WASHINGTON — Let's be clear about what President Donald Trump was up to Tuesday during his press conference in Trump Tower, and what his longer-range plan is for surviving, if not prospering, in the White House for at least four years.
Speaking publicly in the family fortress in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, he wasn't trying to convince anyone of the facts. There could be no dispute about them if you saw, say, the Vice video of hideous neo-Nazis, KKK members, generic white supremacists and rancid anti-Semites in the streets carrying torches and chanting "Jews will not replace."
No, the president was doing something else: trolling the media, deliberately goading reporters he knew were waiting for him in his echoing marble lobby. He basked in their urgent outrage and determined focus on Charlottesville. He had scripted himself as the alt-right's Daniel in a "fake news" lion's den of his own devising.
Was he upset by the resulting headline and denunciations from the likes of the former presidents Bush, father and son? Hardly. He had sought them. In fact, word on Wednesday was that Trump had been in a good, almost celebratory, mood Tuesday after the confrontation he'd created. He had unleashed himself, perhaps once and for all. He was in the fight, and the fight is all.
Donald Trump seems perfectly willing to destroy the country to maintain his own power.
More broadly and big-picture, look for more of the same. Having risen to power by dividing the country, his party leadership and even, at times, his own campaign team, his aim now is to divide or discredit any institution, tradition or group in his way.
Donald Trump seems perfectly willing to destroy the country to maintain his own power. He is racing to undermine the federal political system — if not all American public life — before still-independent forces (for now, the federal courts, the press and Congress) undermine him.
The goal, as always with Trump, is to win amid the chaos he sows, to be the last man standing in rubble. And "winning" is rapidly being reduced to the raw, basic terms he prefers: brute survival. With a record-setting low approval rating, world crises everywhere and a special counsel on his tail, the main victory he can hope for is staying in office.
It's not only an emotional imperative for Trump, it's a deliberate ― and thus far successful ― strategy.
I am told by lawyers familiar with special counsel Robert Mueller's methods and those of similar investigations that Mueller almost certainly obtained the president's federal tax returns long ago. Whether Trump knows that directly or not, he has to assume it — and be driven wild by it. The counsel also has assembled an industrial-strength team of experts in international money-laundering, criminal tax fraud and forensic accounting.
So the survival urge is more urgent.
How does he do it? Here is some of what's ahead:
More white-right protests
Trump doesn't plan them (unless you consider his own rallies), but he also may not mind seeing more of them take place. He certainly hasn't called for any group to cease and desist. San Francisco is next, with the Patriot Prayer group leading the way. Those who worry about the coming SF event note that it is scheduled for a park controlled by the National Park Service.
Focus on anti-Trump protesters
Trump avoided Vietnam with a medical deferment, which is perhaps why he now sees glamor in being The Leader Under Siege. Federal prosecutors have obliged this story-line by issuing sweeping subpoenas for the internet records of possible demonstrators at his inauguration.
Focus on 'voter fraud'
This isn't a substantial problem, but it is a substantial opportunity for Trump not only to try to limit Democrat-leaning votes, but also to force Democrats to spend extra time and messaging on the cause of minority rights. When he says "they" about the Democrats, he wants his own base to see what he means.
Goad the press
In his first tweet on Wednesday, Trump took aim at Amazon, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, also the owner of The Washington Post. The president accused the site of "doing great damage" to main-street retailers. But regulatory or tax threats aside, Trump will continue to troll the news pages and airwaves of the Post and other major outlets, knowing that the more righteous indignation they show, the less his hard-core base will believe them.
Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, denied in a filing that he was "cooperating" with Hill investigators who are looking into whether the campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election. The message was meant for Trump. Manafort, who had extensive dealings with Vladimir Putin allies in Ukraine, didn't want his vindictive (former) boss to think that he'd "flipped" to the other side. But the president's allies sent a message back just in case. The National Enquirer, with close ties to Trump, recently published a long piece claiming that Manafort had had a "sick affair" with a younger woman and had somehow been "betraying his country."
Stack the courts
This is far from the headlines, but it's critical, and influences the places in which the Trump administration's attempts to dismantle the regulatory state, civil rights laws and voting rights will literally be judged. It is also where Mueller will ask for any prosecutions of those in the Trump circle. And unlike most of the rest of the Trump administration, where disorganization and understaffing are the rule, the judge-picking process has largely been left to the Federalist Society, which is efficient in the extreme. As of now, Democrat-nominated judges still predominate, but in another year or two Trump could well have created a firewall for himself in most circuits.
Even many Republicans want to infuse emergency cash into strapped health care markets; that is, to shore up Obamacare unless and until it is killed off. But Trump will favor benign neglect at the most, and not just because he wants Obamacare to "fail." The program's problems offer the added political benefit of dividing the Democrats on a key issue. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and company are now making support for a "single-payer," Medicare-for-all system a litmus test for candidates. But it is a test that other liberal Democrats warn is divisive and unrealistic. Music to Trump's ears.
Trump must keep the allegiance of this many Republican senators to defeat any attempt to convict him in an impeachment trial in the Senate, if there ever is one. You can be sure he knows this number, and that much of his strategy is made with it in mind. He'd rather have a small number of hard-core "locked and loaded" supporters than a larger number of unreliable moderates; it's the impeachment version of his 2016 Electoral College strategy. Trump evidently regards Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate leader, as too weak to be reliable. But the president had better think twice about trying to have him replaced. The Louisville-based senator is friends with a politician from across the Ohio River named Mike Pence.