Trump departure: ‘Rarely has a president shown such little personal evolution in office’

Gun Rights

Normally when a president leaves office we talk about how it changed him. Barack Obama came out riddled with grey hair and doubt.  

Not so Donald Trump. He entered the White House as an outsider, a disruptor, and walks away the same, and the fact that he was never going to play by the rules was signalled at his inauguration on January 20, 2017.

He spoke of “goodness and love”, as most presidents do, keen to bring their country back together after a bitter campaign, but he also talked about crime, drugs, immigration and the “American carnage” of industrial decline, and at his first press conference he accused the media of lying about the size of the inaugural crowd.

Journalists, he said, are among “the most dishonest human beings on Earth”.  

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Rarely has a president shown such little personal evolution in office; rarely has the operation of the office been so shaped by character rather than the other way around.  

In Trump’s defence, his sense of persecution was exaggerated by the opposition of liberals, dissident Republicans and much of the bureaucratic establishment, who not only disliked him but refused to accept the legitimacy of his narrow election win.

The day after his inauguration, Washington DC saw its largest protest in history – the Women’s March, coloured by pink pussy cat hats – and just two months into his administration, the director of the FBI, James Comey, confirmed that the Bureau was examining links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump sacked Comey on May 9 (“he was crazy”, said Trump, “a real nut job”) and the word “impeachment” entered circulation.  

Trump’s first two years in office were dogged by a special counsel investigation into the 2016 election; his third by impeachment proceedings in Congress; the fourth by the coronavirus pandemic.

He governed under permanent siege, though so many of these crises were triggered or worsened by Trump himself and the baggage he brought to the job.

A former porn star called Stormy Daniels said she’d been paid off to keep quiet about an affair. A columnist claimed Trump that had forced himself on her in a department store in the 1990s.

The latter simply couldn’t have happened, said Trump. “She’s not my type.”  

Tweets, sweet treats and two hours of sleep

The Tweeting continued in the White House, so did the preposterous diet.

Trump ate meat, French fries and ice-cream (he doesn’t like booze) and drank, as he always had, far too much Diet Coke, which might explain why he got by on as little as two or three hours sleep.

He was up by 5.30am.  Trump’s day was scheduled, if you can call it that, into blocks of executive time, which were spent watching TV, tweeting, on the telephone and in meetings with loyal officials, the tiny group of men and women he trusted not to leak to the press.

He eschewed exercise: the body only contains so much energy, Trump reasoned, so it has to be conserved.

He did, however, play golf, around 300 rounds of it in four years, probably at the cost of millions of dollars in security.

Trump got on best with the world leaders he met on the green. Cliff Sims, a former aide, explained: “everything was personal to Trump – everything. In international affairs, he believed his personal relationship with foreign leaders was more important than shared interests or geopolitics.”  

In DC, he struggled to make allies or even find staff. Hundreds of positions went unfilled with serious consequences for orderly government (upon the outbreak of Covid, 20 out of 75 senior positions at Homeland Security were empty or filled by temps).

The people he did hire didn’t always like him: Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, lasted one year and reportedly called Trump a “moron”.

His ideological bedfellows weren’t the best at politics: advisor and guru Steve Bannon helped persuade him to slap a ban on migration from several Muslim nations, which looked racist and was blocked by the courts within a week.

And then there were staffers who were loyal but amateur.  

Michael Flynn, his National Security Advisor, was forced to quit after a month (Russia, again) and communications director Anthony Scaramucci lasted just ten.

He gave an interview in which he described the chief of staff as a “paranoid schizophrenic” and said Bannon was wasting time trying to “suck his own c–k”.

It was reportedly Trump’s wife, Melania, and daughter, Ivanka, who insisted he go.   The strength of the Trump marriage was a source of tabloid speculation: Melania appeared to swat his hand away on a couple of occasions and Trump once confessed that he’d forgotten to buy her a birthday present.

The truth was probably that the First Lady was shy, that she found the pressures of media scrutiny unbearable, even farcical.

In the midst of a scandal over the separation of migrant families at the Mexico border, she wore a hoodie that read “I really don’t care, do you?”

It was the reporting she didn’t care for, not the kids, a point she hammered home in a phone call with a former aide that the aide recorded, as one does, and shared with the media, as people do.

The administration was under attack, complained Melania, and she was stuck decorating the Christmas tree. “Who gives a f— about the Christmas stuff and decorations?” she asked, “But I need to do it, right?”  

The most competent, controlled, loyal member of the inner circle turned out to be Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband.

It is believed that it was Jared and Ivanka who persuaded Trump to sign off on significant justice reforms and reach out to black voters, while Jared’s middle east peace initiatives handed the administration genuine diplomatic victories.

The secret to Kushner’s success, concluded journalist Bob Woodward, was that he understood how to read the president, how to second guess what he wanted and bring it to him before he even asked.  

To explain Trump’s unique management style, Kushner quoted Alice-in-Wonderland, from the passage where Alice asks the Cheshire cat for directions.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” says the Cat.

“I don’t much care,” replies Alice. “Then,” says the Cat, “it doesn’t matter which way you go.”  

‘He is a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow’

Ex-Trump spokesman Sean Spicer put it this way: “He is a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow.”

Trump’s “ability to pivot from a seemingly career-ending moment to a furious assault on his opponents is a talent few politicians can muster”.  

Almost immediately after he entered the White House, there were u-turns: Hillary Clinton would not be going to jail, Nato wasn’t obsolete, Russia was a threat.

These were leapt on as signs (hopes) that Trump might mature in office, yet they were totally consistent with a worldview that was shaped less by philosophy than by instinct: policy was inconsistent because Trump did what felt right in a given moment.

In the aftermath of the appalling massacre at a Florida school in February 2018, Trump was briefly for gun control; weeks later he told the National Rifle Association that the best thing to do was to arm the teachers so they could fire back.

One quality that John Bolton, his National Security Advisor, saw as consistent was an obsession with the price of things, that Trump demanded, for example, that Nato members increase defence spending because America, shouldering the biggest burden, was getting a bad deal.  

When asked what the purpose of the Trump administration was, Steve Bannon said to translate disruption into policy and “deconstruct the administrative state”.

This meant doing the opposite of whatever Obama had done. Obama had engaged in Syria; Trump aimed to walk away. But Obama had also failed to enforce red lines against the use of chemical weapons, so Trump did.

If liberals were commonly associated with virtue signalling, Trump was accused of vice-signalling. The moment that sealed Trump’s reputation as a demon among liberals, irredeemable beyond that point, was a far-Right riot in Virginia in August 2017.

There were fine people “on both sides” said the President, even though one side included neo-Nazis. Bannon said he was “proud” of his boss.  

Trump boasted of the scale of achievements and part of the reason why so many conservative voters admired Trump was that he did deliver what they wanted: historic tax cuts, deregulation, some construction of the border wall, conservative judges on the Supreme Court.

Republicans were uncomfortable with his views on free trade; sometimes they seemed to almost work against him.

John Bolton was horrified to discover that the very people charged with fixing the border problem were cooking up policies that ran counter to Trump’s entire approach.  

Facing all these structural roadblocks, Trump did what probably came naturally and governed through executive action or diplomacy, transforming foreign policy, often the area of greatest caution, into his global theatre of disruption.

The threat of nuclear war became a comedy.  

Almost as soon as Trump entered office, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un resumed missile testing. In July 2017, Trump asked: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”

North Korea threatened “thousands-fold” revenge for sanctions. “North Korea best not make any more threats,” Trump warned in August, or “they will be met with fire and fury.”

North Korea promptly threatened to strike the US territory of Guam. In September, Trump told the United Nations that Kim was a “Rocket Man… on a suicide mission.”

In November, North Korea called Trump “an old lunatic”; the President retorted, “Why would Kim… insult me by calling me ‘old’, when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”  

Then, in March 2018, after a year of insults and barbs, Trump announced that he would meet Kim in person to discuss peace – which he did, that summer, in Singapore.  

Normally leaders meet after something had been agreed; Bolton worried that his boss had been led into a propaganda coup for the regime, that in his eagerness to generate publicity he had committed a strategic mistake.

In the end, the two leaders got on well and North Korea did halt testing; Trump, in return, ceased major military exercises around the peninsula that he regarded as too expensive anyway.

The President observed that the North Korean coastline was very attractive and might someday be considered hot beachfront real estate.

The meeting was something only Trump could do, it was true, but like a lot of his presidency, the critics were left asking what the point of it actually was.

Trump and Kim met again in Vietnam in February 2019; the summit was cut short after Kim demanded all sanctions be lifted.  

Trump talked tough but favoured strategic withdrawal, and many veterans felt he had their back.

It was in his interactions with soldiers that one saw a very different side of the President: according to Sarah Sanders, his spokesperson, on a trip to Iraq, Trump met a soldier who told him he’d rejoined the Army because of him.

Trump replied: “And I am here because of you.”   The quality of loyalty, prized by Trump above all others, defines his relationship with his supporters – a feeling that, Trump kept faith with them and, in return, they should stick with him.

Many older Americans, people in uniform and cultural conservatives valued a president who spoke language they understood.

The country’s largest police union endorsed him in 2020. It was speculated that one reason the rioters who stormed the Capitol got past the security is that the cops might have let them through, and there were certainly some off-duty officers in the crowd.  

The virus that blew Trump’s re-election chances

As of February 2020, Trump was in a strong position to be re-elected. His approval rating started to rise with the failed impeachment effort; his hold on the electoral college looked solid.

The coronavirus blew his re-election chances, that’s true, but the way Trump handled the pandemic summarised the strengths and weaknesses of his unique take on the presidency.

If over three years he had adapted in some small way – learned to use the bureaucracy efficiently or to bring the country together with bipartisan rhetoric – things could have played out differently. But character was fate.  

Trump shut down some international travel, the economy was bailed out, science pushed forward, and it’s not entirely correct that Trump rejected masks or denied the virus was real, he was just inconsistent and obviously spooked about what it would mean for his re-election chances.

Privately, in February, according to Bob Woodward, he called Covid-19 “deadly stuff”; publicly he said it was under control, compared it to the flu (“in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s a little bit tougher”) and predicted it would be gone by April. By the end of April there was an excess death rate of 66,000.

With the nomination of Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries, rather than Bernie Sanders, a socialist who might’ve been easier to beat, and the country in deep trouble, the idea that an outsider was necessary to turn America round was wearing thin.  

On October 2, Trump was rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with the virus.

His isolation now literal, he was accompanied by his social media director, who had once been his golf caddy, and his chief-of-staff, who slept in a room nearby.

Trump’s doctors told the world he was doing fine; in the ward, Trump, who had lost friends to the disease, rang a confidant and said “I could be one of the diers”.

It was part of his machismo, inherited from his father, to insist that he rarely got ill and that being sick was a sign of weakness, so it was entirely in keeping, once he had assured himself that the virus was under control, that he would check out, fly back to the White House and pose for the cameras, to show that he was still on top of the world.  

Trump had persuaded himself that he was going to win the November election at the ballot box but that the Democrats would try to steal it via mail fraud.

The plan on the night itself, which he assumed he would end far ahead of Biden in the vote tally, was to declare victory immediately and thus sew doubt about the postal votes when they were counted later on – but Fox News, his fair-weather friend, ruined everything by calling Arizona for the Democrats.

Trump exploded; Jared contacted Rupert Murdoch and tried to persuade him to reverse the call.  

This was the moment, more than ever, that Trump needed objective advice, wise counsel that it was over and he should concede. But he paid the price for the way he governed.

His staff were too diminished, too cowed, too fixed on telling him what he wanted to hear to tell him the truth.

The legal challenges to the result would proceed. It was only when his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, gave a disastrous press conference, his hair dye running down his cheeks, peddling a conspiracy theory involving Venezuela that was too much even for Trump, that the President finally agreed to permit the formal initiation of transition.

Even then, he continued to tell his fans that he had been “cheated”, ending his term in office doing what the Democrats had done to him – questioning the legitimacy of an election.

The consequences were tragic. On January 6, his supporters stormed the Capitol, leaving five dead, including a policeman.  

Melania was reportedly already working out what furniture should begin its return journey from the White House to the Trump residence in Florida.

A friend told reporters, “She just wants to go home.”

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