The President lashes out, without restraint, at anyone who doesn't fulfill his objectives, and that helps explain his failing presidency, Julian Zelizer writes
Trump's attacks on Sessions, Comey and Mueller are remarkable, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The new moniker for President Donald Trump should be the “blamer in chief.” When confronted with challenges and problems, there is nothing the President likes to do more than lash out against someone else.
In his interview with the New York Times, President Trump seemed like a leader who is fed up with his job. He said he would never have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of his longest and most loyal supporters in politics, had he known Sessions would recuse himself concerning the Russia investigation.
He attacked the FBI director he fired, James Comey, as someone who had tried to intimidate him to keep his job, while saying that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office is compromised as a result of conflicts of interest. “There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any,” the President said about the hometown of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller special counsel to investigate the Russia matter.
This is saying a lot from a President who has two children running a massive global business while their father sits in the Oval Office. This interview came shortly after President Trump threatened Republican Senator Dean Heller’s career if he did not vote for a bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would leave 32 million Americans without health insurance. You could watch Heller’s nervous laugh and just imagine what he thought about his lunch partner.
Trump’s public rebukes were pretty stunning. The President says the kinds of things about his own Cabinet in public that other presidents would reserve for behind the scenes. This President has absolutely no restraint when it comes to attacking anyone who crosses his path. His own attorney general, the former FBI director and the special counsel now find themselves, at least temporarily, in the space occupied by the entire journalistic community – other than Fox News – which he has spent much of his time dismissing as “fake news” for its critical coverage.
President Trump can’t stop blaming, and maybe this is one of his biggest problems as a leader. The New York Times interview gets right to the heart of his perspective as the leader of the United States. He sees every single problem that he faces, whether that has to do with disclosures about his son’s meetings or the collapse of health care reform on Capitol Hill, as someone else’s problem. His willingness to turn on an ally like Sessions is evidence that the President has virtually no sense of restraint when it comes to attacking those who do not fulfill his objectives.
As any teacher would say about a student who exhibits these traits, this is the kind of person who is incapable of self-improvement. The comments suggest that the President, who does feel the weight of the Russia scandal much more than he usually admits, is not interested in being introspective and not willing to look at what he, himself, has done or is doing the wrong way.
The venom that he used to talk about Sessions, a conservative Southern Republican who has stood by him from the start of his campaign, is much worse than anything he has been willing to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the confirmed Russian intervention in the presidential election. That’s probably because, at least in his mind, Putin has not yet let him down.
Our great presidents are aware of their own limitations and are capable of learning from their mistakes. This is an essential quality of effective leadership, otherwise the person in power is unable to grow and incapable of bouncing back from moments of political peril.
The problem for President Trump is that it becomes clearer and clearer that many of the problems he faces are of his own making. The health care debacle was not just the result of Senator Heller somehow being disloyal but of the President supporting a deeply flawed and unpopular bill without his having the political acumen to sell the legislation to a skeptical public.
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The Russia scandal continues to grow because of the ongoing revelations that members of his family and inner circle met with Russians at Trump Tower and questions about whether there is more to the story.
His refusal to be firm and resolute about what Russia did wrong in meddling in the election aggravates the suspicions of a public that doesn’t seem to understand why he feels so determined to be chummy with the Russian leader.
His falling public approval ratings are a product of his behavior and nothing more. The polls register that much of the public doesn’t like how he is conducting himself in office.
The interview with The New York Times was incredibly revealing – not because of the specific words that Trump used but because of his entire outlook about why his time in office has been a struggle and seems to be trending the wrong way. Rather than keeping his eye on the television screens, the President might think about looking in the mirror to get a better sense of what’s going wrong and consider what steps he would need to take to change the direction of his presidency.