Written by Peter Baker
For a man on the edge of history, President Donald Trump sounded calm and relaxed. If he believes that he is on the verge of losing, he betrayed no sign of it. Instead, he trotted out one of his favorite polls, boasted about his popularity with Republican voters and talked about his convention’s television ratings.
His presidency, he declared in an interview this week, has produced “an incredible result.” The stock markets are “pretty amazing,” the Republican National Convention has been “very successful,” and he has “done a very good job” of handling the coronavirus pandemic even though more than 180,000 Americans are dead. At the same time, he said, he has endured “terrible things” by his “maniac” opponents.
After nearly four years in office, Trump heads into the fall campaign with a striking blend of braggadocio and grievance, a man of extremes who claims one moment to have accomplished more than virtually any other president even as he complains moments later that he has also suffered more than any of them. He inhabits a world of his own making, sometimes untethered from the reality recognized by others. He has imposed his will on Washington and the world like no one else.
While previous presidents evolved in office as they learned the mechanisms of power and adjusted their goals by the time they claimed renomination, Trump remains the same polarizing, dominating force of nature who got up four years ago and asserted that “I alone can fix it.” He has not tempered with age nor bent to convention nor been chastened by impeachment. He says he still considers himself “an outsider” even while occupying the highest office in the land.
In the course of a 40-minute telephone call Wednesday, Trump struggled to describe how he had changed. “I think I’ve just become more guarded than I was four years ago,” he offered, a curious notion for the least-guarded man to sit in the Oval Office in a lifetime. “I think I really am a little bit more circumspect.”
By that he seemed to mean that he had hardened after the many investigations and political attacks that have characterized his presidency. But he is not one for introspection. How would he be different in a second term? Really not much at all. “I think I’d be similar,” he said. Which is exactly what his supporters want and his opponents fear.
Beyond more of the same, he has strained lately to define what his second-term agenda would be. Asked at various points, even by friendly interviewers on Fox News, he has offered meandering answers. His fellow Republicans seem no more certain. They therefore dispensed with a party platform altogether, opting instead for a simple resolution of loyalty to the president.
In the interview, Trump rattled off a list of what he has done and would continue to do, like increasing military spending, cutting taxes, eliminating regulations, reinforcing the border and appointing conservative judges.
“But so I think; I think it would be; I think it would be very, very; I think we’d have a very, very solid; we would continue what we’re doing; we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done,” he said.
If he does win, his agenda to a significant degree may be set by external forces. He faces three overlapping crises buffeting the United States — the pandemic that still kills roughly 1,000 people every day, the resulting economic slowdown that idled another 1 million people just last week and the unrest touched off by a string of police shootings of Black Americans, most recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Trump has all but put the pandemic behind him while arguing that he is best suited to rebuild the economy. In responding to the debate over racial justice, he has characteristically sought confrontation rather than calm, disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement, blaming street violence on what he calls radical Democrats and presenting himself as a stalwart defender of police.
Four years after his against-the-odds victory, he has claimed the nomination as the undisputed master of a party whose establishment did not want him. Those who stood against him have since been purged or have departed or have defected to former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee. It has given Trump a unified convention and a party remade in his image to the delight of supporters who see him as their champion against an entitled, politically correct elite.
“He’s going to be accepting the nomination as somebody who previously was an outsider doing a hostile takeover of the party,” Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, said last week in an interview. “He’s still an outsider, but he’s built a band of outsiders with him. The hostile takeover he started four years ago is now complete.”
The hostile takeover may be over, but the hostility is not. Trump hardly goes a day without getting into a battle on Twitter or on camera with some perceived foe. While many see him as the instigator, he sees himself as the victim.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said he once asked Trump how he bore the attacks and accusations. “‘You get it every single second of every single day,’” he recalled telling the president. “And he said, ‘Well, Jim, what are you going to do? Are you going to quit? You’ve got to just keep fighting.’”
Anyone who has watched the arc of Trump’s career in business, entertainment and politics should hardly be surprised. The thrice-married scion of a real estate family loved nothing more than a splashy ribbon-cutting and a sizzling tabloid item. As a reality television star, he moved beyond his bankruptcies to rebrand himself as the emblem of success. At every stage, he courted controversy, played on racial divisions and brushed off multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, including even lewd descriptions of women caught on tape.
He arrived at the White House in January 2017 as the first president never to have served a day in political office or the military and had little time for business as usual or even the traditions and laws that bind a commander in chief. After a lifetime as a smash-mouth celebrity, he became a smash-mouth president. At 74, he turns to the same litany of political tactics he always has, just as he relies on the same vocabulary over and over (“tremendous,” “incredible,” “nasty,” “believe me,” “winning,” “loser,” “disgusting,” “disgrace”).
At his first Republican National Convention, Trump called himself “the law-and-order candidate,” much as he planned to do again Thursday night. When it looked like he would lose in 2016, he claimed the election was being “rigged,” a word he recycled this year while trailing Biden in the polls. Just this week, he challenged Biden to take a drug test, much as he demanded that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, do last time.
Trump’s advisers said his refusal to bow to the Washington establishment distinguished him from the rest of the political class. “If you think about it, Washington usually absorbs people,” Kushner said. “They come to town, and they go to the cocktail parties, and they go to the donor circles. Trump is one of the few people who hasn’t changed.
“Instead of trying to change to get along with people,” Kushner added, “he’s doubled and tripled down on the promises that he’s made, and I think he has more conviction. There’s not a single policy where you have a question about where he stands.”
Trump has refused to adapt to the presidency, forcing it to adapt to him. When he took over, he started his days in the Oval Office around 9 a.m., but then complained to aides that he was working 12 hours a day and that “this is way too much.” Schedulers changed the routine so that his first meeting in the Oval Office rarely starts before 11 a.m., letting him watch television and make calls from the residence in the morning.
His staff grows frustrated when he sometimes does not show up until 11:30 a.m. or even later. But he has little respect for the schedule, turning a 15-minute meeting into a 45-minute session. When he has had enough, he bangs his open-palmed hands on his desk twice to signal that a meeting is over.
The president’s free-form style leaves aides scrambling. While phone calls with previous presidents were highly orchestrated affairs, Trump loves nothing more than to spontaneously call friends, lawmakers or people he just saw on Fox News.
Certain allies have instant access. When Fox media mogul Rupert Murdoch once called while Trump was on the phone with his eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, his secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, asked if she should tell Murdoch that the president would call back. Trump “erupted like Mount St. Helens,” Westerhout recalled in a new memoir. “Never put Rupert Murdoch on hold!” he shouted. “Never!”
He lashes out at whoever is on hand even if they have nothing to do with whatever angers him, Westerhout wrote in an otherwise admiring book in which she praises him as a generous boss. Aides cringe when they have to deliver bad news. “I really don’t want to go in there,” she recalled Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the press secretary, telling her. “Please don’t make me.” When the president needed bucking up, Westerhout would arrange a call with his friend, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots who has been charged with solicitation of prostitution.
Trump burns through staff faster than any president has in modern times. He has had four chiefs of staff, four national security advisers and four press secretaries in less than four years. Some of his harshest critics are people who once worked for him and emerge with tales of an erratic, reckless president who lies profusely, has trouble processing information and subordinates national interest to self interest, as John Bolton, his former national security adviser, wrote in his own book.
Trump casts that as a failing of his former aides, not him. In looking back at what he would have done differently, he identified personnel. “I think it’s mostly people. I wouldn’t have used certain people,” he said. “You have people that sometimes you think they’re going to be great, and they turn out to be terrible, and sometimes you think they’re going to be terrible, and they turn out to be good.”
Lately, some of the harshest criticism has come from relatives. His niece Mary Trump wrote a scathing book about him and produced recordings she secretly made of the president’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, calling him a man with “no principles” and denouncing his “lying.”
In the interview this week, Donald Trump complained that the tapes were released just as he was presiding over a funeral for his brother, Robert Trump, but otherwise did not respond to his sister’s criticism. “That was a very sad — it’s a sad moment,” he said. “Hey, it is what it is.”
But Trump rejected the portrayal of him as a lazy, television-obsessed president. “Just the opposite,” he said. “I don’t watch very much TV. Nobody knows what I do.” He said, “I work very long hours, actually, very long hours, probably longer than just about anybody. And I think more importantly, I think I work effectively.”
His own circuitous train of thought, though, sometimes ends up taking his listeners on unpredictable journeys. When asked at first about the aides’ criticism, he wandered into a discussion of the convention audience (“I looked at the Fox ratings”) and resentment at attacks on his response to the virus (“we haven’t been treated properly on that”).
He has no second thoughts about the most critical decisions of his presidency. The pandemic was the fault of China. If he had it to do over again, he said, he would have ensured the country had more medical gear stockpiled, but he offered no regrets for playing down the virus and insisted that his push to reopen society in the spring was the right one despite the cascade of death that followed. “I think it was a good decision because look at how our economy is going up,” Trump said.
He rarely connects with those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. The morning after his wife, Melania Trump, offered empathy at the convention, he acknowledged that many have asked why he does not. “I know, I understand that,” he said. “I do read that a lot and see that a lot. But I feel tremendous sorrow and grief for the — this should have never happened.” Even as he said he felt empathy, he could not sustain it for even a full sentence before pivoting to whom to blame.
His worst moments since taking office, he said, were the day he was impeached — unfairly in his mind — and the night that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cast the key vote dooming a Republican effort to revoke President Barack Obama’s health care program. He acknowledged at the time that the job was harder than he had expected.
Now he says it is harder because of the attacks he endures. “It’s harder because I’ve had two jobs,” he said — being president and “I have to also constantly defend myself from a group of maniacs that are totally, that have, you know, that have gone totally off the tracks.”
Given that, did he ever think about not running for a second term? “I never even considered that,” he said. He said he was ready for four more years. “I feel good. I think I feel better than I did four years ago.”