Editor’s Note: 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.
Michael D'Antonio: Six months into his presidency, Donald Trump does not appear to be enjoying his new position
His impulsive businessman techniques don't translate to politics, where care and caution are required, writes D'Antonio
After six months in office, our 45th President seems to be a most unhappy warrior. Yes, Donald Trump’s face lights up when they bring big trucks to the White House, and he gets to sit behind the wheel. But for the most part he offers no more than a thumbs up or a few hand claps to indicate enthusiasm, and his eyes reflect the look of a man who would rather be anywhere else but Washington.
And who could blame him? Trump campaigned on the promise that the skills he employed as a businessman and reality TV show host would be sufficient to lead the country and the world. Then he discovered that the practices that worked for him during a lifetime leading a family business are not necessarily transferable.
Being CEO doesn’t prepare you for the Oval Office
As a private citizen, Trump controlled a multibillion-dollar family business empire, which meant that he pretty much said and did whatever he wanted. When he didn’t like how people in his organization performed, he could fire them.
When he felt offended by someone outside of Trumpworld, he expressed himself in whatever manner he saw fit. He called a critical New York Times columnist a dog and declared that Hillary Clinton “can’t satisfy her husband.” He paid a gaggle of lawyers to sue those he felt had harmed him and to protect him from claims made by those who felt trampled by him. With exceptions, Trump prevailed because he could buy more legal firepower and sustain the fight longer.
As President, Trump has continued to act as the tough guy. When he is offended by reporters who fact-check his claims, he brands the press the “enemy of the people.” The difference now is that Trump’s targets are not easily cowed. The so-called enemies of the people have reliably reported on the President’s many lies and misrepresentations.
Meanwhile, he approval rating continues to drop. In the most recent poll, only 36% of Americans said they were satisfied with the job he is doing. In the history of polling, no president has been rated so low after six months on the job.
Trump’s poll numbers are so bad that members of Congress, including his fellow Republicans, may well feel emboldened to defy him. The debacle that was the GOP’s attempt to repeal Obamacare and replace it with their own is a case in point. In the 2016 campaign, Trump promised, “You’re going to end up with great health care for a fraction of the price and that’s gonna take place immediately after we go in. OK? Immediately. Fast. Quick.”
Congress didn’t act immediately. Instead Republican leaders engaged in the messy process that is lawmaking and months passed. And now the Senate repeal and replace bill has imploded.
A frustrated President let it be known that members who opposed him would face tough primaries in the next election. Threats may work with real estate subcontractors who want to get paid. But representatives and senators who answer to constituents aren’t necessarily as vulnerable.
Despite his party’s control of both houses of Congress, Trump and legislative leaders couldn’t muster the votes. In fact, at the very moment when Trump was meeting with senators to discuss the next step on health care, Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas, both Republicans, announced that they would oppose the health care plan and thereby end its chances of passing.
Moran and Lee did what kids on the playground do to a bully; they teamed up together to oppose him. A less combative and more experienced politician would never have found himself in the position to be undone as Trump was. However, he had failed to sufficiently persuade and, in the end, lost in a humiliating fashion.
Deflection doesn’t work
In defeat, the President applied another of his favorite methods from his previous life – deflection. First, he bragged about his legislative record, saying, “We’ve signed more bills – and I’m talking about through the legislature – than any president, ever.” Then, in an aside, he said, “I better say ‘think’; otherwise they will give you a Pinocchio. And I don’t like Pinocchios.”
“Pinocchios” are symbols that Washington Post fact checkers use to indicate a presidential lie and, in the case of the legislation claim, Trump anticipated that he would be corrected. He was, and the record showed that the Trump administration is actually performing below average, and many of the bills that the President has signed have been inconsequential.
Although the President’s claim turned out to be false, the moment revealed something quite genuine about the President. He has always paid close attention to his own press clippings, and he still does. Clearly the negative reviews are getting to him.
In a similar vein, Trump’s response to the health care debacle reveals that beneath the bluster beats the heart of a painfully self-conscious man. Confronted with the health care defeat, he lashed out, saying the Republicans, who are fully in charge of Washington, should “let Obamacare fail.” When this occurs, he added, “We’re not going to own it.”
The petulance and cruelty of a president declaring that he would prefer that Americans suffer through the destruction of the health care system, and that he would bear no responsibility, recalls the boy who sends his little brother to steal a chocolate bar and warns, “if you get caught, I had nothing to do with this.”
Don’t expect more from Trump
Trump cannot do better because he is overwhelmed by the job, which he once confessed is harder than expected. Nowhere is the difficulty more evident than in the ever-expanding Russia scandal. Here Trump laid the groundwork for crisis in his campaign as he praised strongman Vladimir Putin and refused to acknowledge Russia’s interference on his behalf.
Habitually doubling down on his rhetoric and tactics, Trump criticized security agencies that flagged the Russian meddling and ignored his responsibility to investigate and protect the country from future election meddling. The controversy became a scandal after a number of top officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the President’s counselor/son-in-law Jared Kushner failed to disclose their contacts with Russians. Sessions recused himself from all cases related to the investigation, Flynn resigned and Kushner – according to The New York Times – had to reveal more than 100 contacts he forgot to mention.
True to his previous form, Trump tried to get rid of the Russia problem by firing the man he believed was most troublesome, FBI Director James Comey. However, the US government is not a private business, and when a President fires the investigator in charge of probing his own administration, he’s bound to suffer from some blowback. In this case, the blowback has come in the form of special counsel Robert Mueller, Comey’s predecessor at the FBI, who has put together an all-star team of investigators to complete the task begun under Comey.
Most recent Russia developments have involved the President’s eldest son. As revealed by The New York Times, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer who, according to the man who set up the get-together, wanted to deliver “very high level and sensitive information” that “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” This conference happened in June of 2016. Also in attendance were Kushner, campaign chief Paul Manafort, a man who served in the Soviet military and Ike Kaveladze, a Georgian-born American who has been linked to a money laundering investigation. Kaveladze denies his involvement.
Trump rarely has good days
Add to Trump’s Russia troubles his legislative failures and the fact that many of the top jobs in his administration remain unfilled, and you get the idea that the President rarely has a good day at the office.
Since his election, he has seen mass protests against his presence in the Oval Office, members of his family have been touched by scandal and he has been confronted by his own limitations and mistakes on a regular basis. Life was much easier when he was a business mogul surrounded by employees and family members who depended on his favor.
The provocative radio personality Howard Stern, on whose show Trump appeared multiple times before his election, predicted Trump would suffer in office. After the election, he said, “This is something that’s going to be detrimental to his mental health, because he wants to be liked, he wants to be loved, he wants people to cheer for him,” he said. “He does want people to really love him. That drives him a lot. I think that he has a very sensitive ego and when you’re President of the United States, people are going to be very very critical.”
What Stern feared is coming to pass, and America is now all but leaderless as Trump repeatedly applies an impulsive billionaire businessman’s playbook to a job that requires diplomacy, tact, caring and caution. Trump has never possessed these qualities, and he shows no sign of developing them now.
No wonder the presidency is making him miserable. It makes many who pray for a reliable presence in the Oval Office miserable, too.