The first major thing I wrote about Donald Trump was wrong.
The date was June 17, 2015. The headline was “Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously, in one very simple chart.” And the argument was simple: Trump, who had officially entered the 2016 race the day before, was deeply unpopular among the Republican base, especially as considered against the rest of the GOP field. And therefore, had zero chance of being a factor in the race – much less winning.
Less than two months later, I was forced to admit I had it wrong. (The headline of that piece, published August 4, 2015 was “Boy, was I wrong about Donald Trump. Here’s why.”) Explaining what I had gotten wrong, I wrote:
“Why did I miss Trump’s appeal so badly? Simply put: I had NEVER EVER seen a reversal in how people perceive a candidate who is as well known as Trump – much less a reversal in such a short period of time. I based my conclusion that Trump would never be a relevant player in the Republican primary fight on the ideas that once people 1) know you and 2) don’t like you, you can’t change those twin realities much.
“That was 100 percent true. Until Donald Trump proved it (and me) wrong.”
Thus began my five-year odyssey of writing and thinking about Donald Trump – first as a presidential candidate and then as the 45th president of the United States. Over the years, I learned a few things about who this man was – and wasn’t. Below are my reflections on this most radical president.
1. There is no “other” Trump. No Trump 2.0. No “new leaf.”
Remember how Trump occasionally promised during the campaign that his rude, boorish behavior would change if and when he was elected president? “I will be so presidential you will be so bored,” he promised in April 2016. “You’ll say, ‘Can’t he have a little more energy?’”
That was, of course, ridiculous. For all the talk in the early days of his presidency that a pivot to actually acting like a president was just around the corner or coming in the next speech, that was never, ever going to happen.
Trump had been the braggadocious, well, jerk for his entire life. If anything, the 2016 election victory affirmed for him that acting the way he acted was his path to success. Why would he change his behavior after the single greatest success of his life?
The truth is – and always has been – that there is no Trump but Trump. He only has one speed, one gear. He is not capable of any sort of major personality change – nor was he ever interested in one.
2. He was never playing 3-dimensional chess.
Trump’s absolutely stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 – contra polls, money, message and every other metric that had traditionally predicted winners and losers – led to a lingering belief for much of his first few years in office that he was operating at a different (and higher) strategic level than the rest of the political world and, especially, the media.
What became clear as his presidency wore on was that assuming Trump was operating from some intricate blueprint or strategic plan was totally and completely misguided. There was no grand plan. There was just Trump acting and, more often, reacting to the news of the day.
Which, of course, Trump told us all – way back in the opening pages of “The Art of the Deal”:
“Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”
In the words of Maya Angelou: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. There is no plan. There never was. It was just Trump coming to work and seeing “what develops.”
3. It was always about him and only him.
To run for president, you have to have a very healthy ego. You have to believe that, among the 330 million Americans, you are uniquely qualified to represent them. Right?
But most people, after being elected – or, ideally, before that – understand that the office of the president is less about you and your own personal interests and more about the American public and what’s best for them. That never happened for Trump.
At the start of his term, there were questions about whether this most unusual president would bend to the norms of the presidency or whether he would bend those norms to him. Turns out he didn’t just bend the norms, he broke them. From his repeated assertions about “my generals” and “my military” to his frustrations that the Justice Department would not act as his personal police force and law firm, Trump repeatedly demonstrated that he saw the presidency as a vehicle to reward his friends and punish his enemies. Period.
4. He is a bully.
In the early days of his presidency, I grappled with the best way to understand Trump the person and the President. But then it came to me: He was simply a bully. Throughout his life, he had used his celebrity, his money and his power to get what he wanted from those with less born-in advantages. He had simply shoved his way where he wanted to go – and never worried about who was left behind.
The idea of Trump-as-bully was cemented for me in 2017 when, at a NATO summit in Brussels, Trump simply moved Dusko Marković, the leader of Montenegro, out of his way as he moved to the front of a photo op. Trump almost certainly had zero idea who Marković was. He simply wanted to be in the center of the picture – because he was president of the United States, yes, but also because he was Donald Trump. And so he shoved whoever he needed to aside to get there and never gave it a second thought.
5. He turns on everyone eventually.
Loyalty is a one-way street for Trump. He expects absolute fealty from those around him but shows little in return. And inevitably, he turns on everyone – even those who sacrificed their careers (and personal reputations) for him.
The list is massive. Here are a few select names: Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Cohen, Steve Bannon, John Kelly, James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, John Bolton, Anthony Scaramucci, Jeff Sessions, Brian Kemp, Bill Barr, Kirstjen Nielsen, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Tom Bossert.
And while I often rolled my eyes at the seeming exaggeration in “Never Trump” critic Rick Wilson’s assertion that “everything Trump touches dies,” there is truth in the sentiment.
Many of the people who came closest to Trump have been destroyed (in terms of reputation) the most utterly. Giuliani has gone from America’s Mayor to a wild conspiracy theorist. Christie transformed from a take-charge governor to a Trump lackey. Trump does appear to have a poisoning effect on reputations, and when he turns on you (and he always does), his only goal is to seek and destroy.