President Donald Trump’s petulant reaction to the death of John McCain could be analyzed only in terms of what it tells us about the president as a person. But the incident also reinforces some of the central themes of his presidency.
Trump continues to abdicate the role of head of state. He rejected a statement drafted by his staff honoring the Arizona senator, and then had White House flags returned to full staff on Monday, instead of leaving them at half-staff as is the normal practice. Trump has a duty to honor McCain not because he liked him (he apparently didn’t) nor because he is impressed by the former Navy pilot’s record of heroism (he isn’t) nor because he respects his the senator’s lifelong commitment to public service (he’s incapable of understanding it). Trump is supposed to honor McCain because it is the president’s role, and the occasion demands it.
Unfortunately, this president still doesn’t seem to understand that his personal feelings are irrelevant to his obligations. Trump thinks he was elected ruler, but in reality he was hired to do a job. And one of the requirements is keeping his mouth shut when he might want to spout off his opinions; another is pretending to respect someone he detests.
The fallout from McCain’s death also demonstrates again just how badly Trump has failed in one of the most basic tasks of the presidency: running the White House.
The president’s decision to withhold a White House proclamation honoring McCain was immediately leaked to the press and written up by the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey. We’ve seen this before: the extraordinary willingness of White House staff to tell reporters things that make the president look bad. In fact, it’s the real subject of Dan Drezner’s epic “Trump as a toddler” twitter thread. As he has explained, what’s remarkable about this administration isn’t so much that Trump acts inappropriately behind closed doors, but that those around him are so willing to let the rest of us know. It’s not unusual for presidential tantrums to eventually wind up in the public record. It is extremely unusual for White House staff to run to the press right away.
Imagine the contempt for Trump from his own aides that is necessary for that to happen.
And Chief of Staff John Kelly never really stopped any of that behavior, though at first he at least succeeded in ridding the White House of some of the most inappropriate hires from the early days of the presidency. Now, it’s been reported (and never really denied) that he’s given up on most of the job, and is only still there to try to prevent any gross foreign policy or military disasters.
Imagine working in an office environment like the one in the White House. The boss is apparently so toxic and inspires so little loyalty that the staff regularly tell tales about him to the press (with the added bonus that the leaks make him that much more paranoid and distrustful).
The boss is also under investigation from multiple law-enforcement agencies, and several of his associates have already been indicted, with some pleading guilty and one found guilty by a jury. Co-workers are apparently running around with recording devices running, either to enrich themselves after they leave office or perhaps to protect themselves from any legal liability.
And as the McCain episode demonstrates, there’s no improvement in sight.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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