“President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child.”
That was the verdict rendered this week by Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice-chair of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 melee that tried to deny Joe Biden the presidency. The obvious assertion was meant as a response to those excuse makers pardoning former President Donald Trump’s excesses and eccentricities and law-breaking, those who suggest that the former most powerful person in the free world was actually a man-child beholden to his Svengali advisers.
“Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices,” Cheney, the daughter of a former Vice President, argued.
While the former President is indeed not a child, the Jan. 6 hearings have made one thing crystal clear: Over and over again, Trump found himself surrounded by loyalists who treated him like one.
Tuesday’s hearing offered just the latest evidence, with Trump’s White House counsel, his press team, even his diehard supplicants thought him infantile. They saw his mood as fragile. They spared him bad news. They placated his whims. And when he wanted to deputize the military and the Justice Department to chase conspiracy theories, his own bureaucrats decided to humor him. They even buried his dangerous plans to name a fringe favorite as a special counsel empowered to seize voting machines in a heap of process.
While that may seem like it reveals how Trump was blocked from making his own decisions, the opposite is actually true. Presidents, for better or worse, can pick their own teams and the country has to live with the consequences. While the press often obsesses over confirmation fights for far-flung ambassadorships and junior Cabinet jobs, some of the most powerful positions in government actually dodge Congress’ approval. The effective co-President isn’t the Vice President or any Cabinet secretary; it’s the White House chief of staff, followed closely by the counsel. White House staffers no one could spot in their grocery store do more to run this government than anyone hauled before the Senate for confirmation. Those political picks do far more to shape the course of history than anyone typically booked on the Sunday shows, and most political pros know it’s actually better to be even a deputy to those roles than someone jockeying for a Meet-the-Press booking. (That Trump had prepared to name Sidney Powell a special counsel suggests that maybe, at the end of his four years in power, Trump finally started to understand how government actually worked.)
In the final months of his presidency, Trump found himself drawn more to those outside of his administration that were telling him what he wanted to hear than those who knew what was permitted under the law. As the Jan. 6 committee has illustrated, the ex-President liked sprawling sessions where his advisers—both formal and ad hoc—got into personal screaming matches and traded barbs in the Oval Office. Trump fed on the drama, at one point opening the door leading into the Rose Garden so he could simultaneously hear the roar of a nearby crowd being fed fringe theories about voter fraud, foreign hackers, and the Biden family’s corruption.
The polling suggests that Republicans are A-OK with the conspiracy crazy coming from Trump and his unofficial braintrust. In fact, many GOP strategists are advising their clients to parrot it. Grievance is powerful in politics, and the implication that Biden is an illegitimate President makes it easier for candidates to criticize his middle-of-the-road autopilot-approach to government. For those Republicans, treating Biden as a usurper—and Trump as the 2024 returning commander who deserved to be treated better by his own advisers—is smart politics in the most craven sense.
That’s why Cheney’s argument is accurate, but incomplete. Trump may have been fully in command of the political systems around him with adult faculties, but he wielded those grown-up powers with the discretion of a teenager. As detailed in testimony and evidence, Trump sought to set aside the actual verdict of voters, with some pretty unsavory partners guiding him, humoring him, empowering him. Trump’s advisers treated him like a child, and he met their expectations. In doing so, Trump proved why there are limits—however arbitrary—on when individuals can exercise certain powers. And in the presidency, power is often limited only by the elasticity of ethics and imagination of bureaucrats around it.
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