President Donald Trump tends to operate without a set strategy. He is driven, most often, by personal pique. Those tendencies are managed, at times, by his staff, but are never totally eliminated. His personality – volcanic, unpredictable, bullying – was the single most important factor in Trump getting elected to the White House. It’s also been the biggest impediment to him succeeding as he would have liked in his 1st year in the office.
Take Tuesday’s report in the Washington Post about Trump’s frustration with his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Here’s the key bit:
“Earlier this year, Trump talked about rescinding Gorsuch’s nomination, venting angrily to advisers after his Supreme Court pick was critical of the president’s escalating attacks on the federal judiciary in private meetings with legislators….
….The president worried that Gorsuch would not be ‘loyal,’ one of the people said, and told aides that he was tempted to pull Gorsuch’s nomination — and that he knew plenty of other judges who would want the job.”
At issue, according to the Post report, was that Gorsuch had called Trump’s criticism of the federal judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing” in a get-to-know-you interview with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.
Trump, for his part – in a tweet on Tuesday – called the report, wait for it, “FAKE NEWS” and insisted he “never even wavered” when it came to his decision to select Gorsuch.
It’s worth noting here that the Post story is based on 11(!) sources “familiar” with Trump’s outburst regarding Gorsuch. So, while I think it’s worth noting the President’s denial, his past casual relationship with the truth and the deep sourcing on the Post story suggest – at least to me – that the reporting is accurate.
There’s also the fact that this sort of behavior is entirely consistent with what we know about how Trump has operated as President. Off the top of my head, here are a list of people he has fumed at for alleged disloyalty or for causing him undue problems or bad press:
(And that’s far from a complete list.)
This is who this President is. He has a short fuse. He is not someone willing to take the blame for either his own errors or those of the people around him. When things go wrong, he lashes out. And, perhaps most importantly, he expects total and complete fealty from not only the people who work for him but anyone with an “R” after their name. When he doesn’t get the loyalty he expects, he gets very angry.
Which brings us back to Gorsuch and what he was doing in that chat with Blumenthal. It seems fairly clear that some smart aide told Gorsuch that if he got a chance in his round-robin interview with Senators to show his willingness to break with Trump, he should take it. So, he did.
All judicial nominees – especially for the nation’s highest court – face doubts that they are willing and able to be independent from the President who nominated them to this lifetime post. Getting confirmed by the Senate – as Gorsuch did with 54 votes – almost necessitates this sort of judicial Sister Souljah moment.
Gorsuch’s comments to Blumenthal were a strategy – and a good one. (That’s not to say Gorsuch doesn’t believe what he said about Trump’s comments on the judiciary. Just that his willingness to acknowledge those feelings in an interview with a Democratic Senator was not an accident.)
That Trump either didn’t see what Gorsuch was doing or didn’t understand the strategy is indicative of how short-term his thinking tends to be when it comes to politics and how people treat him.
Here’s a quick look at how Trump thought about Gorsuch: I nominated. –→ He owes me big time! –→ He said what about me? -→ I’ve got 100 guys would be thrilled to take his place! –→ Who knows if this guy is even the right guy?
Trump, this time, kept his unhappiness with Gorsuch private and was apparently mollified by the fact that a letter from Gorsuch praising Trump was found and shown to the President. (No, that is not a joke.)
The broader point here: Trump is – now and always – motivated by personal rivalries and perceived slights. That is what sits at the heart of many of the moves he makes – and those he doesn’t make.