Melania Trump’s split with her husband over NBA superstar LeBron James is the most glaring example of a growing trend: The President’s family and some top officials are adopting positions at odds with his most divisive statements.
The public feud between King James and the imperious President is on one level a personal and even ideological clash between two of the richest, most famous entertainers in American life whose outsize images outshine the confines of the roles they currently play.
But it is also offering new insight into the President’s unashamed willingness to launch attacks that touch on the most sensitive fault lines of American life, like race and freedom of expression, that even some of those closest to him find difficult to publicly defend.
In recent days, Trump’s daughter Ivanka has said she does not share her father’s view that the press is the enemy of the people, only for the President to reinterpret her remarks for his 53 million Twitter followers. Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway echoed the comments of the President’s daughter Sunday. But only after Trump reinforced his attack in a way that made his daughter’s personal damage control effort last week look tame by comparison.
“The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!” Trump tweeted from his vacation at his golf resort in New Jersey.
Signs of a pattern
In another big disconnect last week, the top intelligence and foreign policy officials delivered a stark warning about Russian election interference, only for Trump to undermine it hours later by railing against the Russia “hoax.”
The internal dynamics of the Trump family are notoriously tough to understand, and involve a complex mix of characters locked into the trust and loyalty dynamics of the most self-sufficient clans in American politics and business.
It could be that Trump’s wife and daughter and some top aides are fighting a battle to safeguard their own principles and beliefs within the eye of the Trump storm and carefully chose areas where they can distance themselves from the President to protect their own identities.
A number of Trump’s allies may also be taking steps to preserve their own reputations if they want to remain in the public eye – both in business and in politics – after the Trump presidency is over.
A more cynical interpretation of the events of recent days might be that Trump’s relatives and officials, by adopting more mainstream positions on certain issues, are carrying out a political strategy that can complement the President’s often wild interventions to please his base.
For instance, the more moderate stances of Melania and Ivanka Trump and their independent profiles could be seen as an effort to take the edge of the President’s base-pleasing plays among suburban women voters, who will be crucial in the elections of 2018 and 2020.
The show of force of top national security officials at the White House last week makes it possible for the White House to argue that it does take election meddling seriously, even though it has no control over Trump’s riffs on how it is all a Democratic “hoax.”
Similarly, by adopting sanctions on Russia passed by Congress and allowing the sale of arms to Ukraine, the administration can argue that no White House has been tougher on Russia, despite Trump’s constant and puzzling cozying up to President Vladimir Putin in public.
Still, such is the belligerent dominance of Trump’s personality, it’s quite possible that he will simply drown out any political positioning of those around him. There is often little momentum for action in Washington if a President is not on board – one reason why many people doubt the impact of countermeasures against Russia’s efforts to taint US democracy.
And Trump’s enemies will argue that Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump and Conway are complicit by definition in the President’s rhetoric and have shown little capacity to moderate his views.
The President’s daughter, for instance, was at his side as he traveled to Tampa, Florida, for a Tuesday night rally in which he torched the media and his supporters jeered journalists.
At the very least, their differing positions reflect the reality that the President, as the fulcrum of the administration, is now sufficiently confident in his job that he is beyond influence from those around him even if they disagree with aspects of his rhetoric.
King Donald versus King James
The most jarring gap between Trump and those around him emerged this weekend, after the President’s attack on the newest, most famous member of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has just opened a school in Akron, Ohio, and has in the past been critical of the President’s views on race.
The President fired off a tweet at 10.37 p.m. ET on Friday night after CNN re-aired an interview with James.
“Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s tweet will no doubt be justified by his supporters as fair game, since James has never shied from criticizing the President.
Last September for instance, James called the President a “bum” and said that it was a great honor for championship winning teams to go to the White House until he showed up.
But the tone of Trump’s tweet appeared to have troubling racial undertones. It was the latest occasion in which the President has appeared to cast doubt on the intelligence of African-American public figures.
And by saying he preferred Michael Jordan to James, he was endorsing another star NBA athlete who has sometimes been criticized for not doing more in his career to highlight political, racial and social issues important to the black community. (Jordan later said through a spokeswoman that he supported James and that he’s “doing an amazing job for his community,” without directly addressing Trump’s comment.)
Criticizing James after he had been publicizing his own public service also cast Trump in a poor light. And it may have forced the first lady’s hand, given that community service is at the center of her “Be Best” campaign.
On Saturday, in the latest show of independence from the East Wing, her spokeswoman issued a statement that effectively distanced herself from her husband’s remarks, even saying she would be open to visiting the school James opened.
“It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the First Lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” said the statement issued to CNN.
Trump targets the press
Trump’s attacks on the media come as no surprise, and many Presidents have grumbled at their news coverage. But it’s still shocking to see a President of the United States making such an unapologetic assault on the Fourth Estate as part of an apparent strategy of discrediting sources of power that contradict his own preferred versions of reality.
The President fired off new shots at the media at a rally in Ohio on Saturday night in a reminder that the full-fledged assault on the press will be a centerpiece of his midterm election campaign.
Last week, in an exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders refused to decry Trump’s mantra that the press is the enemy of the people, a statement that for many observers on both sides of the political spectrum has authoritarian overtones.
But Conway, who had a strong media profile before joining Trump’s campaign in 2016 and joining him in the White House, took the opportunity to put her views on the record Sunday, while being careful not to openly criticize the President.
She said she thought the President was referring to “some reporters” who she said “aren’t always telling the truth.” But she later added as she walked a rhetorical tightrope, “I don’t believe journalists are the enemy of the people.”
CNN’s Kate Bennett contributed to this report.