(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Close to midnight on Saturday, the leader of the free world tweeted a loopy and nearly inscrutable video that included his doctored, Sharpie-enhanced weather map showing Hurricane Dorian bound for Alabama during the storm’s early days. In the video, he wields a laser pointer that dances around various locations on the map, causing a CNN-branded cat to paw aimlessly wherever the laser’s red dot lands. “Yakety Sax” (not “Hail to the Chief”) plays in the background.
The video is meant to show (I think, but your guess is as good as mine) how President Donald Trump, deftly and effortlessly, keeps distracting the media. But Trump has been harping on his bonkers Alabama claim for several days now and he’s likely to remind his supporters of his meteorological expertise again at a political rally he’s holding Monday night in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It’s Trump who can’t let go of the revealing clown rodeo his Sharpie set in motion, not the news media. This wouldn’t have become a thing if POTUS hadn’t made it a thing.
At its most nonsensical level, Sharpiegate grabbed the media’s attention the way a man threatening to jump from the ledge of a high-rise captures attention. Everyone watching wonders how badly the guy wants to hurt himself. Sharpiegate is also magnetic because it exposes the president as the misfit he’s always been: juvenile, ill-informed, narcissistic, unapologetic (read Greg Sargent here), unhinged and obsessive. As Sharpiegate grinds along, however, it has wandered into more serious territory, beyond Trump himself, that should prick up everyone’s ears regardless of their political persuasion.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday night that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned its own staff on Sept. 1 not to contradict Trump’s bogus claims about Hurricane Dorian and Alabama, even if facts were on the side of scientists and trained meteorologists. “This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” a NOAA meteorologist told the Post. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around.”
NOAA, which oversees the National Weather Service and is the nation’s leading storm tracker, went a step further. On Friday it released a statement supporting Trump’s claims about Alabama and chastising its own meteorologists for contradicting him. (In coming to the president’s defense, NOAA didn’t bother to actually weigh in on Trump’s bogus assertion on Sept. 1 that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”) NOAA, an agency built on science and data engineered to provide reliable, impartial information and serve the public interest, wound up purging science and data from its public profile to cover for Trump. This is how good government decays when it’s compromised by a cult of personality.
The U.S. military has also fallen under the president’s sway, it would appear. Politico reported on Friday night that Democrats in the House of Representatives are investigating whether Air Force crews have been improperly routed for stays at the president’s money-losing golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland, raising the possibility that taxpayers’ dollars are helping a Trump business stay afloat. As I noted in a column last year about Trump’s financial conflicts of interest there, the Scottish government “has also drawn attention for considering steering business to Turnberry as part of its courtship of the U.S. military.” Politico reported on Sunday night that in response to its reporting, the Air Force has ordered a comprehensive evaluation of its use of Trump resorts to lodge crews.
The Air Force may have chosen to patronize the president’s hotels without any pressure from the president, of course. Vice President Mike Pence bent over backward to say as much when he decided to house his official entourage in a Trump hotel on the west coast of Ireland last week, about 125 miles away from the meetings he had to attend in Dublin. Attorney General William Barr also may have just been picking the best place to throw his annual holiday party when he decided to pay at least $30,000 for the privilege of hosting it at Trump’s Washington hotel.
But however the military, the vice president and the attorney general all ended up doing business with the president, the mere fact that they are lining Trump’s wallet looks awfully like institutional kowtowing, at a minimum. In a worst-case scenario, it smacks of financial conflicts and the possibility of deeper corruption that has hung over the White House throughout the Trump era. And it’s linked to the same loss of integrity and institutional erosion on display at NOAA.
While obsessing over his Sharpie, Alabama and the media, Trump was also doing end runs around most of the country’s foreign policy and national security institutions as he tried to orchestrate an end to the war in Afghanistan. He landed on a showy, self-aggrandizing concept: hosting the Taliban, a terrorist organization tied to Osama bin Laden, at Camp David over the weekend — just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The summit unraveled, in part because of possibly irreparable differences between the Taliban and the Afghan government as well as infighting among White House advisers lobbying for Trump’s attention.
Trump took to Twitter on Saturday night to reveal details about the botched Taliban talks. He struggled to present himself in his tweets as the judicious player, forced to abandon talks because of the Taliban’s savagery and duplicity. But he was starkly and visibly alone, standing in the rubble of a failed foreign-policy push, with yet more American institutions sullied and compromised by their proximity to him. Several hours later he posted his latest Dorian-Alabama video featuring the laser cat. Resolving the Afghanistan war is vastly more important than winning a petty brawl over Sharpie art, but the president isn’t one to see it that way. All in a week’s work.
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Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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