Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Column: A self-destructive president pushes Washington to the edge

Donald Trump
Getty Images
May 19, 2017

The man can't help himself. I'm speaking of course of our president, Donald Trump, whose talents at marketing and publicity brought him wealth and fame and, at the age of 70, the highest political office in the nation. Aggressive, flamboyant, unpredictable, and combative, Trump's impulsivity has benefited him as a businessman and as a candidate, but not as a president. His desire to convey an image of speed and determination has resulted in executive orders stopped by judicial intervention and a legislature that is quarrelsome and confused. His popping off on Twitter creates scandals that should not otherwise exist, and inflames already high tensions in the capital. His firing of FBI Director James Comey, then his changing explanations of the dismissal, birthed an enemy he does not want to have and alienated a staff whose loyalty he needs.

Imagine another president whose administration comes under investigation. It's not hard to do. How does he act? He does not mention the proceedings in speeches, he tries to avoid the topic altogether, he pursues his agenda to the best of his ability, and when asked about the matter in interviews he deflects the question by saying he won't comment on an ongoing investigation, or by reminding the journalist that the truth will vindicate his people. Trump does the opposite. He brings up the Russia investigation even when it's completely unnecessary to do so, not only to say he's innocent and to wallow in self-pity but also to cast aspersions on the Democrats, the intelligence community, the media, the former acting attorney general, and the former FBI director.

Our imaginary president would try to avoid giving the impression that he is interfering with law enforcement operations. Trump tells Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence to leave the room so he can talk with Comey in private. Our imaginary president would want to shift the discussion from the contacts his campaign associates might have had with Russians to Kremlin information warfare against the United States and to Russian malfeasance elsewhere in the world. Trump invites the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the Oval Office the day after he lets go of Comey, and then proceeds to brag to them about his intelligence briefings.

The most successful presidents don't sweat the small stuff. They focus on one or two or three things they want to accomplish, laws they want to pass, initiatives they want to launch, countries they want to invade. Details are left to underlings. The president is there to uphold the integrity of the office, attend ceremonial functions, use the bully pulpit when he can, and decide on matters of personnel and national security. Recently, though, it has seemed as if the small stuff is the only thing Donald Trump sweats. Negative coverage, personal slights, how one performs onscreen, the light fixtures and flat-screen televisions in the residence—this is what animates him, what captures his attention.

Presidents sell agendas: supply-side economics and missile defense, the war on drugs and Desert Storm, the budget and crime bills and welfare reform, the tax cut and prescription drug bills and No Child Left Behind, the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and Obamacare. Trump sells himself. What happens in Washington these days isn't politics. It's brand extension. Which is why the Russia probe agitates him so. Not only because it's an investigation into email hacks and lobbying and tax records, but also because it's an attempt to discredit his brand, to subvert his reputation as a winner.

His recent commencement addresses are examples of his self-obsession. Presidents have used such occasions to describe America's role in the world, articulate the principles that guide their approaches to diplomacy and war, announce shifts in doctrine and policy. The prepared remarks for Trump's speech to the Coast Guard Academy had some of this flavor. They mentioned the importance of our armed forces to American confidence and strength, they reiterated that Trump wants to enforce our national borders and interdict drugs before they reach our shores. Unfortunately the speech won't be remembered for any of that because the president went off script to attack the media and claim that none of his predecessors has been treated as badly as he. (This is the same man who spent five years questioning the validity of his predecessor's birth certificate.) The talk at Liberty University a few days earlier was a well-written paean to outsiders—an encomium to the man delivering the speech.

No staff shakeup that leaves unresolved or unmanaged the flaws of the principal, that does not address Donald Trump's penchant for self-immolation, will have any positive effect on this White House. You cannot blame your communications staff for flawed messaging when they are afraid to leave you alone in a room with visitors and shake in their boots when they see you walk toward the residence at the end of the day. You cannot lament the disorganization of the West Wing when you refuse to establish and adhere to clear lines of authority. You cannot bemoan the lack of recognition you receive for your achievements when you create distractions for the media to latch on to. Until someone in the White House is willing or able to tell the president no, until the president listens to that person and respects them to such a degree that he does not turn against them within 24 hours, the atmosphere of paranoia and hysteria that has enveloped Washington will not subside.

Published under: Donald Trump