Washington: Before I thought I could write, I thought I could act – I played Colonel Pickering to Judy Davis' Eliza Doolittle in Perth. But it was a detour into the theatre of the absurd by our drama lecturer, not that brush with stardom, which has been useful in making sense of the Trump presidency.
You know the absurdist drill – human existence reduced to chaos; vague plots filled with characters that become victims to unknown forces; redundant dialogue; copious frustration. There's all that in the crazy cross-currents of the first weeks of the Trump administration, but it's an absence that is most striking – trust is missing in action.
Personal trust is in question amidst swirling, competing narratives. But institutional trust, that sense of what is believable, reliable and true that underpins a democracy, is taking a hammering in the President's relentless attacks on the institutions that, despite their various shortcomings, are still the keepers of a holy grail – the media, the courts, colleges and the intelligence services.
This week we had the graphic revelation that Donald Trump doesn't even trust his own Vice President, Mike Pence.
Trump knew for two weeks but did not reveal to Pence that ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn had fed lies to Pence – which Pence had repeated on national TV, before discovering the truth of the matter in media reports, not because Trump though he should be told.
"[Trump] claims that the very institutions empowered in a democracy to expose lies are themselves corrupt, dishonest and lying. In spreading his meta-lies, Trump poisons the well of democratic discourse," writes Lawrence Douglas, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, Massachusetts.
At times all politicians lie. But Douglas sees something more insidious in what he casts as Trump's reckless disregard for reality – "Trump doesn't even make the pretence of trying to hoodwink his opponents. Instead, he deceives his supporters by lying about the neutrality and integrity of our truth-defending institutions, he consolidates his power by depriving his supporters of tools that might authorise an informed, critical assessment of his performance."
Now, as former House Speaker and Trump fan Newt Gingrich says, facts and statistics are not as important as feelings, suspicions, prejudices and anecdotal evidence.
Appearing on CNN, Gingrich acknowledged the factual reality that rates for violent crime were down, but he argued that a more important fact was that "people feel more threatened. Liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right but are not how human beings are. As a political candidate, I'll go with how people feel, and I'll let you go with theoreticians."
Never has a new president made himself so suspect. The White House is at war with itself – and with the media. In Congress, newly emboldened Republicans are hitting the brakes – they've dumped a Trump cabinet appointee; they're moving to investigate the administration's very weird Russian baggage; and they are shocked that what should have been a situation room briefing on North Korea's recent missile test, became a cabaret act for diners in the terrace restaurant at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
At the US State Department, an inside channel for staff protest bulges with complaints. At the National Security Agency staff fear what they describe as an "insider threat project", which they say rifles email and mobile phone records, in an agency-wide search for disloyalty.
Government scientists are revolting too – copying mountains of climate change data to remote archives lest Trump's climate change sceptics have them destroyed.
It's decades since Americans embraced a new president as tentatively as they have received Trump. In a Pew Research Centre report released on Thursday, Trump rates significantly lower than his predecessors Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in voters' early impressions on key attributes.
Compared with Obama and Clinton, Trump is seen as either trustworthy or well informed by only about half as many respondents who so rated Obama and Clinton; and as a good communicator, he earned the approval of only one-third of the numbers commanded by Obama and Clinton.
For all Trump's "I alone can do it" talk, his rating for being "able to get things done" was just 54 per cent. At the same early point in their administrations, Obama and Bush rated significantly higher – 70 and 60 points respectively.
Accounts of the battles among Trump's staff read like the collapse of the Balkans, as the faction led by the anarchical Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon struggles for the ascendancy with a GOP establishment faction led by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Trump's frontline defender and sometimes overwrought spokesman Sean Spicer is constantly undermined by damaging leaks that his job is in the balance, most of them attributed to White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway who, of course, denies it.
Conway herself, between being blackballed by MSNBC for repeated on-air lying and getting a belt from the government ethics office for shilling the Ivanka Trump fashion label during a TV live cross, was embarrassingly out of the loop this week – assuring reporters that Michael Flynn enjoyed the confidence of the President just hours before Flynn was axed so spectacularly and so early in what Trump would have the world believe is the best presidency ever.
And because Flynn's scalp is marked as a loss by the Bannonites, White House insiders are telling the Bannon-friendly Breitbart News that Priebus must now be sacrificed – to even the score. Banal?
The White House is paranoid, with some reportedly believing that Flynn's demise was co-ordinated by a group of former Obama administration loyalists, who planted media stories to discredit Flynn – because he so vehemently opposed Obama's legacy nuclear deal with Iran.
And there's evidence of a persecution complex in internal claims that as many as 50 former Obama officials "are hiding like sleeper cells everywhere" in the administration, with plans to disrupt business as did the hold-over, Obama-appointed Attorney-General Sally Yates, when she challenged the constitutionality of Trump's order for a crackdown on migrants and refugees entering the US – for which Trump sacked her on the spot.
Flynn's demise is a window into the most unnerving of the Trump establishment wars – he has taken on the courts, Mexico and Australia, the media and department store Nordstrom, but none of those has the brinkmanship of Trump's war on the 17 US intelligence services and its intersection with his battle with the mainstream media and his love affair with Russia – the latter of which is a political deadweight because he never adequately explains it.
In a spectacular punch and counterpunch exchanges this week, played out in leaks to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, elements in the agencies had a crack at Trump, revealing that members of his campaign team and other associates were being investigated for their repeated phone contact with Russian intelligence agents during the 2016 campaign.
Within 24 hours, the Times had another splash. Trump was bringing in Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire buddy with no intelligence track record, to do a "broad review" of the agencies, which is being read as a threat to downgrade the services and an opportunity to reshape their charters and pick off individuals across the ranks, through what is known by the corporate American euphemism a "re-org".
Then came a slug by the agencies in leaks to the Journal – confirmation of reports elsewhere that sensitive intelligence was being withheld from Trump because he could not be trusted to keep secrets, particularly on methods and sources which, the US agencies fear, might be shared with Moscow by Trump or others on his staff.
It probably doesn't get much more dangerous than this. Since early in last year's campaign, Trump and his surrogates have been merciless in their mocking and ridicule of the services and elements in their ranks have leaked repeatedly on the serial investigations of Trump's Russian corporate, government and intelligence connections, their efforts to manipulate the outcome of the US presidential election; and complicity in that by Trump or any of his associates.
It's never clear when Trump's mangling of the English language is artful or accidental, but his most recent denial, at a rambling White House press conference overnight Thursday, didn't constitute a denial.
Reporter: Can you say nobody on your team was dealing with the Russians?
Trump: Well, I had nothing to do with it.
But oddly, in rushing to tweet his condemnation of reporting on the intelligence wars, Trump confirmed the basic thrust of the reports, by confirming that what had been leaked was "classified" information.
The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
It's hard to believe that Flynn made the inappropriate and possibly illegal phone calls to the Russian embassy without Trump's blessing, just as it is difficult to accept that others on his staff have done the things they have done without knowing or sensing that they had his approval (or were seeking it) – like Spicer's first press briefing in which he went ballistic, claiming that the Trump inauguration crowd was bigger than either of Obama's.
Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, picks up on the trust and truth issues in trying to unpick the reasoning behind Trump keeping Flynn on for two weeks after he was known to have lied.
"This is an office culture issue," Blow writes. "If the boss – in this case Trump – is a pathological liar who forces underlings to repeat and bolster his lies, what signal does that send to everyone else who works in that environment? That lying is not only accepted but also valued, that lying is simply a rhetorical device, a propaganda tool that is inexcusable only when not exercised with skill."
Trump has made clear his belief that Flynn's only crime as getting caught lying – he still thinks that Flynn is "a wonderful man". Flynn who, because of his standing as a private citizen during the transition of power, had no business calling the Russian ambassador.
But the increasing availability of dots that might be joined becomes more fascinating with the mere possibility that Flynn lied to Pence.
We now have it from the US intelligence services, leaked to be sure, that throughout the election campaign Trump's people were in constant contact with Russian intelligence and other officials – what were they talking about? Did any of Trump's people get a heads-up on the Russian plan to hack the Democratic Party's computers?
Here Blow is struck by what he says would have to be "one hell of a coincidence" – that in July 2016, Trump stared down the barrel of the cable network cameras and said: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press;" and in October 2016, as Americans were stunned by the surfacing of Trump's "grab them by the pussy" video, WikiLeaks began a slow-motion dump of the Democratic Party emails.
So, it could be argued that Trump did ask the Russians to raid the Democratic Party archives.
"Consider all the other reinforcing 'coincidences'," Blow writes. "Trump's inexplicable, inexhaustible praise of Russia and Vladimir Putin; Putin's failure to respond to Obama's sanctions; an explosive report last week from CNN that read: 'For the first time, US investigators say they have corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent'."
Trump is blowing political capital. Before the Flynn affair it was unthinkable that there would be any serious pushback from Republicans in Congress, in terms of his nominees for high office being blocked and a mounting eagerness to get into investigating the whole Russia mess.
And it's too soon after the campaign and, especially since that unabashed appeal for Moscow to mount a cyber attack on Clinton, for Trump to suddenly have a distaste of leaks to the media.
Last year – he was in love with hackers, telling a rally in Pennsylvania: "I love WikiLeaks!"
This year – Wednesday of this week to be precise – the Trump thunder descended on the intelligence services for leaking stuff about him.
"It's a criminal action, criminal act," Trump said at the White House and later he claimed in a tweet: "the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by 'intelligence' like candy. Very un-American!"
As Blow says in his column: "What we know only makes what we don't know feel all the more ominous."
The story Trust trumped as cracks and leaks appear in the White House first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.