Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Scary Spectacle of Trump’s Last Month in Office

Mixed signals about the pandemic, silence about the Russian cyberattack, and toying with martial law.
December 22, 2020
The Scary Spectacle of Trump’s Last Month in Office
US Vice President Mike Pence receives the COVID-19 vaccine in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, December 18, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Some may think of these as “the last days of Pompeii.”

If that reference strikes you as too erudite to be fitting, you might prefer to think of the month ahead as “the last days of chaos in a blender.”

Whatever you call them, the final days of the Donald Trump administration are upon us, and they look much like every other day at the White House for the last four years.

From the point of view of the White House press corps, it goes something like this: You start each day having little guidance from the White House as to what will happen, something batshit nuts will occur, people will become irate, Trump’s fans will circle the wagons and start shooting at mirages, and the press corps will sigh and keep going.

Friday was no different.

It started with Vice President Mike Pence getting his coronavirus vaccination on television. In theory, this should have been a moment of joy in the country—an opportunity to celebrate scientific ingenuity and the beginning of the end of the pandemic that has dominated this annus horribilis.

However, the moment was filled with contradictions. Outside the Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House is a sign that tells anyone who proceeds into the staff offices in the rest of the West Wing to wear a mask. Yet the White House staff routinely does not—even though dozens of White House staffers, Secret Service officers, and campaign personnel have been infected by the coronavirus. The Trump team routinely calls people who wear masks “Karens” or “snowflakes” or other words you admonish young children not to use.

Making matters worse, many Trump fans are QAnon supporters and believe that vaccines are ineffective, or will leave patients with autism, or are an attempt at mind control, or other things you tell young children are mere fiction.

So Trump telling us that he is responsible for a quick and easy vaccine and Pence getting his so quickly comes across as just more mixed messaging of the sort the administration has offered all year. If the pandemic is a serious problem, why isn’t mask-wearing strictly enforced in the White House? If it isn’t a serious problem, why take credit for a vaccine?

As it turns out, Trump has lived in a world of fiction and alternate facts for four years—and that does no one any good.

Early Friday morning, Larry Kudlow gaggled on the North Lawn driveway. He thanked the press—“I appreciate our discussions and relationships”—leaving the impression that at least he had a grasp on reality and accepted that a new administration would be arriving in January. Less than four minutes after Kudlow arrived, however, there was a sudden call for the presidential press pool to assemble and enter the Oval Office. A few minutes later it was called off. We never found out why.

Trump, meanwhile, still hasn’t conceded. Friday a staffer told me he was “stewing” and “angry.” Another staffer said “It’s just a normal Friday”—that is, you would not have the impression that the administration is winding up its work.

By the afternoon, new details were emerging about Russia’s massive hacking attack on the U.S. federal government—an attack that included vital defense installations and key components of our nuclear arsenal.

Trump said nothing. (When he finally did remark on the hacking—in tweets over the weekend, of course—he downplayed and distorted what happened, contradicting remarks from his own secretary of state.)

Another big story that broke on Friday reported that Jared Kushner created a shell corporation that funneled millions from the Trump campaign into private coffers.

Trump said nothing.

Meanwhile, that same afternoon, in a private interview in front of a West Wing fireplace with a Daily Caller reporter, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized activist journalists—including a Playboy reporter (that would be me) for “heckling” and shouting out questions at the end of briefings.

Harry Truman had it right: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. So it’s odd that the Trump administration is full of people complaining about the heat, but you’ll have to drag them kicking and screaming from the kitchen.

The child-like efforts of the Trump administration on Friday were, in a nutshell, everything the administration has been about for four years.

But wait, there’s more.

Rudy Giuliani showed up before lunch. We all caught a glimpse of him walking without a mask into the West Wing. Speculation was he was on the hunt for a pre-emptive pardon, or—more than likely—he was there for additional “campaign” strategy.

Late Friday afternoon, Trump reportedly had an Oval Office meeting with Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn, and others about strategy going into his final month in office. There were screaming matches, one White House source said, regarding martial law and hoax investigations. Other sources said nothing happened in the Oval on Friday. But the talk of invoking martial law scared enough who heard it that it was passed to several of us in the press.

“This is nuts,” I was told.

“What in this administration hasn’t been?” I responded.

By the end of the day on Friday, some of the photographers and technicians from the press pool returned from a Pence appearance with “Space Force” cookies that looked just like Star Trek comm badges and announced that the administration was stealing from Guardians of the Galaxy with the name “guardians” for the members of Space Force.

So all in all, it was a typical day in this White House.

Trump never showed. He tweeted.

McEnany never briefed—she whined to a favorable news organization.

The pandemic raged. Hundreds of thousands have died. Millions have been infected.

And tens of millions of Americans carry on in confusion about reality—regarding the pandemic and the election. Like Trump, they are willfully ignorant or inconceivably obtuse about the truth. They cannot digest facts that don’t fit their preconceived notions. If we were to be told by scientists today that an asteroid like the one that killed the dinosaurs is plummeting toward Earth, perhaps half the American population would deny it was real. (I guess our Space Force guardians would have their work cut out for them.)

Mix Trump’s incompetence with his anti-democratic desire to overturn the election and his anti-republican willingness to consider doing so through martial law, and you have a recipe for an unprecedented and profoundly dangerous moment in American political history.

This last month in office will be historic, that is all we know.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.