The president makes a mess, then makes it worse. It’s what he’s always done.
It started Monday morning with Donald Trump calling his own attorney general “beleaguered.” It continued with an Air Force One flight to West Virginia and a rambling, partisan speech to thousands of hollering Boy Scouts. And it kept going with another manic jag of tweets on Tuesday, as the president took a second shaming swipe at Jeff Sessions, delegitimized the acting director of the FBI, urged senators to “step up to the plate” on getting rid of Obamacare and railed away in his exclamation-laced syntax about Democrats who are “obstructionists” and the “Witch Hunt” of the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, his new communications director was threatening to fire his entire staff for leaking as rumors swirled about Cabinet-level departures. Chaos bordering on crisis.
This is how Trump ran his business, and it’s how he ran his campaign. For six months now, it’s how he’s run his White House. But within the whirl of these past two nonstop, dizzying days, it has reached blinking-red-light levels. To people who have been around him, and those who still are, from Trump Tower to the West Wing, this can be unnerving. To people across the country and the world, it can feel dismaying or disorienting or just plain insane.
For Trump, though, it feels like … the start to another week.
“This is Donald,” former Trump Organization Vice President Louise Sunshine told me Tuesday. “This is his style.”
“He’s operating just like he always has,” former Trump Shuttle President Bruce Nobles said in an interview.
“The prince of chaos,” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair.
attack, attack. He creates chaos, and then he responds to that chaos, withstanding it, even embracing it, feeding on it—and then he outlasts the outrage, emerging not only alive but emboldened.
“Hey, look, I had a cold spell from 1990 to ’91,” Trump said almost a quarter-century ago to a reporter from New York magazine, referring to the breakup of his marriage to the mother of his first three children, his affair with a busty, B-movie actress and the reckless spending and negligent management of his company that left him nearly a billion dollars in debt—all of which was covered breathlessly by the press. “I was beat up in business and in my personal life. But you learn that you’re either the toughest, meanest piece of shit in the world, or you just crawl into a corner, put your finger in your mouth, and say, ‘I want to go home.’ You never know until you’re under pressure how you’re gonna react.”
This crisis was formative, and Trump survived because of family money, permissive banks that were tied to him as much as he was tied to them, the Houdini-esque work of a lender-mandated financial rescue artist and far more than his fair share of chutzpah. The close scrape with personal bankruptcy and business ruin didn’t chasten Trump. It did the opposite. “The fact that he got through it,” former Trump Organization Vice President Barbara Res said, “made him believe he could accomplish anything, conquer anything.”
His path from The Art of the Deal to The Art of the Comeback to "The Apprentice" consisted of a media-stoked stew of self-promotion and provocation. WrestleMania antics and celebrity feuds were fuel. And he talked when he could about running for president. It was always a bluff. Until, of course, it wasn’t.
His campaign was a rolling crisis. Beset by backstabbing and infighting, careening from one five-alarm fire to the next, Trump’s unprecedented presidential bid seemed perpetually on the edge of political viability. And he won.
“Chaos creates drama, and drama gets ink,” former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg told me Tuesday. “This is a new kind of presidency. He’s followed the tabloid model, and it got him to where he is, and it’s the model that will be followed until it doesn’t work. And it has worked. He’s sitting in the Oval Office.”
On Monday, at the fairly standard hour of 6:40 a.m., he kickstarted a particularly agitated sequence of tweets by labeling Washington not a “Swamp” but a “Sewer” and yelling “Fake News!” He insisted there’s “Zero evidence” of his or his campaign’s collusion with Russian officials. Then he called Sessions, the first senator to endorse him and for a long period during the campaign his most credible surrogate,
“beleaguered.” Then he called a member of Congress “Sleazy.” Then he poked Republicans about their “last chance” to “Repeal & Replace.” Then he boarded the presidential plane to go talk to the Boy Scouts.
In Glen Jean, West Virginia, at the National Scout Jamboree, at a gathering of “the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training,” Trump pledged to the crowd of an estimated 40,000, mostly boys between 12 and 18 years old, that he wouldn’t talk about policy fights or political disagreements. “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” he said. He did. The president talked about Tuesday’s health care vote and called Obamacare “this horrible thing that’s really hurting us” and found ways to criticize Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and told the amped-up teens stale stories about his big win of 2016. “USA!” they chanted back.
By Tuesday morning, he was back on Twitter, blasting the FBI boss and Sessions, too, for his “VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes” and “leakers.” He also praised John McCain for being a “Brave” “American hero” after disparaging him for being captured in Vietnam not once but twice before. (Trump never apologized.)
This is not the way it’s supposed to work, or at least not how it has. “I have not seen any indication of a normal appreciation of the functioning of government coming from the president,” former Senate attorney and Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste told POLITICO on Tuesday. But while members of Congress scrambled to respond, their assessments of the president’s latest behavior ranging from confusion to condemnation to twisted justification to tepid defense, the people who have watched Trump for a lot longer simply shook their heads.
“Typical Donald,” Sunshine said.
“I’m not surprised by anything I’m seeing,” said Nobles, the former Trump Shuttle boss. “He’s always liked chaos.”
“He’s spent his life creating and surrounding himself with chaos,” Res said, “so that he can be the one person who can emerge in charge. The winner. The guy on the top. It’s a way of slaying his enemies.”
“If you’ve ever been on a construction site, they’re always chaotic,” Billy Procida, another former Trump Organization vice president, told me Tuesday. “And he’s good at construction.”
But he’s no longer on a construction site. He’s the most powerful person in the world.
“This is certainly different. It’s certainly new,” Nunberg said. “But it’s what people want.”
Chaos? All the time?
“Entertainment,” Nunberg said. “Entertainment.”