This can’t go on much longer, can it? In the past, the nation has had do-nothing Presidencies, and scandal-ridden Presidencies, and failed Presidencies, but until Donald J. Trump came along there hasn’t been a truly embarrassing Presidency. Trump himself looks out of place (that squinty-eyed frown, meant to bespeak firmness, or serious purpose, doesn’t succeed), and it’s easy to understand why he looks that way. He’s living a bachelor’s life in an unfamiliar house, in a so-so neighborhood far from his home town, surrounded by strangers who have been hired to protect him but cut him off from any sort of real privacy. His daughter Ivanka is close by, in the Kalorama neighborhood, but she has her own life to live, and her own problems—most recently, Nordstrom’s decision to stop to carrying her fashion brand. His wife, Melania, is two hundred miles away, in Trump Tower; for the time being, according to the family’s public statements, she’s there to look after her son, Barron, who’s finishing the school year in familiar surroundings.
Life in midtown Manhattan was good for a fellow like Trump, who was recognized everywhere and regarded even by his detractors more as a cartoon than a threat. He could enjoy the city’s pleasures, which included dining at San Pietro, a favorite restaurant. (Page Six’s Emily Smith recently reported that Donald Trump, Jr., may have been sending San Pietro-cooked meals to his father, but carry-out is never a match for the original.) For someone like Trump, Washington cannot be the most exciting place to live, and won’t be unless he begins to thrive in the company of world leaders who don’t speak English, and philosophers like Paul D. Ryan, the Speaker of the House, who could probably go on for hours about, say, how a medical savings account offers tax relief for low-income workers who are about to lose their affordable health insurance. Then there are the briefings and hours of meetings and piles of memoranda, but having to read more than a page, or too many bullet points, is said to test the limits of Trump’s attention—and the camera demands the image of stern attention. That, at least, seems to be one of his core beliefs.
After little more than three weeks, Trump’s behavior is no more erratic than it used to be, but in the context of the Presidency it seems so. This year’s “Saturday Night Live” season has been very funny, but the most startling moment was not a sketch but a depiction of something real: Trump’s obsessive tweeting, four years ago, about the end of the relationship between Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. It’s been fascinating to watch him change policies in the twinkling of a tweet, as with his briefly confrontational China policy, inaugurated in December with a telephone call to Taiwan’s leader, and then reversed; or to witness his cobra-like lunges at newfound enemies, including Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who revealed that Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, had told him that he found the President’s attacks on the courts “demoralizing.” Trump just can’t seem to stop himself. Three months after the election, which he won, he’s still talking about those mythical fraudulent voters, and still calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” When he did so recently, in a room filled with senators, it got awkward; one attendee told Politico that “an uncomfortable silence” filled the room.
Those uncomfortable silences accompany chatter about Trump’s state of mind, which is abetted by talk from a leaky White House and even from a Trump doctor, Harold Bornstein, who may have crossed a doctor-patient confidentiality line when he told the Times that Trump has been taking the drug finasteride, to preserve his unique haircut. Writing in the Washington Post, Daniel Marchalik, a urologist at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, discussed what he called “potentially life-changing and irreversible side effects that may be associated with these medications,” and which may include sexual, physical, and psychological changes, pretty much none of them good. It’s hard to dismiss all of this.
CBS’s Scott Pelley recently began his evening broadcast in a way that no evening news in this nation has ever begun: “It has been a busy day for Presidential statements divorced from reality.” He went on to give several now familiar examples, such as Trump’s insistence, contrary to all available evidence, that the press hasn’t reported on a number of terrorist attacks, or that opinion polls showing high levels of Trumpian disapproval are “fake news.” Perhaps there is some causal link between Trump’s distance from the recognizable world and his bodily distance from what once were the landmarks of his life, apart from brief treks to Mar-a-Lago. Living inside what Harry Truman called “the great white sepulcher of ambitions and reputations” (although Truman, for most of his Presidency, lived in the cozier Blair House), and not inclined to drop by the Situation Room when an anti-terror Navy SEAL mission in Yemen was about to go terribly wrong, it’s hard not to wonder where this Presidency will go next. The mood inside the gates is said to be distressed. “Really hard to overstate level of misery radiating from several members of White House staff over last few days,” the Times’ Maggie Haberman recently tweeted. Outside, those who worry about all this are worrying less about policies—even those that are regarded with revulsion—but, rather, about how much longer someone who controls the power to destroy the world will be able to control himself.