted on the eve of Trump’s first foreign trip – a characteristically grandiose PR exercise in which he’d boasted his personal ‘charisma’ could help resolve some of the world’s biggest problems. It involves him visiting the ancient capitals and holy sites of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, followed by the Vatican and culminating in crucial NATO and G7 summits.
But now the much-trumpeted trip is certain to be haunted by an overwhelming focus on this week’s revelations and the crisis they’ve sparked and with Trump facing a barrage of awkward questions from his self-declared numero uno enemy – the (‘fake news’) mainstream media of America and the world.
If nothing else, it should prove quite a test for a shoot-from-the-lip, thin-skinned and narcissist president and his limited capacity for keeping his cool under pressure.
But back to that Dunning-Kruger Effect theory. Even Trump’s sternest critics don’t suggest he deliberately compromised highly-sensitive classified information at that meeting with Lavrov and Kusylak. It was more a classic case of braggadocio, with The Donald wanting to personally show off about US intelligence knowledge over an ISIS plot involving laptop attacks on airliners. ‘I get great intel’, was how Trump reputedly introduced his information-sharing exercise with his top Russian guests.
The trouble was, however, that the president allegedly gave away information supplied by an ally (Israel, in this case), breaking the long-standing convention that you don’t pass on intelligence provided by friends without their consent. While, according to some US intelligence experts, giving such info to the Russians of all people meant it might well be ‘reverse engineered’ and expose the Israeli’s ultra-sensitive source to both the Russians, their Syrian ally President Assad, as well as ISIS itself. Even Trump’s bête noir ,Iran, would stand to benefit via its ties to Assad and Russia.
And with President Putin weighing in by accusing America’s reaction as ‘schizophrenic’ and offering to supply a ‘tape’ of the Trump/Lavrov meeting, it didn’t exactly help the US president’s position. With even Republican politicians suggesting it was ‘mischievous’ and concerned that its main impact would be to reinforce still further the mounting evidence of Kremlin interference in last year’s presidential election to help Trump against Hillary Clinton and links between the Trump campaign team and Moscow.
Although, with Trump’s visit pending, the Israeli government maintained a diplomatic official silence, Israeli intelligence sources didn’t hesitate to convey to their US counterparts – who in turn didn’t hesitate to alert the US media – how ‘alarmed’ they were by the incident. Without doubt, warning bells are ringing all around the Western intelligence community over the safety of ‘sharing’ information with the US, given the presidential proclivity for indiscretion.
It’s now increasingly clear that US intelligence services generally are locked in a highly-sensitive crisis of their own – their very trust in America’s commander-in-chief. It’s a crisis compounded by the combination of the escalating Russian connection issue, the President’s discredited claim that FBI boss Comey was fired because he’d lost the confidence of his agents and now the explosive allegation that Trump tried to shutdown the FBI probe into his close confidant Flynn. It also explains how – and why – an ‘alliance’ is emerging between some in the US intelligence services and major US media outlets. No wonder, perhaps, that Trump’s default position is to prioritise attacking ‘illegal intelligence leaks’ and ‘fake news media’ over addressing the real issues at stake.
Meanwhile just how dysfunctional the Trump White House really is has been graphically illustrated by the events of the past week.
It began with the hapless Sean Spicer and the White House communications team (Spicer is strongly rumoured to be set for the chop) loyally defending Trump for strictly firing the FBI director on the advice of the attorney general’s office. Only to be totally undermined when Trump went on television to reveal he’d already decided to do it anyway.
Reliable sources claim that chief spokesman Spicer was on the receiving end of the mother of all Trump rants, blaming him for the fact the sacking backfired badly in the media and the general court of US public opinion. The Donald, it seemed, had been expecting adulation not condemnation and couldn’t understand why it hadn’t panned out the way he envisaged. His ego couldn’t accept that the blame lay with him, so Spicer copped the blame and his head will probably roll as a result.
Similar chaos, confusion and contradiction came with the classified intelligence disclosure to the Russians. First there was total denial it happened at all. Then came the limited admission that only ‘wholly appropriate’ information had been discussed – a phrase used no less than nine times by normally sure-footed national security adviser General HR McMaster, looking uncharacteristically rattled at one of the stormiest Washington press conference of modern times.
It was a position undermined still further when Trump himself via Twitter (where else?) intervened to declare: ‘As President I wanted to share with Russia, which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism.’
In law, Trump may well have been within his rights, but at the cost of breaking every convention of trust and confidentiality between international allies’ intelligence sharing. As Republican senator Ben Sasse lamented on television: ‘But not with the Russians. This is just weird. We and the Russians don’t have aligned interests. They want to exacerbate our internal distrust of each other, they want to fracture NATO. Putin is an enemy of the freedom of the press, free speech and assembly, which is the beating heart of what America means.’
With ousted FBI boss Comey now putting out the word that he’d be only too happy to appear before the various Capitol Hill inquiries looking into the Russia connection affair – and presumably willing to produce those contemporaneous notes – the heat is inexorably turning up on the President and his associates.
In another tweet that raises the Watergate spectre, Trump seemingly warned Comey that he had secretly taped a meeting the pair had at the White House. Inevitably, Democrats and some Trump-sceptic Republicans on Capitol Hill are now demanding that the tape – if it indeed exists – should be handed over to their investigations.
To add to Trump’s woes, his pal and sacked national security adviser General Mike Flynn is now backtracking on a pledge to appear before those investigations and is indicating he may legally challenge demands for him to handover all documents and records relating to his links to Russia.
It’s now not only on the lips of senior Democrats that the I-word – impeachment – is being heard. Senior Republican senator, and former presidential candidate, John McCain, warned: ‘We’ve seen this movie before – it’s reaching Watergate size and scale.’
While another prominent Republican senator Susan Collins, plaintively pleaded: ‘Can we have a crisis-free day, please? That’s all I’m asking.’
Sorry, Susan, some hope.
You somehow sense that – by the time this saga finally plays out – The Donald might even welcome falling back on the defence that he suffers from Dunning-Kruger Effect.
PAUL CONNEW is a media commentator, broadcaster and former Sunday Mirror editor