Chaos here, backlash there, shock everywhere. And in Washington and around the globe another gasping chorus of WTF commentary: reckless, not normal, reality show run amok.
And so on, et cetera, et cetera, for the one-hundredth-and-can’t-remember time of the Trump Era.
But there is something different about this week’s spasm of sudden policy lurches, graceless personal insults, oozing scandal news, and ceaseless West Wing knife fights.
It is the starkest example to date of President Donald Trump’s executive style looking untenable not merely from the outside — from the perspective of establishment politicians and media analysts — but from the inside, too.
Administration officials and outsiders with windows into decision-making describe a growing sense of despair within Trump’s ranks, driven by the mounting realization that the president’s brand of politics guided by intuition and improvisation is incompatible with a competently functioning executive branch.
Most alarming, by these lights, is mounting evidence that Trump lacks an attribute possessed by most previous presidents and certainly by all the most successful ones: a capacity for self-critique and self-correction.
Most of this week’s White House furors — the president’s zig-zag comments on gun control, an announcement on steel tariffs that caught his own economic team by surprise and sent the Dow plunging, his ongoing battle with his attorney general, and reports that foreign governments were scheming to exploit the inexperience and financial vulnerabilities of son-in-law Jared Kushner — were generated from within.
That’s left many in Washington and beyond wondering what happens in the inevitable moments — every modern president has faced them — when outside events take over, and the government has to deal with a major military confrontation, a major natural disaster or some other catastrophe.
“Nobody has any idea whether he has any sense of what it means to deal with a crisis,” said Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the former head of the CIA and secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It creates a really uncomfortable feeling because we really don’t know if we’re going to be able to confront a crisis and do it successfully.”
If such a thing happened today, Trump would face crisis with deep demoralization and discord within his ranks, backed by advisers who consider him erratic, a national security adviser (H.R. McMaster) and economic adviser (Gary Cohn) who are both rumored to be eyeing the exits or being pushed that way by others, and a White House chief of staff in John Kelly, whose relationship with Trump is being frayed to near the breaking point.
All three of these men were once described as steadying forces for a president who likes to wing it on instinct. But all three are described by administration officials as wondering whether Trump is impervious to discipline.
“The feeling right now is very similar to the way it was at the very beginning of the administration,” a former Trump official said, describing the period when then-chief of staff Reince Priebus took a back seat to former strategist Steve Bannon, who pushed divisive policies and left Priebus flailing, without any way to control Trump or corral his team.
But Kelly, once hailed as a tough-minded rule-maker, is not proving to be more effective at channeling the power of the executive in any more productive way.
Rather than changing course, Trump was described by an administration official Friday — echoing other reports — as sullen and isolated, frustrated that he is not being given credit he thinks he deserves and deeply suspicious of the people around him.
Increasingly, that suspicion is justified, as people close to Trump second-guess his judgment and his capacity to do his job. But it is also suspicion that Trump invited by undermining the very people who he asked to come help him get better at governing.
“Most presidents know when to recalibrate, to redirect, to hit a reset button” on their policies or their own leadership style, said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served at senior levels of both the Clinton and Obama White Houses. “So in the face of incompetence and total chaos you have a president who doesn’t realize how bad it is.”
Panetta urged Kelly to organize a “come to Jesus moment” in which Trump’s trusted advisers along with Republican congressional leaders and business executives warn the president in the strongest terms that he’s veering off course.
“I think people have to come down hard on him,” he said. “I understand he likes to manage and govern by chaos, but that instability is undermining his presidency."
Trump loyalists note that he is a personality who became president by his willingness to defy conventional notions of how candidates behave. And the sheer volume of precedent-shattering words and actions from Trump has undeniably created a dynamic in his favor: Events and scandals that would have been months-long uproars in earlier times seem to get lost in the smoke under Trump.
In the early months of Clinton’s presidency, Time magazine published a cover capturing the consensus Washington view of his stumbling start, “The incredible shrinking president.”
His “miscalculations and self-inflicted wounds,” as writer Michael Duffy described them, included firing the White House travel office, getting a haircut on Air Force One that may (or may not, as subsequent inquiries suggested) have snarled commercial traffic, and a generally sloppy and discursive style of White House decision-making.
It is hard to imagine any of those even moving the needle for more than an hour or two in the Trump Era.
Clinton was probably the recent president most Trump-like in some respects: an outsized personality, prone to outbursts of temper when he felt he wasn’t getting credit, and someone by temperament who found the traditional constraints of the presidency as inordinately confining.
Like Trump, in the early days there were warring factions around Clinton.
One important difference, however, was Clinton’s gift for recalibration. After Democrats got throttled in mid-term elections in 1994, he consulted everyone from political philosophers to self-help and fire-walking guru Tony Robbins. Though Clinton’s personal indiscipline led to sexual scandal, he always prevailed through setbacks with a high degree of political discipline.
The fear that Trump, who at age 71 is a quarter-century older than Clinton was when he came to office, lacks the ability to reinvent himself or re-direct his presidency is why many on his own team have come in many respects to join the doubters.