One of the problems with writing about Donald Trump is that you can never be quite sure what you are dealing with. Some days, he comes across as a dangerous authoritarian intent on installing himself as America’s Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Other days, he comes across like Frank Costanza—George’s father on “Seinfeld”—a crotchety old guy from Queens railing at the world.
The past couple of days have been Costanza days. On Wednesday morning, at a law-enforcement conference in Washington, Trump continued his verbal assault on the judiciary. The attacks began over the weekend, when he lashed out at Judge Jason L. Robart, the federal judge in Washington State who issued a temporary hold on the President’s anti-Muslim travel ban. (Trump referred to Robart as “a so-called judge” and suggested that he would have blood on his hands in the event of another terrorist attack.)
On Tuesday evening, three senior judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, had heard oral arguments on the Trump Administration’s request for the court to overturn Robart’s ruling. The hearing, in which the judges asked a series of tough questions to a Justice Department lawyer representing the Administration, had been live-streamed over the Internet and broadcast on television. ”I watched last night in amazement, and I heard things that I couldn’t believe,” Trump told his audience. “I don’t ever want to call a court biased, so I won’t call it biased, and we haven’t had a decision yet. But courts seem to be so political, and it would be so great for our justice system if they would be able to read a statement and do what’s right.”
The President then read out some of the executive order that is at the heart of the court case, and complained that the appeal was taking so long. (It has only been six days.) “If you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this,” he said. “I was a good student. I understand things. I comprehend very well, O.K.? Better than, I think, almost anybody. And I want to tell you, I listened to a bunch of stuff last night on television that was disgraceful. It was disgraceful because what I just read to you is what we have. And it just can’t be written any plainer or better, and for us to be going through this.”
Having delivered this little screed, Trump returned to the White House, where he had some appointments, including a national-security briefing. But he also had other business on his mind, notably the news that Nordstrom, the department-store chain, had decided to drop his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line on the grounds that sales had been weak. “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” Trump tweeted, at 10:51 A.M. “She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
Almost before reporters had time to call up ethics lawyers and ask what they thought of this latest Presidential outburst, Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, upped the ante by suggesting, without providing any evidence, that Nordstrom’s move had been a politically motivated attack on the Trump brand. “There are clearly efforts to undermine that name based on her father’s positions on particular policies that he’s taken,” Spicer said at his daily briefing. “This is a direct attack on his policies and her name.”
This was all happening, it should be noted, on the same day that the Senate was preparing to confirm Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, the upper chamber had confirmed Betsy DeVos, Trump’s controversial pick for Secretary of Education. Although both confirmation battles had been hard-fought and bad-tempered, the Administration had won. But, rather than ballyhooing these victories, Trump was busy riling up judges everywhere, and attacking an upscale department-store chain that dates back to 1901.
One notable person who objected to some of the President’s statements was Neil Gorsuch, the conservative federal judge from Colorado who is Trump’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. On Wednesday afternoon, reports emerged from Capitol Hill that Gorsuch, in a courtesy meeting with a group of senators, had used the words ”demoralizing” and “disheartening” to describe Trump’s attacks on the judiciary. Before long, Gorsuch’s comments were leading the news, and, on Thursday morning, they dominated the front pages of the major papers.
If ever there was a no-win story for the Trump Administration, this was it. During its chaotic first two weeks, the rollout of Gorsuch had provided a rare bright spot. Even liberal legal experts, such as Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, had conceded that Gorsuch is a learned and careful judge. But now here was Gorsuch criticizing the words of the President who had nominated him—a first, surely.
With nothing to be gained from giving this story wider currency, the smart thing for the White House to do was to ignore it and wait for something else to lead the headlines. (In this Administration, you never have to wait long for another shocker.) Or, if they were forced to comment, Trump’s aides could have sought to dismiss Gorsuch’s remarks, which his political handlers confirmed, as an effort to curry favor with Democratic senators and avoid a filibuster.
On Wednesday night, the White House seemed to be proceeding along these lines. But early Thursday morning, during his morning cable-news viewing hours, Trump took to Twitter and tore into the Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, who had been the one who originally relayed Gorsuch’s comments to the press. “Sen.Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie),now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?” Trump tweeted.
What followed was eminently predictable: another round of Gorsuch stories, which only served to confirm that the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court had indeed said the words Blumenthal attributed to him. Later Thursday morning, Kelly Ayotte, the former Republican senator who is helping to shepherd Gorsuch’s nomination through Capitol Hill, issued a statement in which she said that what Gorsuch had told senators was that “he finds any criticism of a judge’s integrity and independence disheartening and demoralizing.” The Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who was also in the meeting with Gorsuch, said the nominee told him, “Any attack on brothers or sisters of the robe is an attack on all judges.”
How can Trump’s self-defeating behavior be explained? One theory, subscribed to by a number of mental-health professionals, is that he suffers from a narcissistic-personality disorder that prevents him from turning the other cheek. Whenever anybody crosses him or says anything critical about him, this theory goes, Trump suffers “narcissistic injury”—an intense feeling that his entire self-worth has been called into question. And this prompts him to lash out, regardless of the consequences. John Garner, a Baltimore psychotherapist, has launched an online petition that says Trump “manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.” So far, more than twenty thousand mental-health workers have signed the petition.
Another theory is that Trump is a rational actor, but that he doesn’t care what the media, or, indeed, a majority of Americans, think about him, because he doesn’t need their support. As long as the Republicans in Congress stick to the Faustian pact that they have made with him, he can do without high approval ratings. Of course, he does need to cultivate some support. But by constantly attacking his opponents in the media and the Democratic Party, by turning on judges who dare to query his policies, and even tweeting about his daughter’s business, he is doing just that—signalling to his core supporters that he hasn’t turned into a normal politician, and that, therefore, they can trust him.
My guess is that there is that no single theory that can explain what we’re now seeing. Like Frank Costanza, Trump can’t stop himself from lashing out. But he also believes these firestorms work for him politically. That explains why he refuses to give up his Twitter account, and also why he employs spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway, who almost outdid her boss on Thursday, when she told Fox News viewers, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”
The White House later said that Conway had been “counselled” about ethics laws that prohibit federal employees from using their office to endorse commercial products. Doubtless, she and her boss will in the future be more cautious about what they say. And “The BFG” will win the Oscar for Best Picture.