Melania Trump beats Donald at his own game

Twenty-four hours after Melania Trump went public about her displeasure with the deputy national security ad...

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 9:07 AM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 9:07 AM

Twenty-four hours after Melania Trump went public about her displeasure with the deputy national security adviser, the first lady's husband did her bidding and sent Mira Ricardel packing. Melania showed she knows how to play like a Trump and the President is likely none too happy about it.

Recapping the Ricardel story requires going back to the first lady's trip to Africa in October. Ricardel clashed with the first lady's staff over travel arrangements as she accompanied Mrs. Trump and apparently behaved in ways that bothered the President's wife so much that she concluded that the White House would be better off without Ricardel.

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Although Mrs. Trump made her opinion known, the President did not act immediately. Despite the "You're fired!" character he played on TV, Trump is not someone who enjoys dismissing people face-to-face. If he went to Ricardel's superior, John Bolton, he likely met resistance. Bolton is as ornery in real life as Trump pretended to be on "The Apprentice." So it was that the matter was left to fester.

The idea that Bolton tried to protect Ricardel makes sense when you consider her reputation. Like Bolton, Ricardel is regarded as a master of bureaucratic infighting who isn't shy about letting people know how she feels. She and Bolton made for a matched pair.

In an administration where intrigue consumes inordinate amounts of time and energy, the Ricardel-first lady tussle might have remained a standoff as long as Bolton was around to protect his second-in-command. However Bolton left for Asia on Sunday and Melania Trump apparently saw her opening.

With Bolton half a world away, the first lady took the unprecedented step of ordering the release of a statement expressing her opinion of Ricardel. "...She no longer deserves the honor of serving in the White House," said Melania Trump's communications director.

With this unprecedented declaration, President Trump was cornered. (When Nancy Reagan was first lady, she quarreled with the White House chief of staff, who was forced out, but the conflict took place less publicly.)

The public nature of the first lady's statement put the President in an extremely awkward position. He couldn't find a way to look strong in the face of his wife's public call for a top aide's dismissal.

Consider the choices Trump faced. On the one hand he could defy his wife. Given how she had crossed a bright-line boundary with her statement, the President had to believe she would escalate the conflict. And who, out of all the people in the world, would be more dangerous to Trump than his wife? The answer is obvious. No one.

Trump's less-worse option was to get Ricardel out, and this is the action he chose. He attempted to save face by saying the deputy adviser would be transferred to an unspecified job, but no one should accept this fiction. The President caved.

If Trump feels the victim of pressure from his wife, it's because he has created in his marriage a perfectly Trumpian dynamic. As a man who believes that life is about winners and losers, Trump has long approached every human endeavor as a desperate battle for primacy. If you are not the boss, then you are being bossed, and for him this condition is unbearably humiliating.

Humiliation is the name of Trump's game. When he calls people names, declares them to be "low IQ" or observes that a man like John McCain wasn't a hero because he was taken prisoner in Vietnam, he attempts to deprive others of their dignity. He also reveals that his own great fear is to be diminished in the same way.

Beating Trump requires finding a way to turn the tables without lowering oneself. This can only be done by someone whose decency is fully established and whose status cannot be ignored.

Melania Trump has distinguished herself from her husband by showing concern for the asylum-seeking families he separated at the border and developing an anti-bullying initiative. The goodness in these activities, both of which contrast with her husband's cruelty, gave her the standing to act against Ricardel.

In a week when midterm election losses continued to accumulate and criticism of President Trump's failure to attend an event honoring America's veterans grew, Melania Trump's challenge was perfectly timed. She added one more problem to his agenda -- one he could only resolve by allowing himself to be humbled.

The lessons in this episode are many. First, it's plain Mrs. Trump knows her husband's game and can play it. Second, the President can be beaten. Third, and most importantly, he's his own worst enemy, the victim of the concept that everything is about winning and losing and that defeat comes with humiliation. As a man who has always acted with this calculus in mind, he cannot trust that anyone will feel genuine concern for his feelings. The man who relishes humiliating others is destined to suffer it himself.

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