Think about this: You’ve just spent nearly two weeks halfway around the world. You’ve spent most of the last 24 hours on a plane. Your body clock is somewhere between 12-14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. You are 71 years old.
What’s one of the first things you do – after you likely sleep a bit – on your first day back at your desk for work?
If you’re President Donald Trump, you send out this tweet: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”
Let’s leave aside Trump referring to himself in the third person in the tweet – that deserves a post all its own – and focus on the psychology behind this tweet in this moment.
Trump is someone who likes to be praised. He likes to be adulated at all times – and tends to respond well to people who say nice things about him. (See “Putin, Vladimir.”)
He wants to get credit. Always. He seethes when either he doesn’t get the credit he thinks he deserves or sees someone else getting credit for something he did.
Case in point: Steve Bannon’s stock fell in Trump’s eyes in the early days of the administration when the White House strategist was cast as the real power behind the throne – in both a Time magazine cover and in his portrayal on “Saturday Night Live.”
This, from an April New York Times story, is illuminating on that front:
“Mr. Trump remains annoyed by a February cover of Time magazine labeling Mr. Bannon ‘The Great Manipulator,’ telling one visitor this month, ‘That doesn’t just happen’ – a favored Trump expression for anger at subordinates who tend to their interests ahead of his.”
Which brings us back to the UCLA players tweet.
The three players – which include the younger brother of Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball – are accused of shoplifting during a trip to China to play a game. (They reportedly stole sunglasses from a Louis Vutton store.)
Trump told the media that he spoke directly to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the case. The three players were released on Tuesday and arrived back in Los Angeles at 6 p.m. PT Tuesday night.
Larry Scott, the PAC-12 commissioner – the conference that includes UCLA – quickly issued a statement thanking Trump. “We want to thank the President, the White House and the US State Department for their efforts towards resolution,” said Scott.
That “thank you” is apparently not enough for Trump, at least according to his tweet. He wants the actual players – LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill – to say “thank you.”
That the three players are all young black men should also not be lost here. Trump’s history on racial issues – both as president and as a private citizen – shows some level of intentionality when it comes to using racially coded language and taking advantage of racial animus and stereotypes for his own political gain.
The image of an older white man in a position of power demanding thanks from three young black men for saving them will set off a lot of alarm bells for people. And, understandably so, given Trump’s previous actions in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in the ongoing NFL anthem protests.
Even if you take out the racial element, what Trump is asking for is to be thanked (or, more accurately, thanked by the “right” people) for doing his job.
Part of being President is trying to get US citizens out of dicey situations in foreign countries. That doesn’t mean that Trump’s personal appeal to Xi didn’t have any effect. In fact, it likely played a major role in the release of the players. But, demanding to be praised by three teenagers for what you did for them isn’t exactly presidential.
Maybe it’s “modern day presidential”?
Update: In scripted statements to the press once back in the US, the players did apologize. LiAngelo Ball specifically thanked President Trump and the US government.