Does Donald Trump even know what the Donald Trump administration is up to? If this exchange he had on Wednesday with a reporter outside his Mar-a-Lago estate is any indication, the answer is a resounding “No.”
Reporter: Your comments about the attack in Berlin being against Christians. Do you think that this might—
Trump: Say it again, what?
Reporter: Your, the attack in Berlin being against, an attack against Christians?
Trump: Who said that, when did, when was that said?
You said it! The previous day! In a press release! You said (and I’ll bold the important part so there is no confusion), “Innocent civilians were murdered in the streets as they prepared to celebrate the Christmas holiday. ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.”
Of course, Trump does not write his own press releases — especially those that sound as if they were pulled right out of the story queue of Breitbart News. (And let’s be honest, there is a solid chance that this is exactly where they come from.) But one would expect a president to at least know what position he has allegedly taken on a notable international incident, particularly if his administration’s press release has hyped it up from a terrorist attack into part of a global clash of civilizations, one that his own policies will likely intensify, assuming he can figure out what those policies will be.
This has long been a problem for the media covering Trump — namely, that Donald Trump has no plans beyond vague generalities and no interest in the details of his job. As Nancy LeTourneau has reminded us, he has always seemed to be more interested in winning the presidency than in actually being the president. There will always be those of us who are convinced his entire campaign was just a publicity stunt that got out of hand.
This lack of coherence and ability to make reality whatever Trump says it is when he speaks helped handicap the opposition during the campaign. Now that he is about to take office as the president of the United States, this enhances the feeling that there is a vacuum at the top. No one is in charge; there is no real head of state, just a collection of neuroses and insecurities being steered in different directions by . . . well, who knows? His chief of staff, Reince Priebus? His senior adviser, Steve Bannon? His vice president-in-waiting, Mike Pence? His kids?
The only constant is that Trump will take to Twitter or some other forum (like a press availability on the steps of his Florida estate) to make a public pronouncement. When he does, whatever he says will immediately become the marching orders for conservatives in government. With his followers mobilized, suddenly Republicans in Congress will be too terrified of their constituents to say anything more than “Yes, Mr. President.”
Suddenly the House Freedom Caucus, which is made up of Tea Party members supposedly elected to Congress as a backlash against big government spending, will decide that, hey, federal programs need to be only 50 percent paid for, as opposed to the 100 percent they have always insisted on, often to the detriment of a functional government.
In other words, ideology and responsibility (as much as the GOP ever shows, anyway) will be sacrificed to Trump’s paper-thin ego, his massive insecurities and his need to dominate, to always be the alpha male in the room. Every new tweet becomes a reset of reality, leaving the rest of us scrambling to catch up.
Staying a step ahead of Trump is only going to get tougher in the future, not just for reporters but for members of Congress and governmental employees tasked with working with or for this butterscotch-colored lunatic, as well as activists trying to oppose whatever policies his administration will pursue.
The advantage for his allies, though, is that in between his intermittent spurts of attention, they can pretty much do whatever they want — grift, roll back regulations, tweet outlandish conspiracy theories, whatever. And they can do it away from the public eye because media outlets are looking to Trump for signals and not getting much of anything in return.
How to counter all of this? One might normally hold out the hope that elected legislators would push back on the chaos coming from the White House. But it is clear that the Democrats lack organization and the Republicans spines. Media organizations will be kept off balance, chasing Trump's latest nonsensical statement and hungering for the next one. Which leaves the activists and citizens, who will have trouble gaining attention and publicity while the institutions of the political world are flailing around, disorganized and ratings obsessed.
I don’t pretend to have an answer, beyond sitting and waiting for what Trump does next — by which point, the damage may be done. We have four weeks to start figuring out some better approach.