“President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child.”
This was the conclusion rendered by Rep. Liz Cheney (the Republican vice-chair) of the panel investigating Jan. 6’s melee to try and deny Joe Biden his presidency. The obvious assertion was meant as a response to those excuse makers pardoning former President Donald Trump’s excesses and eccentricities and law-breaking, those who suggest that the former most powerful person in the free world was actually a man-child beholden to his Svengali advisers.
“Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices,” Cheney, the daughter of a former Vice President, argued.
Although the ex-President is not actually a child but the hearings on Jan. 6 have shown one thing: Trump was surrounded by loyalists that treated him as if he were one.
Tuesday’s hearing offered just the latest evidence, with Trump’s White House counsel, his press team, even his diehard supplicants thought him infantile. They viewed his fragile mood as fragile. They gave him good news. They listened to his wishes. His bureaucrats even laughed at him when he tried to use the Justice Department and military to pursue conspiracy theories. His dangerous plan to name a fringe favourite as a special counsel, able to seize voting devices in a pile of process was even put to rest.
Although it may appear that Trump is being prevented from taking his own decisions this might be misleading. For better or worse, presidents have the ability to choose their own teams. The consequences are up to the country. While the press often obsesses over confirmation fights for far-flung ambassadorships and junior Cabinet jobs, some of the most powerful positions in government actually dodge Congress’ approval. The effective co-President isn’t the Vice President or any Cabinet secretary; it’s the White House chief of staff, followed closely by the counsel. No one can spot White House staffers in their supermarket, but they do more for this country than any person who was brought before the Senate to be confirmed. Those political picks do far more to shape the course of history than anyone typically booked on the Sunday shows, and most political pros know it’s actually better to be even a deputy to those roles than someone jockeying for a Meet-the-Press booking. Trump prepared to name Sidney Powell as a Special Counsel, suggesting that perhaps he finally understood the workings of government after four years at power.
Trump felt more drawn to outsiders during his final months as president than to the legal authorities. As the Jan. 6 committee has illustrated, the ex-President liked sprawling sessions where his advisers—both formal and ad hoc—got into personal screaming matches and traded barbs in the Oval Office. Trump fed on the drama, at one point opening the door leading into the Rose Garden so he could simultaneously hear the roar of a nearby crowd being fed fringe theories about voter fraud, foreign hackers, and the Biden family’s corruption.
According to polling, Republicans seem to be okay with Trump’s conspiracy theories and unofficial braintrust. Numerous GOP strategists have been advising clients to paraphrase it. The implication that Biden was an unlegitimate president makes it easy for potential candidates to critique his middle-ofthe-road approach to government. For those Republicans, treating Biden as a usurper—and Trump as the 2024 returning commander who deserved to be treated better by his own advisers—is smart politics in the most craven sense.
That’s why Cheney’s argument is accurate, but incomplete. Trump was able to fully control the political system around him, although he did so with all the adult faculties. However, he used those grown-up power with discretionary skills that a teenage boy would. Trump sought to overturn the vote of the voters as evidenced by testimony and evidence. His partners were not good friends, but they humored him, empowered him and guided him. Trump’s advisers treated him like a child, and he met their expectations. In doing so, Trump proved why there are limits—however arbitrary—on when individuals can exercise certain powers. In the case of Trump, the power of the presidency is limited by the imagination and elasticity of ethical behavior of bureaucrats.
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