Trump's score-settling creates jarring contrast

Donald Trump's wild weekend showed just how abnormal his presidency has become, even if his breaching of conventional...

Posted: Apr 23, 2018 2:51 PM
Updated: Apr 23, 2018 2:51 PM

Donald Trump's wild weekend showed just how abnormal his presidency has become, even if his breaching of conventional decorum has lost the power to shock.

The President, ensconced at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, spent Saturday and Sunday on Twitter venting at the FBI director he fired, and torching both The New York Times and his own estranged attorney general. He poured praise on his lawyer Michael Cohen amid speculation he could flip on his top client after an FBI raid on his offices carried off some of the closest-held secrets of the Trump Organization and the President's own past.

The President also lashed out at an unidentified "drunk/drugged up loser" as he fulminated about his legal situation and, out of nowhere, when most Americans were enjoying their Sunday afternoon, tweeted, "A total witch hunt!"

The weekend's events were a snapshot of a frenzied social media presidency characterized by score settling and bitter attacks on enemies that would have been impossible to imagine before he won the White House.

Cementing that contrast, four of the five living ex-presidents, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, gathered in Texas at the funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush on Saturday.

The latest, and somber, meeting of the President's Club, the most exclusive political conclave in the world, seemed like a throwback to an earlier era of civility where former political foes buried differences in recognition of their common experience that seems out of step in the age of Trump.

The current President did not attend the funeral, saying he didn't want his presidential security footprint to detract from the occasion. Earlier presidents did not attend funerals of first ladies, and he did tweet a touching picture of Barbara Bush's portrait from the White House. First lady Melania Trump attended and was pictured smiling alongside Obama.

But it was also difficult to imagine that at some future event, Trump would fit in so well with the Bushes, Clinton and Obama - not least because he has spent so much time personally attacking several of his predecessors. He led a long campaign claiming Obama wasn't even born in the United States and has called for Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent, to be jailed.

Of course, many of Trump's supporters see those four ex-presidents as symbols of a class of establishment elites that cost them the benefits of a political and economic system they believe left them behind.

So as the odd one out in this particular political group, Trump is being true to his political self and the people who sent him to the White House.

Also unlike Trump, those former presidents have the satisfaction of knowing their legacies are settled - or they have at least learned to reconcile their failures and the great controversies of their administrations.

Trump, by contrast, as this weekend showed, gives the impression of fighting fiercely for respect and validation every day, in a way that is often so polarizing that it seems to make that kind of recognition more elusive than ever.

In recent days for instance, Trump has repeatedly demanded credit for the promised, yet so far unfulfilled, opening with North Korea.

Trump hit out at NBC's Chuck Todd after he said on "Sunday Today" that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to be offering very little in return for a summit with the US President -- one of Pyongyang's long-term goals.

"Wow, we haven't given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!" Trump wrote.

While South Korea has said Pyongyang is willing to talk about denuclearization at the expected US-North Korea summit, officials have not said it has actually made a concrete commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

And although Trump's administration does deserve credit for a tough sanctions policy that may have helped bring Pyongyang to the table, it's inconceivable that any of Trump's predecessors would have been so bullish on a summit that is fraught with risks with a nation that has made a habit of trashing its nuclear promises.

Trump's desire for recognition and respect -- that seems odd in someone who is already commander-in-chief -- also shone through the contemporaneous memos of former FBI Director James Comey that became public on Thursday after they were sent to three House committees by the Justice Department.

Comey's account of Trump's demands for loyalty from his FBI chief are consistent with the unflattering picture of Trump that he paints in his new book "A Higher Loyalty." But they also show a President acting in a way that is far removed from "normal" protocol usually adopted by someone in his position.

Trump has complained that Comey's memos were classified -- even though they were released from the Justice Department to Congress -- and also says the former FBI chief cannot be trusted.

"He totally made up many of the things he said I said, and he is already a proven liar and leaker," Trump tweeted on Saturday.

All of Trump's most recent predecessors had their controversies -- in the most extreme case, Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath. But none saw the offices of their personal attorney raided by the FBI.

Trump's first 15 months have been so relentlessly controversial that individual events often fail to have the impact that they would have in a more conventional administration. But the fact that the President's personal lawyer was raided by the FBI executing a warrant sought by the US attorney in the Southern District of New York is still stunning nearly two weeks after it happened, even if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the President that he was not a target of the sweep, according to CNN sources.

Trump embraced Cohen on Twitter over the weekend in a way that some critics might see as an attempt to convince him not to do a deal with prosecutors that could potentially mean legal exposure for the President himself.

"Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories," Trump tweeted.

"Sorry, I don't see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!"

The juxtaposition between Trump's signature style and the conventions of presidential decorum will be on display again in the coming week, when Trump hosts the leaders of France and Germany for high stakes visits.

A day before welcoming Emmanuel Macron for the first state dinner of his administration, Trump will dine with the French president and their wives at Mount Vernon, the mansion home in Virginia of George Washington.

The first president's long historical shadow established a template for the behavioral codes and demeanor that most presidents have sought to emulate.

It goes without saying that Washington, who told Americans in his farewell address he was "too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors" could have ever imagined a president like Trump.

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