From the moment Donald Trump went down that golden escalator back in June of 2015 to announce his candidacy, people have been predicting that his improbable foray into politics was on the verge of imploding. There were a dozen disqualifying moments during the campaign, and since he's been president, we've careened from one disaster to another, each time wondering if he's going to survive. The smart money says he does, because he always has.
Having said that, there's a shift taking place in Washington. It may just be the realization setting in that the man we saw on the campaign trail was the real, authentic Donald Trump and he's not going to change. There are too many reports coming from inside the administration on Capitol Hill expressing concern at his behavior to write this off as just another Trump storm that will soon pass. There are alarms going off all over Washington, and it feels different this time.
First there are the reports of Trump having to be handled like a small child because of his moodiness and irrational demands. This part does not surprise me. He showed his puerile temperament on the campaign trail from the beginning. The infantile nicknames, his rage tweets, his narcissism all pointed to someone who was emotionally immature and intellectually in over his head. Here's one example from early in the primary season:
Trump's childish combativeness hasn't changed since he's been president and led to his greatest self-inflicted wound, the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the naming of special counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia investigation.
There is also a growing acknowledgement that Trump doesn't understand the job and isn't able to learn it. This too was obvious before the election. He was up-front about how he does business, admitting that he never bothered with market research or consultants of any kind. According to The Washington Post, back in July of 2016 Trump said he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” He told them that he didn't trust experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees” and "when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do."
No one should have expected that he would be willing or able to learn anything new as president, and he isn't. He believes he is omniscient.
Indeed, we've seen a lot of reports that the president's behavior is getting worse. Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair published an article on Wednesday in which numerous sources told him that the White House is in crisis and that Sen. Bob Corker's comments have "brought into the open what several people close to the president" have told Sherman in private: "that Trump is 'unstable,' 'losing a step,' and 'unraveling.'" He is described as "increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods," particularly since his chosen candidate in the Alabama Senate race, Luther Strange, lost the primary runoff and he began to suspect that "his cult of personality was broken."
Sherman's sources believe that Trump is losing it; there's no other way to put it. And there's reason to think they're right. Even by Trump's standards, he often seems a little bit confused. During Wednesday's press availability with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the president was asked how his lunch on Tuesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went. He replied:
Very good. You mean last week? John, you're so far behind the times. Do you mean today or last week? Because today I didn't have lunch with him.
No, I had a lunch last week, and we had a very good lunch. We have a very good relationship. The press really doesn't understand that, but that's OK. We actually have a very good relationship.
It had been widely reported that Trump had had lunch the previous day with Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, as the reporter in question had said. It was on the president's official schedule and MSNBC's Peter Alexander checked with the White House and was told that the lunch took place. Sherman also reports that the White House doesn't want Trump doing adversarial interviews (such as one with "60 Minutes" that was canceled) because "he's lost a step," which suggests there's something else going on.
On the other hand, Trump has never known what he was talking about and often just lies reflexively for reasons of his own. In fact, Wednesday's NBC report that Trump had suggested increasing the American nuclear arsenal tenfold is a case in point. Back in July, he had looked at a chart of U.S. and Russian nuclear capability over time that showed America’s stockpile at its peak in the late 1960s. He reportedly saw the highest number on the chart, about 32,000 nuclear warheads, and said he wanted that many again.
Trump simply did not understand that decades of painstaking non-proliferation work had brought the U.S. nuclear arsenal down to about 4,000 warheads, more than enough to obliterate the human population of earth. Those present at the meeting didn't perceive Trump's remark as an order, mostly because his response to every item of military capability they brought up was "more, I want more," with no understanding of the specifics.
On Wednesday, Trump denied ever saying he wanted to expand the nuclear arsenal. Yet long before that meeting there was this:
His response to NBC's report, as we've all heard by now, amounted to a frontal assault on the First Amendment. He threatened to withdraw the licenses of NBC TV stations in retaliation for what he (of course) described as "fake news."
It's now widely assumed that Trump is going to declare that Iran is in breach of the nuclear agreement this week and send the issue to Congress to sort out, which pretty much forecloses any more negotiations with North Korea. Abrogation of this nuclear treaty means that it's unlikely any nonproliferation agreement signed by the United States will be considered worth the paper it's printed on from here on out.
For the most part, elected GOP officials remain craven, cowering before the throne and hoping to get their precious tax cuts passed and their right-wing judges seated before Trump hits the nuclear button. But even Trump's close friends are worried enough that they are going public, and dozens of others are speaking to reporters off the record.
There's a cry for help coming from inside the house -- the White House. Everyone can hear it, but nobody can figure out how to disarm the crazy man who's holding the country hostage. He has no intention of surrendering.