Something is eating at President Donald Trump.
Another exhausting day of the indefatigable commander in chief’s compulsive seizing of the spotlight showed how what once would have been considered outrageous has become Washington routine.
The President had a tantrum at NATO ally Denmark only because it wouldn’t sell him Greenland, doubled down on an anti-Semitic trope, basked in the praise of a right-wing conspiracy theorist, helped advance Russian foreign policy, joked he’d like to award himself a Medal of Honor, endorsed a comparison of him to a King and deified himself as a “chosen one.”
And in a half hour encounter with the press he lashed out at his favorite target, his predecessor Barack Obama, who has now been in retirement for two-and-half years, more than 20 times – an outburst of vitriol impressive even for Trump.
Taken together with a barrage of tweets, Trump’s day reflected the sheer oddness of his approach to the presidency and his apparent insecurities nearly three years after being elected.
He could have spoken about historically low unemployment and the election promises he has kept to his loyal supporters on conservative judicial nominations, or sought to ease the summer’s mood of fear and discord he has done much to foment.
Or if he had nothing to say, he could have said nothing at all.
Instead, his bullying, erratic performance suggested a state of mind that is unsettled – and it may be no coincidence that it follows days of talk about the possibility of a recession that could eject him from office and ebbing poll numbers.
Inconsistency on guns and the economy
Trump’s careening rhetoric also revealed another characteristic of his presidency – a lack of policy coherence and consistency from one day to the next on the nation’s top political issues.
It’s impossible to truly judge where exactly the President stands, for instance, on gun control or the economy after his torrent of words on Wednesday.
His careening back and forth with reporters Wednesday, which weighed in at a whopping 6,000 words when transcribed, helps explain why his White House rarely focuses long enough to get big things done.
At the end, Trump left far more fog about his intentions than had previously existed.
After saying Tuesday that he was looking at tax cuts to stimulate the economy – even though it didn’t need them, as it was in great shape – he ruled out such an approach. Or maybe he didn’t.
“I’m not looking at a tax cut now,” Trump said, adding, “I’m not looking at doing indexing and I haven’t been seriously looking at it. But certainly it’s an option if I wanted it.”
But the day before, the President said he “would love to do something on capital gains.”
He was similarly opaque on guns – amid signs he’s backsliding on a pledge for action following mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that killed 31 people.
A day after multiple media organizations reported, citing sources close to the President, that he had told National Rifle Association boss Wayne LaPierre that increased gun background checks were off the table, he injected more confusion.
“I have an appetite for background checks. We’re going to … be doing background checks,” Trump said, then floated an unspecific proposal for “closing loopholes” on the backgrounds of gun buyers.
Yet he added credibility to reports suggesting the opposite by adopting the NRA’s language that action on gun control would endanger the Second Amendment.
“We can’t let that slope go so easy that we’re talking about background checks, then all of a sudden we’re talking about – ‘Let’s take everybody’s gun away, ’ ” Trump warned.
When a reporter accusing him of peddling NRA talking points, Trump hit back. “No, it’s a Trump talking point.”
This all poses the question: Why is Trump being so unclear?
One explanation could be that the President simply lacks political courage. In the wave of grief after the shootings he wanted to be seen to be open to measures that polls show a majority of Americans strongly support.
But as the massacres faded from news channels, it seems that Trump is now wary of the political price he could incur by testing the pillars of his support to forge change.
Wednesday’s performance did not suggest Trump will assume the leadership role that only a President can adopt and use his high popularity among GOP voters to offer cover to Republican senators, which everyone agrees will be needed to tighten background checks.
Can the White House handle an economic crisis?
On the economy, Trump’s lack of policy consistency will worry observers who fear that the current White House is ill- equipped to fight a major financial crisis should it come.
And his flip-flopping between boasting about the strength of the economy and then suggesting it needs to be stimulated suggests that the President is worried about what growing warning signs of a recession could hold in store for him – but is not quite sure what, if anything, he can do about it.
The President’s madcap day also reflected his deeply unorthodox view of the office that he holds. Unlike most presidents, Trump did not spend years climbing to the pinnacle of politics. So he has no burning policy issue that he must fulfill – and is willing to risk his political capital to enact.
Instead, he spent decades whipping up publicity in any way possible through New York tabloids to slake his thirst for attention, good or bad.
With that in mind, Wednesday’s spectacle makes sense.
As well as self-aggrandizement, Trump uses the presidency to indulge his prejudices and litigate his personal feuds, hence his incessant attacks on Obama.
He’s also used his presidency as an endless appeal to his political base – conducted though the right-wing media echo chamber.
“We’ve got a lot of people watching,” Trump said at one point.
Distributing soundbites to fill the evening’s conservative talks shows, Trump again said he was thinking about ending birthright citizenship despite contrary Supreme Court precedent. He raised the prospect of declaring the militant anti-racist left-wing groups known as antifa a terrorist organization.
He again attacked the group of minority Democratic lawmakers known as the “Squad,” who he is trying to make the face of their party ahead of 2020. When a reporter told him that his warning for Jews who vote for Democrats was anti-Semitic, he answered: “It’s only anti-Semitic in your head.”
And he pressed home his attack on his possible Democratic opponent next year.
“Joe Biden doesn’t have it,” he said.
Critics might argue that Trump’s wild day on Wednesday plays into Biden’s argument that he is unfit for office.
The reversals, brittle temper and incoherence on display at the White House might call into question whether the President has “it” either.
But one thing’s for certain: Trump is not going to change.