Soon enough, President Trump will confront an economic, military, or constitutional crisis — or provoke one.
Already we see a judgment warped by self-absorption: The insistence on alternate realities. The corrosive lies and reversals. His revelation of classified information to Russian officials. His attack on our intelligence agencies. His failure to defend America against Russia’s attack on our election.
These behaviors suggest a man loyal only to himself. Little wonder, then, that a hostile foreign power would strive to make him president. A leader of this temper can destabilize a country and its relationships around the globe.
In reaction, we see our allies distancing themselves, their intelligence agencies reluctant to share information with a president this erratic. Most ominous will be the unavoidable collision between a volatile world and a president unable to process external reality. Trump’s first six months have dramatized traits too dangerous to dismiss:
A belief that his instincts trump experience. A grandiose self-evaluation. An intolerance for criticism. An aversion to advice. A tendency to act on impulse. A blindness to the consequences of his actions. An inability to separate the outer world from his own self-concept.
That these limitations fed his previous “success” enhances their danger now. A developer can bully subcontractors, sue rivals, and bury misjudgments in a slew of bankruptcies. He can create his own reality and sell it to the credulous. He can leverage his money to make his own rules.
Far from humbling him, Trump’s accession to ultimate power has only swollen his belief that he can bend the world to his will — naked of judgment, knowledge, or preparation. For a man of Trump’s disposition, experience offers no lessons that dissuade him from behaving as he always has until, like Icarus, he flies too close to the sun — or, perhaps, to Russia.
The gantlet of public office has exposed his lethal failings. Most exemplary are the disparagements, diversions, obfuscations, and lies he deploys to cover up whatever transpired between Trump and his associates and Russia.
Trump’s decisions bespeak a desperate attempt to conceal that relationship — at whatever cost. He scorned our intelligence services’ unanimous conclusion that Russia attacked our election. He solicited their leaders to proclaim his innocence. He asked James Comey to protect Michael Flynn. When all else failed, he fired Comey to squelch the Russia investigation and lied about his motives.
Now he has disparaged Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his recusal from the Russia investigation, and suggested that special counsel Robert Mueller should not investigate beyond what Trump defines as the limitations of his mission. He criticized Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. His legal team is scouring for grounds to recuse Mueller’s staff. All this to exert control over the investigation, and set up the appointment of a new attorney general who can dismiss Mueller — or rationalize pardoning himself, family members, or others with damaging information.”
But, Russia aside, Trump’s conduct is ever driven by vanity, anger, impulse and self-interest. He rails at subordinates, shuns advice, assigns grave responsibilities to unqualified family members beholden to him alone. He has no sense of history, no patience for learning, no values or belief system that transcends self.
It is dangerous to repose presidential power in a man whose sole reality is the mirror, and who sees no past or future — only now. For in moments of crisis, a president’s character is dispositive. The daunting requirements include inspiring confidence, reading friends and adversaries, assimilating new information, parsing conflicting advice, synthesizing complex situations, and anticipating the consequences of one’s actions — fortified by sound judgment, steady nerves and detachment from self.
Take John F. Kennedy. The path to the Cuban missile crisis was, in part, paved with his own miscalculations. But in those critical 13 days, he rejected advice from his military that could have precipitated nuclear war. Instead, with steely focus, he negotiated a diplomatic solution that secured the removal of Russian missiles from Cuba.
Or George W. Bush. The 2008 economic meltdown threatened to collapse the global financial system. Many argued that his policies were to blame. But Bush rose above partisanship and ideology to direct the massive federal intervention which spared the world an economic and political catastrophe.
In contrast, Richard Nixon’s paranoia drove him to countenance a break-in at the DNC, abuse his power to cover up a felony, and strain our institutions to the limit. Here we were twice lucky — Nixon taped himself and, in the end, bowed to the Constitution by yielding the evidence that damned him.
Watergate echoes eerily in the present. Given this president’s conduct to date, the ever-deepening Russian investigation may trigger another constitutional crisis — wherein Trump, unlike Nixon, shreds the rule of law and fractures the country in reckless pursuit of self-preservation.
But whether the crucible be military, economic, or legal, that Trump’s judgement will falter is likely. The question is how dangerous the moment – and whether the leaders of his party and administration will help protect us from the worst.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.