The extraordinary weakness of President Trump
No one is afraid of him anymore
President Trump got away with an awful lot when he was only a businessman, and I've long contended that it was possible because people had limited knowledge about him. Let's say you were a small business owner making something like curtains, and Trump came to you with a huge order for a new hotel or casino he was building. What great news! You've seen him on TV, and you knew what a big shot he was. What you probably didn't know was that he had a history of stiffing small business owners, taking their goods and services and then refusing to pay them. By the time you filled his order and couldn't get paid, it was too late.
When Trump ran for and then became president, he didn't change his approach to pretty much anything. But there's a big difference between now and his former life: When you're president, everyone sees what you do. All of it. And because of that knowledge, something important is happening: Fewer and fewer people are afraid of him.
Consider this comical development in Trump's ongoing war with the people who work for him, or used to. Earlier this week, excerpts from a new book by Michael Wolff were released in the media, in which we learned that former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon had lots of unflattering things to say about people in Trump's orbit, including members of the president's family. Other people Wolff interviewed paint a picture that we've heard many times before, of a staff struggling and failing to manage an impulsive, infantile president (dealing with Trump, Wolff quotes former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh saying, was "like trying to figure out what a child wants").
And how did Trump respond, apart from releasing an angry statement about what a jerk Bannon is? He had his lawyer send a letter to Wolff's publisher demanding that it "immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release, or dissemination of the book," among other things. "Legal action is imminent," the lawyer warned, perhaps using a scary voice.
But here's the thing: Nobody believes him. Put aside how horrifying it is that the president of the United States wants to stop publication of a book because it makes him look bad. We all know that Trump isn't suing anybody, not only because of how damaging such a lawsuit would be for him (ask a lawyer friend what "discovery" is about), but more importantly because we've seen him make these empty threats before. In October 2016, after The New York Times published an article in which multiple women alleged that Trump had committed various forms of sexual assault against them, Trump had his lawyer threaten to sue the newspaper if it didn't immediately issue a retraction and apology. The Times invited him to go right ahead and sue, but the lawsuit never materialized.
Trump also threatened to sue all the women making the accusations: "All of these liars will be sued after the election is over," he said. He never sued them either. So now, when he says he's going to sue someone, everyone knows it's just bluster.
If you had a run-in with Trump 10 years ago and he said he was going to sue you, you might have been frightened by what you perceived as his strength. But today, what stands out is Trump's weakness. He doesn't have the power to determine who wins elections; just look at what happened in Alabama, where his endorsed candidate lost the primary in a special Senate election, then his second endorsed candidate lost the general election. He can (and does) call people out on Twitter, but that's more likely to help your career than hurt it. Like most everyone in the media, I myself am desperately hoping to be included in "THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR," which Trump says he'll be handing out next Monday (and yes, that's what the most powerful man on Earth spends his time thinking about).
And while there are certainly people in the government whose jobs depend on staying in his good graces, before long many Republicans are going to realize that in the long run it may be much better to be seen as an enemy of Trump than his friend.
That will be particularly true when it comes to politicians. With his approval rating currently in the 30s, saying "I'm a loyal soldier for Trump" may not be to your political advantage, even in some conservative districts. And in competitive districts — of which there will be many more in this year's midterm elections than there usually are — Republican candidates will be eager to distance themselves from him.
That of course will infuriate Trump, and you can bet more than a few vulnerable Republican candidates will be hoping for an angry tweet sent their way that they can use to call attention to their independence. There's never been a president who had a more burning need for ceaseless lickspittlery from anyone and everyone, and when Trump doesn't get it, he just gets more upset.
Here he is, having achieved the grandest ambition anyone could hope for, in the most important job in the world, and he only seems to be getting smaller. It's going to be an awfully long year for him.