Trump vs. the grown-ups: Who's winning?

Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Trump succumbs to blame and self-pity -- and at odds with his advisers
  • "Competent Four" are what stand between us and potentially disastrous mistakes, he says

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)True to form, President Donald Trump capped a week of messing with the world by not really scrapping the treaty that keeps a lid on Iran's nuclear ambitions and by proposing to cripple Obamacare in the name of improving Americans' health care. Add Thursday's tweet about abandoning storm-ravaged Puerto Rico and you get Trump in classic mode, spreading chaos and anxiety.

Although arch-loyalists would say there's a method to Trump's madness, anyone who has ever dealt with an impulsive and destructive authority figure -- parent, teacher, boss -- finds the dynamic familiar. When the top dog feels confused and upset, when reality can no longer be escaped and failure can't be denied, others must feel his pain, too. Then it becomes time for blame and self-pity. "I hate everyone in the White House!" is what Trump reportedly said to his ex-security chief Keith Schiller, according to Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair (and noting that the White House denies it).
Spoken like a parent who beats his child and then complains that his hand hurts.
    For decades the nation didn't have to worry much about Trump because his mistakes rarely reverberated beyond his Trump Tower command post, and few cared if he called someone fat or ugly, which he did on a regular basis. But now he's in the Oval Office, and much of the world is aghast at his behavior.
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    The man who loves to talk about how he always hits back "10 times harder" used to have to confine his penchant for aggression to publicity-seeking feuds with the likes of Rosie O'Donnell, and to his direction of the Trump Organization, where he tended to hire people with limited qualifications and experience, whom he then micromanaged.
    Indeed, the men and women I met in Trump's businesses when I wrote his biography spoke of how grateful they were because he had plucked them from obscurity and how they were hesitant to challenge him. His children, who had little or no experience in any kind of work elsewhere, also fit the profile.
    But things are different for him now. The well-documented chaos in the White House reflects both the difficulty faced by anyone who seeks to impose discipline on the President, and Trump's own inability to cope with people he cannot bully. The four most competent people in his circle, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, economic adviser Gary Cohn and Chief of Staff John Kelly appear to be fighting against Trump's chaos, for the good of the country,
    In these men -- call them the "Competent Four" -- Trump has encountered, likely for the first time in his life, people with the experience, talent and gravitas to command respect and attention on their own. They are likely the strongest, most qualified and most powerful people ever to work closely with Trump. Unlike the typical employee at Trump Tower, they don't need him, or his money, or the jobs he gave them.
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    When an exasperated Tillerson reportedly called Trump a "moron" and then declined to deny saying it, he spoke with authority. He also sounded like the smartest/bravest kid in the family or the talented worker in an office who finally says what everyone else thinks.
    Next came Sen. Bob Corker's statements about the White House as a "day care center" and the danger posed by a President who seems like he's ready to start World War III. "I know for a fact," Corker told The New York Times, "that every single day at the White House, it's a situation of trying to contain him." Of course the folks in the White House are alarmed, as Corker suggests. Who wouldn't be distressed working for a seemingly irrational and temperamental boss armed with the power of the American presidency?
    Remarkably, we are not hearing senators rushing to contradict Corker's claim that his fellow Republicans are concerned about Trump's mental state. This indicates that while they may fear Trump's wrath, they are also worried. Similarly, we don't hear anyone outside of the most craven Trump sycophants insisting that Tillerson couldn't have said what he's reported to have said.
    The one person who has responded consistently to the rumblings of truth about the chaos in the White House is Trump himself. Here he has fulfilled the role of the rage-tossed authority figure by challenging Tillerson to match IQ scores and trying to demean Corker with name-calling.
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    And it's Trump's relationship with Tillerson that poses the more serious problems for the world, since the secretary of state is supposed to protect US interests and promote stability. But Trump has repeatedly undermined him, which makes Tillerson's work all the more difficult and the world less safe.
    Cohn, another of the Competent Four, was rumored to be on the edge of resignation last summer, and Kelly has reportedly been making every effort to limit the President's access to policy advice from friends and cronies.
    The Competent Four are trying to keep the temperamental Trump from making disastrous mistakes -- not to preserve a business deal, but the nation.
    The most arresting inside evaluation of Trump's condition came from his longtime friend and fellow real estate mogul Tom Barrack, who told The Washington Post he has been "shocked" and "stunned" by Trump's recent behavior, even as he says he still believes the President is "better than this." In the same interview, Barrack told the Post he has been able to be Trump's friend, and to disagree with him, because "I've never needed anything from him."
    This independence has, no doubt, permitted him to speak plainly with Trump, but the rest of us don't enjoy his status. As citizens, we actually do depend on the President and thus feel worried and distressed by his inability to function.
    The other arresting comment from Barrack: Trump doesn't actually take his advice to heart. If this is how he treats an "equal," what hope is there for the rest of us?