Opinion: Trump in 2019: Untamed or contained?

In this dark time of the year, usually a pretty slow period for politics, I like to write a column cataloging my errors of analysis and prognostication from the previous 365 days. This year, though, the pace of news makes that exercise feel a little self-indulgent, so I thought I’d just consider what has changed in the Trump presidency since last February, when I wrote a column describing our demagogic chief executive as “tamed.”

Back then the Trump tamers were his fellow Republicans — senators and Cabinet officials who had steered his actual administration (not the Twitter version) into a semi-normal GOP presidency. Back then you could make a list of the wilder Trump campaign promises (or threats) and note how few of them had actually been implemented.

That was 10 months ago, and since then the Trump-administration world that I described has been deconstructed, piece by piece. The normalizing figures have departed or been dumped — whisk, H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn; goodbye, Jeff Sessions; time’s up, John Kelly — and their provisional replacements have more of the island-of-misfit-toys feel that characterized Trump’s inner circle in the 2016 campaign.

Meanwhile all year there has been more overt Trumpishness in the administration’s policy moves — the trade warring, the end of the Iran deal, the performative cruelty and militarization at the border, the made-for-reality-TV dealmaking with North Korea, the president’s strange fanboy encounter with Vladimir Putin.

And both trends have reached a crescendo this Christmas season, with the sudden pullout from Syria, the equally sudden departure of James Mattis, the president’s war with the Federal Reserve amid a tumbling stock market, and now a government shutdown over the Trumpiest sticking point of all, the border wall.

To save myself the embarrassment of future mea culpas, I won’t make predictions but just offer scenarios for the next exciting year of Trump.

The first possibility is a return to (relative) normalcy. In this scenario Trump reacts to indicators he understands, the jittery stock market above all, by containing his impulses, finding (somewhere) a new set of establishment hands to guide him, making the necessary deals with House Democrats, and hunkering down to survive the Mueller investigation. D.C. politics becomes, by this presidency’s standards, strangely boring.

The second possibility is one Elizabeth Drew, the chronicler of Watergate, sketched in a column on Thursday — a march to impeachment and perhaps resignation, in which the president’s erratic behavior and Republican self-interest end up in a mutually reinforcing dynamic, and after a devastating Mueller report, perhaps, key Senate Republicans finally deem the president “too great a burden to the party or too great a danger to the country” to continue in his office.

I find this scenario less likely than does Drew, but more likely than the return to normalcy. However it coexists with a third possibility, in which Trump unbound turns out to be no more unpopular than the tamed-by-the-establishment version, his policies prove less destabilizing than all the wise men fear, and we get a 2019 in which Trump flails around but his approval ratings actually go … up?

The final possibility worth considering is the same one that informed my opposition to Trump two years ago, which is that what we should fear most from an unbound Trump isn’t bad policy or sleaze. It’s that with only Mulvaney and Jared Kushner and Steve Mnuchin at battle stations, the equivalent of 9/11 or the financial crisis will come along and things will get very, very dark before there’s even time to read the full text of the 25th Amendment.

On that note, Happy New Year, America.