The last week has seen the Trump administration more rattled than at any previous time in its existence. The developing story that Trump attempted to blackmail Ukraine into digging up dirt on the Biden family by withholding military aid prompted rare initiative from the Democratic Party in the form of an impeachment inquiry. The White House then released a memorandum describing the phone call in question which was clearly intended to deflate the story but instead largely confirmed it. Then the White House accidentally emailed its impeachment talking points to a bunch of Democrats.
Then on Thursday, after the whistleblower complaint that started the whole thing off was released, sparking another media firestorm, Trump attended a private event in New York where he whined a lot and speculated that the whistleblower and/or their sources of information should maybe be killed — which we know because somebody there made a recording and leaked it to the media immediately.
It's an object lesson in how Trump can be put on the defensive. He is not some omnipotent political mastermind. Attacks on his integrity, competence, appearance, or anything else that he's sensitive about will drive him nuts and sow chaos in his administration.
Trump's flailing, incompetent White House emerges quite naturally from basic aspects of Trump's personality — his vanity, his ignorance, his sloppiness, his cowardice, and above all his all-consuming narcissism. He gets absolutely furious when people are either paying attention to things other than him or when they're directing anything other than lavish praise his way. He neither knows nor cares to know anything but the very sketchiest details about policy matters, much less turning the vast federal bureaucracy to his own purposes. The ideal presidency for him would be softball interviews from the stooges at Breitbart and The Federalist asking him which one of his amazing accomplishments is the best, punctuated by rounds of golf where his opponents let him win.
This extends to how Trump treats his nominal allies — namely, "like toys a rich kid got for Christmas." People who work for him tend to get used up or tossed aside at the slightest (or no) provocation, because Trump has no loyalty to anything aside from himself and compulsively blames others for his own failures. But on the other hand, he is (ironically) too soft and non-confrontational to actually fire people in person; he always has to have someone else do it for him.
Long-time Trump scholars like Alex Pareene and David Roth have pointed all this out for years. "Trump’s engagement with the world is fundamentally an envious one—other people possess what should be his, everything that is not him is just getting in his way," Roth writes. He is "famously thin-skinned," Pareene wrote back in 2016, a man "who is easily provoked into absurd and unpresidential tantrums when his insecurities are mocked[.]" (Pareene would know.)
The upshot of all this is that Trump is not some relentless, confident budding despot. He does have no shame, and the bully's instinct for when someone will not not fight back, and these traits in turn give him major influence over a mainstream media which relies on bipartisan validation to say whether something is really bad or not, and major influence over a feckless, cowardly opposition party. But Napoleon he is not.
It was likely his bully mindset which led Trump astray on Ukraine. He made the call to President Volodymyr Zelensky the very day after Robert Mueller's congressional testimony — which demonstrated conclusively that Democrats were not going to do anything serious about the Russiagate scandal. He probably figured that he had carte blanche to solicit help from anyone in the 2020 election, because the Democrats were too weak and cowardly to call him on it.
To be fair, Trump was and is largely right about the Democratic leadership. But he missed that they were only just barely keeping the lid on a boiling cauldron of anti-Trump rage from Democratic base voters and younger members of Congress, which boiled over when the Ukraine story came out.
Now Trump is flipping out. He's whining like a spoiled child and lashing out at everyone around him, which is leading to tactical errors and dissent within the administration, as Trump's cronies get nervous and start thinking about saving their own skins. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, for instance, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire defended the whistleblower, saying they "did the right thing." Others are starting to point fingers — like Rudy Giuliani, who claimed to have text messages incriminating the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine in his scheme.
It is probably too much to hope for the dried-up Democratic leadership to catch this stench of political blood, much less take some glee in needling Trump to ever-greater paroxysms of petulant rage. But if they cared to keep Trump on the back foot for the rest of his administration, blistering, nonstop attacks are the way to do it.
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