All presidents come to office with an agenda. But while their success in enacting it provides one major measure of their tenures, their biggest tests usually come from how they handle the unexpected crises that intrude on their carefully calculated plans.
For many, presidents, those crises come from outside: Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing. But for others, they are self-created and detonate from within: the Watergate break-in, the Iran-Contra scandal, an affair with a former intern.
So it is for Donald Trump. Fortunate in having so far avoided a major international crisis, he is beset by problems of his own making. They include his preoccupation with the fallout from a murky campaign relationship with Russia; law suits arising from alleged extra-marital affairs; his chaotic governing style; tweets that often overshadow his substantive agenda; denigration of major institutions like the justice system and the press; his proclivity for exaggeration; and his distrust of almost everyone around him.
Trump disputes this portrait of his presidency that is detailed in coverage by numerous news organizations, labeling his White House a “smooth running machine” that has achieved more in 20 months than any prior administration. He can claim a major tax cut, reduced government regulation and installation of dozens of conservative judges.
But accounts of his chaotic presidency have been validated by the meticulous reporting in Bob Woodward’s newly published insider account of the Trump White House.
If the diagnosis of Trump’s problems seems conclusive, finding an appropriate cure remains elusive. Since Trump’s fellow Republicans mostly keep ignoring his problems, any remedy may depend on the impact from two forthcoming events: the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the Nov. 6 mid-term elections.
A few congressional Republicans have confirmed the portrait presented by Woodward, Omarosa Manigault Newman and Michael Wolff.
“It is frankly not surprising to those of us who are trying to help the White House stay on track, most days, because this is what you hear from two-thirds of the senior people there,” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska told conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt.
Two prominent Republican retirees, Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, echoed Sasse. “There wasn’t much new information there,” Flake told reporters.
Multiple factors explain Trump’s predicament: his instinctive leadership style; his preoccupation with preserving his political base rather than expanding it; and his vindictiveness towards the predecessor who mocked Trump’s slanderous “birther” misstatements.
Trump has rebuffed two chiefs of staff seeking to normalize his operation, insisting on running the White House as a one-man show, like his real estate company.
On numerous major issues — immigration, trade, and relations with U.S. allies — Trump has based policy on beliefs he has expressed for decades, resisting compromises that might broaden his support.
In slowing both legal and illegal immigration, he created a firestorm by separating the children of illegal entrants from their parents and declining to protect 800,000 young people brought here illegally as children unless Congress funded his anti-immigrant wall.
On trade, he ignored top advisers and hiked tariffs to force both allies and foes to seek more favorable trade agreements, causing international tensions.
And he frayed relations with our allies, creating concerns the U.S. won’t remain a loyal ally while openly pressuring NATO members to increase their defense spending.
On issues from the Iran nuclear treaty to the Paris climate change pact, Trump has reversed Barack Obama’s policies, often despite contrary recommendations from top advisers.
This is especially ironic since his top achievement, the booming economy that encompasses 17 separate items on his own list of 53 accomplishments, mostly represents a continuation of what Obama bequeathed, though Trump’s tax cut bill and deregulations extended and perhaps enhanced it.
One key statistic is illustrative: Trump claims, and Bureau of Labor Statistics data confirms, creation of 4 million jobs in the 21 months since the 2016 election. But BLS also shows, in Obama’s last 21 months, some 4.5 million were created.
Trump’s determination to maintain or extend his approach could provoke a major governmental crisis if Democrats make a substantial comeback in November and Trump takes potentially inflammatory actions like trying to shut down the Russia probe.
He would do well to heed President Richard Nixon’s warning in resigning the presidency 44 years ago: “Always remember: others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.