The United States ended the first week of 2018 by talking about the mental fitness of its president, thanks to a bombshell book that, among other things, called into account his mental faculties and awareness. We're ending 2018's second week by wondering how much of a racist he is. (Spoiler: A lot.)
In short, this week was not a good one for Trump, in any way, shape or form. Partly this is because over the past week — intentionally or otherwise — we saw President Trump in his natural form again. After spending the latter part of 2017 sheltered from the press, Trump appeared in front of the TV cameras and repeatedly embarrassed himself. How and why did the White House let this happen? Was chief of staff John Kelly on vacation, or suffering from the flu?
Here's a breakdown of what the "very stable genius" did thus week.
On Monday, the president attended the College Football Playoff in Atlanta. Before the event, he stood on the field for the Star Spangled Banner. No doubt the intention was to show the president standing up for the national anthem, unlike all those treasonous (and black) NFL players. But right there, in the middle of the field, next to the flag and a bunch of ROTC members standing at attention, Trump demonstrated the attention span of a 3-year-old. He sang some of the words, ignored (or did not know) some of the others, and showed that he could not stand still for two minutes.
The trip to Georgia was intended to shelter Trump from nagging questions about his mental health. Ironically, it worked: His stumbles and bumbles during the next few days would mean that "doubts about Trump's state of mind," as the Washington Post wrote Monday, wouldn't dominate the headlines.
On Tuesday, the White House tried again to show the president's grasp of policy, this time by allowing cameras to film a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers who had spent far longer than Trump had learning about immigration policy. Trump's ignorance shone through like a beacon, as evidenced by an exchange in which he seemed to agree with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that he should consider an immigration deal that gave adults who came to the country as kids a chance to stay in the nation — even without Trump's signature border wall. Republicans were amazed, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, nearly jumped out of his chair to tell the president what to do.
Trump couldn't avoid the cameras the next day, either, as on Wednesday, the White House tried to do more damage control. This time, Trump was in front of a friendly crowd — his Cabinet. Prior Cabinet meetings have been a chance for Trump's subordinates to make him look strong, even if they do it in a ham-handed way. This time, Trump took to the cameras to give himself a performance review. And not in a "this is what my administration is doing," way; instead the president claimed that his ratings were awesome, and that news anchors had sent him "letters" telling him how good he had looked the day before.
One might have thought the "no cameras" approach the White House took on Thursday would have made things better. But Trump still opened his mouth, and what came out was an outburst of racist drivel that will reverberate throughout America's political history from here until the end of time. (Which may occur next week, to be fair.)
On Friday, Trump stuck to reading a statement off a sheet of paper. No ad-libbing, nothing off the cuff, just a few scripted remarks. He looked bored and lifeless doing it.
This brings us to the dilemma Trump faces. He's not only the president, but as former Obama aide Bull Burton told Salon, he's also responsible for his own brand.
Trump is "making sure that people understand that 'Make America Great Again' is his mantra and his focus and what he is trying to do all day, every day, in this administration," the former White House press secretary told Salon. That was before the revelation that "Make America Great Again" will forever be linked to other countries being called "s**tholes."
For a good chunk of the year, Trump was kept out of the public eye. His messaging was tightly controlled. The press would be allowed into whatever room he was in — an event known as a "pool spray" — and the president was shown doing whatever he appeared to be doing at the time. It took advantage of his ability to act in reality-TV theater.
But that has now created a different set of problems. Leaving the messaging to this White House staff is troubling, considering that Trump's White House is being run by a team that's in completely over its head. When the press office held a conference call, it took them 22 minutes to figure out the "listening-only" feature, which led to animosity with the press. Here's the play-by-play, via CBS News:
"This White House can't even run a f*cking conference call," a reporter on an unmuted phone line angrily exclaimed to the entire call. "They don't know how to mute their line."
"It's the illegitimate media that doesn't know how to conduct themselves. They can't mute their f*cking phones," an unidentified official said. "Mute your phones."
Another White House official repeatedly attempted to quiet the noisy line "so the people in charge" could talk.
"I think if everyone had half a brain and common sense and muted their phones, this wouldn't be a problem," she yelled in an apparent fit of frustration.
There is at least one moment of Trump's presidency when the messaging was right, although it took place before he was even sworn in. Long before the media captured him signing executive orders at his desk or whatever table was nearby, Trump actually appeared presidential. The night before his inauguration, he stood in front of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, seemingly reflecting on the job in front of him.
Say what you will about the president, but that was perfect television scripting. But he couldn't even keep that up for a weekend.
In a perfect world, Trump would have been given the Reagan treatment: Follow the script, go where we tell you and everything will be fine. "Ronald Reagan was the first president of the modern age to perfect using imagery and control of media appearances to project the brand he was trying to project," Burton said. That didn't work for Trump because, unlike a trained actor, he can't follow directions.
The other problem is that Trump's "brand" as president doesn't hold up. Whatever aspects of his personality might otherwise be invisible can be filled in through a cursory glance at his Twitter feed. "He is deeply damaging his brand by giving glimpses of his abject paranoia and insecurities every time he pulls out his iPhone," said Burton.
That brings us back to the question we faced at the beginning of the week: Can the president control himself? Does have the mental ability to understand where he is at any point in time — or the intricacies of his job — and the situational awareness to tell himself not to do things that are going to light him up?
Trump's approval ratings continue to fall, and each day brings new questions about whether he can handle his job. How he answers those questions -- and how we do -- will determine the fate of his presidency.