I keep a “Don’t Forget This” file in a little corner of my computer, and it is by nature a confused and jumbled mess. Order and direction are not on the menu. What goes in there are articles that appear to be important but have no immediate bearing on whatever I’m dealing with. Like a person who has bought a Christmas ornament in June, I stick the story in the file with the idea that maybe a tree will come along I can hang it on.
Rifling through the file some days ago, I came across a true doozy of a “Don’t Forget This.” A New York Times article from October 6, 2017, covered a White House dinner party for military commanders and their families. At a pre-party press avail, Trump stood in a wide circle with the Pentagon brass and their spouses around him, and out of absolutely nowhere, uncorked some cryptic garblewharble that is deeply ominous today because of everything we couldn’t quite see four years ago:
TRUMP: You guys know what this represents? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the calm before the storm. Could be the calm, the calm before the storm.
REPORTER: What storm, Mr. President?
TRUMP: We have the world’s great military people in this room, I will tell you that, and we’re going to have a great evening. Thank you all for coming.
REPORTER: What storm, Mr. President?
TRUMP: You’ll find out.
The Times tried gamely to pierce the fog of words Trump had spread the night before. Was he agitating against Iran? Could this be meant as a harbinger for confrontation with North Korea? Standard-issue explanations all, and in the inevitable absence of clarity, the Times threw up its hands and moved on with the circus: “Sometimes, though, Mr. Trump’s statements leave his own staff in the dark, forcing them to impute a meaning to his words that might not actually exist.”
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Something compelled me to save that article four years ago, and when I pulled it up last week, a cacophony of nervous bells began ringing in my head.
When he uttered those words, Trump had been president for just nine months, having been elected after a race he went out of his way to call “rigged” throughout its final month. During an October debate, he was asked if he would accept the results of the election. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” was his reply. At a Delaware rally some days later, Trump promised the assemblage, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election,” dramatic pause, “if I win,” and the crowd went wild.
This, it was widely assumed, was his way of laying the groundwork for disputing what most expected would be his inevitable defeat at the hands of Hillary Clinton. When he won, the “rigged” talk was conveniently shelved, replaced in due course by arguments over the crowd size at the inauguration, and then by something else, and then by something else, to the present day.
Four years later, we know much more about the man and his motives than we did when he spoke of “the calm before the storm” while surrounded by all the military muscle the country can offer. Trump holds an adolescent’s view of military might, and further believes the armed services are in service to his image. Nothing made this clearer than his serial attempts to fold massive military parades into national holidays.
Trump is a no-bullshit authoritarian with little use for laws, rules or traditions that do not bend to his will. In his push to overturn the 2020 presidential election, he appeared to fully expect that the federal government, the military and even the Supreme Court would stand in his corner as he usurped the expressed will of the people. Preening with all those generals four years ago must have been a heady affair for him, so much so that he felt compelled to utter that vague yet menacing non-sequitur threat.
What did he believe then that we are finally seeing now?
The so-called “Trump Insurrection” is inaccurately assumed to have reached its crescendo with the sacking of the Capitol Building on January 6. That insurrection, in truth, has been ongoing and evolving, transforming from a clown show starring the likes of Rudy Giuliani to a grimly professional operation that strikes at the heart of this democracy.
At present, those efforts seek to install Trump loyalists in positions of electoral control in vital states like Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Pro-Trump state legislatures across the country have passed dozens of new laws making it harder to vote, and pro-Trump Republicans in the U.S. Senate stand in the way of a voting rights bill that would stymie those statewide voter-suppressing acts. The potential for electoral chaos in 2022 and 2024 is profound if these efforts are successful.
Congressional investigations into the events of January 6 have uncovered detailed plans for overthrowing the 2020 election that were presented to Trump before the Capitol attack. It has been revealed that Trump sought to install loyalists within the Justice Department who would focus on his fever-dream “stolen election” conspiracies. A clutch of Trump aides have been subpoenaed by the House committee, and Trump himself has bluntly ordered them to defy those subpoenas.
President Biden, for his part, has refused to invoke executive privilege over Trump-era documents pertinent to the investigation. With this act, or more accurately this refusal to act, Biden has done something I have never seen a president do: He is deliberately refusing to provide cover for his predecessor, an enormous development in the legal realm of executive powers. Trump has vowed to fight this decision in court, which could easily prove fruitless; he is claiming presidential powers he no longer holds as a citizen. Biden could have done this for him, and did not, and that is huge.
With all this in the air at present, I cannot help but look back at that dinner party four years ago. How much of what we are dealing with now did Trump see coming then? Some of it? None of it? Was it just another gob of balderdash from a president who often communicated in gibberish? Or was the idea of autocratic overthrow in his head then, and perhaps even when he came down that escalator in 2015 and declared his intention to rule?
One thing is sure: He was right on the money. That October night four years ago was indeed the calm before the storm, and that storm has only just begun.