The President of the United States has two contradictory public faces, and the nation witnessed both last week in all their confusing and disruptive glory.
Donald Trump delivered a speech before Congress Tuesday that embodied the most effective traditions of his office. He called for unity, commemorated the plight of a military widow and asked his country to embrace its biggest challenges. “The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he said.
Four days later, he veered once again into unprecedented territory, with a Saturday tweet-storm at dawn from his Florida mansion that claimed, without evidence, that President Obama had wiretapped the Trump campaign and that Arnold Schwarzenegger had been fired from the Celebrity Apprentice, a television show that features aging pop stars who compete to make chewing gum jingles. Both Obama and Schwarzenegger disputed Trump’s claims.
These approaches by Trump are impossible to reconcile, but the President appears not to mind the confusion. He has long seen power in contradiction, welcomed the attention that comes with controversy, and shown no shame when his statements are proved false, incendiary or misleading. In fact, his political success has hinged over the past year on his unpredictability, though the tactic appears to be coming under increasing strain now that he has become President.
The Trump who stood to deliver a joint address to Congress is the one most Republican leaders, not to mention most of his senior White House staff, hope will take center stage in the coming months. They see a more presidential Trump as someone who could succeed in rallying his party to pass major tax and health care reform this year, while steadying global concerns about American leadership in the world at a time of turmoil. And they worry that a less disciplined Trump could spark a backlash among voters and weaken his support in Congress.
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But the Trump that tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago compound is the one that Trump has long held most dear, a distracting, outrageous, defiant publicity hound, who plays loose with the facts and pummels his opponents with an improvisational vitriol. And it was this latter version of Trump that proved so successful during his political campaigns. “I can be so presidential,” Trump would often say on the stump, as if the cloak of respectability was a disposable trifle. Tuesday night proved he still has that capacity. Saturday showed he remains unwilling to suppress the other parts of himself.
The quick reversals over the week have once again caused strain and confusion among his senior White House team. Even as they were reading him tweets and pointing out laudatory coverage of his joint address to Congress, Trump’s top staff worried about what would set him off and erase their hard-earned gains with the public, and with Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
These senior advisors describe themselves as frequently torn between serving the President’s instincts and his interests. White House officials are engaged in a daily struggle on everything from his calendar to his policy proposals, between what Trump wants and what they believe best serves him and the country. In recent weeks, they have scrambled to cover for the President when he veers off script and endorses falsehoods. The White House aides were forced to clarify Trump’s false claims about recent violence in Sweden, and have tried to explain away his baseless claim of 3 million undocumented residents committing voter fraud as a “long-standing belief,” albeit one that even White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to personally endorse.
Staffers were caught blindsided by the President’s wiretapping charge Saturday, with lawyers and communications aides huddling to determine what they could and couldn’t say on such a sensitive law enforcement subject.
Instead of repeating the claim as a fact, Spicer released a statement asking for Congressional investigation. “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted,” Spicer wrote in the statement. Hours later, another White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, appeared on ABC News to describe the wiretapping claim as a suspicion, without endorsing it as a fact. “If this happened, if this is accurate, this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal,” she said.
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The former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, denied any wiretapping by intelligence agencies or the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the Obama presidency. “There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the President-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. Justice Department rules prohibit the White House from intervening in criminal investigations, and any wiretapping would only be legally permissible with judicial review and a show of cause.
Trump had complained to aides on Friday that they had failed to properly handle the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had undisclosed contacts with the Russian Ambassador during the campaign, which prompted Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election. The Saturday tweets appeared to follow a pattern of creating a new firestorm to distract from what he sees as damaging publicity. When hundreds of thousands protested on in Washington the day after his inauguration, Trump made false claims about the number of people who had attended his event on the National Mall, and attacked the press for misreporting the numbers.
The changing public postures may have been driven in part by the change in location. Trump’s weekend retreats to Mar-a-Lago, where he is surrounded by hundreds of well-heeled petitioners and cheerleaders, provide him with his most unfiltered criticism and guidance. Aides have come to appreciate the interludes they provide at the White House to get work done, but have come to dread the occasional wild idea or grievance he brings back after conversations with his friends.
Unlike the White House, where aides have taken to occupying Trump to try to lessen the frequency of his outbursts, in Florida his eruptions have intensified. Two people who were in Florida with the President this weekend told TIME that he remained agitated during his stay.
The result is a presidency that is unlikely to follow a coherent path anytime soon.