A fitting conclusion to a whirlwind month of political news

Feb 01, 2018
  • By Ashley Parker
  • The Washington Post
Andrew Harnik/AP
President Donald Trump attends a meeting with American workers on the impact of the tax reform bill in the Oval Office at the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Washington.

And on the 31st day of January, the news gods gave us: A train crash involving Republican lawmakers, the unexpected retirement of a powerful House chairman, dropped federal corruption charges against a sitting Democratic senator, the resignation of a top federal health official amid reports she purchased tobacco stock, and an FBI statement expressing "grave concerns" with President Donald Trump's expected decision to allow the release of a controversial classified memo slamming the agency. 

And that was just the first half of the day. 

The news maelstrom was also a fitting coda to the capital's whirlwind January, which never let you catch your breath. It began with the president taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he had a "bigger" and "more powerful" nuclear button on his desk, proceeded to waltz through rumors of a possible Oprah Winfrey 2020 presidential run, and ended with a State of the Union address Tuesday that by now many people have probably forgotten. 

As a HuffPost headline summed up the past 31 days: "What a year this month has been." 

Will Ritter, a Republican ad-maker, joked that while there have been good days and bad days, the final day of the month felt a bit like "January 57th." He described the manic onslaught of news using one of Trump's favored pastimes - television. 

"It's like binge-watching a presidency with a new season dropping every morning," Ritter said. 

Indeed. As Trump — like any self-respecting reality TV star — knows, the second season is often the best. By then, the producers understand how to reprise the top elements of Season One (The chaos! The tweets! Sean Spicer!) while jettisoning the twists and pitfalls that were not fan favorites (Chief of Staff John Kelly's new discipline! A crackdown on West Wing leaks!). 

But let's start at the beginning . . . of January. The month - and year - announced itself with Trump's My-Nuclear-Button-Is-Bigger-Than-Yours challenge, and we were off. We paged through Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," a highly problematic book full of apparent fiction that nonetheless seemed to reveal an essential truth: Trump's West Wing sure is turbulent! 

The Wolff fallout led to Trump's reassurance on Twitter that he is, in fact, a "very stable genius" and a remarkable 55-minute Cabinet Room meeting on immigration several days later into which the president welcomed TV cameras. There, he seemed to answer one question - Is he mentally fit to be president? - with another: Does he actually understand the nuances of immigration reform? 

Stephen Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, was officially cast out amid the "Fire and Fury" wreckage, losing his political patron (Trump), his financial backers (the billionaire father-daughter duo of Robert and Rebekah Mercer) and his conservative platform (Breitbart News). 

And that was just the first third of the month. Those hoping for a break would be disappointed. 

Up next, as January began to crest and embrace its status of not just aspirational diets but also dystopian news reports, Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as "shithole" nations - a racially insensitive comment that would prove particularly problematic when trying to avert a government shutdown. (More on that later!). 

It was during this period that Trump also sent his West Wing aides and congressional Republicans scrambling when, in the span of 101 minutes, he undercut his own administration's stance and ping-ponged between two poles on whether the House should vote to reauthorize a key part of a federal surveillance law. 

Then, Hawaii accidentally sent a false-alarm warning of an imminent incoming ballistic missile - unintentionally seeming to channel the nation's collective angst as the alert sent terrified people scrambling for cover. 

"We now track politics in dog-year cycles," said Scott Reed, the senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "A day's worth of news used to take a week." 

Days feel like weeks, weeks feel like months, this past year feels like a decade and Trump's reign nearly a lifetime. 

And January, well, January was something else entirely. News that once dominated coverage now felt like a sideshow. 

Twenty years ago, news of President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern kicked off a crisis that led to his impeachment. Allegations last month that Trump paid porn star Stormy Daniels hush money to hide their affair from years ago simply kicked off her "Make America Horny Again" tour. 

Which brings us to the government shutdown, the three-day federal blackout that marked the first anniversary of Trump's presidency. But in some ways, we were prepared for this. After years of repetitive budget brinkmanship, it was one of the month's more yawn-worthy events. 

Moving right along, let us not forget special counsel Robert Mueller III's Russia probe, a through-line of the entire month. News emerged that Trump had asked his then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe whom he had voted for; ordered Mueller fired last summer, only to back down; and called McCabe's wife "a loser." Also, McCabe announced he was stepping down. 

As recently as last week, Trump griped about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and talked about firing him - a claim the White House first denied and then begrudgingly admitted. Meanwhile, the White House's private feud with the FBI and Justice Department over whether to release the Republican memo about alleged bias in their ranks spilled into public view, with both agencies warning against making it public. 

"Extraordinarily reckless," the Justice Department said in a letter. 

"Grave concerns," the FBI said in a statement. 

Yet, without having seen the actual memo, Trump walked offstage Tuesday at the State of the Union - during which he promised to extend "an open hand" of bipartisanship - and before leaving the House chamber told a Republican lawmaker that he "100 percent" planned to release the classified document. 

The rapid cycling of the past month has made denizens of the nation's capital both punch drunk and quippy. 

"Living in the Trump media cycle is like running a marathon at a sprinter's pace, then waking up and doing it again the next day," said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist and former aide to ex-House speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "And the next. And the next." 

Life, he added, feels like it's operating on fast-forward. 

"The news cycle under Trump makes 'Tiger Blood'-era Charlie Sheen look stable and well-rested," Steel said. 

And so it was that the train crash Wednesday morning, on the last day of this month, between an Amtrak carrying Republican lawmakers and a disposal truck, felt not entirely surprising. There is almost certainly a metaphor in there somewhere, were it not for the tragic fact that one person was killed and six injured. 

Instead, the relentless pace of the news Wednesday seemed to epitomize the frenzied month of scoops, revelations and disclosures. 

And, perhaps, to serve as a fitting pilot episode of the gripping 12-part series of the coming year.