"I have an organization but it's largely myself," Donald Trump confided to the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in early 2016, acknowledging that his bare-bones presidential campaign was essentially a one-man show.
Trump has always described his eponymous business as an "organization" too, even though it was a disorganized, bankruptcy-prone Tilt-a-Whirl ride catering to the whims and needs of him alone. And the Trump who ran a business and a campaign built on ego and intuition rather than teamwork and strategy wasn't going to be transformed by the responsibilities and powers that enveloped him once he landed in the Oval Office.
In a word, President Trump was never going to become "presidential." It was inevitable instead that he would find himself most interested in frequenting the corridors of power that allowed him to operate independently. That's not an uncommon phenomenon for presidents, but in Trump's case it's uniquely perilous because no president in the modern era has been as ill-informed, unhinged and undisciplined as the current one. None has been as needy, nor as willing to playact without remorse while making the most consequential of decisions.
To help demonstrate the point, Trump has given the world a trifecta of sorts in recent weeks involving trade with Mexico, a military strike in Iran, and government raids on the homes of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Trump launched all three episodes with public threats and bravado showcased on Twitter, embroidered them with promises of imminent and decisive action, and tethered them to the notion that complex challenges can be solved with blunt force wielded by a single man. He then abruptly abandoned all three provocations just before they were to take effect.
In early June, Trump threatened, via Twitter, to impose onerous tariffs on Mexico if it failed to help solve the immigration and humanitarian crisis spilling over from Central America and into the U.S. His own political party and the business community brought him to heel within a week and he abandoned the tariff threat on the eve of imposing it. Mexico didn't agree to substantially change any new policing activities along the border. But in the few days that his threat stood, Trump managed to destabilize financial markets and nearly upended a global trade and supply chain that supported legions of businesses and millions of people on both sides of the border.
Last Thursday, Trump noted on Twitter that "Iran made a very big mistake!" when it shot down a U.S. drone that Iran claimed had crossed into its airspace. Later that same day the president authorized a military strike against the country, only to call it off when, reportedly, he became aware that as many as 150 might be killed. While Trump is now embracing tougher economic sanctions against Iran, he has exposed deep divisions among his national security and military advisers. He's also proven himself to be dangerously unpredictable to allies whose help he still needs if he wants to see substantial long-term changes gain traction in Iran and the rest of the Middle East.
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To top it off, Trump barely gave observers time to digest his abandoned military strikes before he engaged in a bit of Orwellian doublespeak. "I never called the strike against Iran 'BACK,' as people are incorrectly reporting," he said on Twitter on Saturday. "I just stopped it from going forward at this time!"
The same day – on Twitter, of course – Trump said he also had decided to postpone raids on the homes of about 2,000 undocumented immigrant families living in the U.S. who had already received deportation orders. This came on the heels of Trump's threats earlier in the week – made just before he traveled to Florida to kick off his 2020 presidential campaign – to deport "millions" of immigrants (a figure that vastly overstated what his immigration officials were considering, but might have been reassuring for Trump's political base to hear).
Trump said he postponed the raids because Democrats had asked him to wait so they could discuss other policy options with him. But the postponement was also reportedly due, in part, to concerns that Trump's telegraphing of specifics about the raids had jeopardized the safety of immigration officers and the welfare of children potentially caught up in the sweeps.
In any event, the brinksmanship and escalation that marked Trump's public blustering on tariffs and Iran had a decidedly more obscene quality when deployed against a population of migrants left vulnerable and rootless by the drug wars and economic uncertainty that have engulfed much of Central America. The president's vacillating, set against a backdrop of an administration already under fire for separating migrant families at the southern border and jailing children and teenagers in squalid detention centers, may harden both sides in the border debate and prevent Congress from overhauling immigration laws in tandem with the White House.
Expect Trump's cartwheeling to continue. It's who he is. The only real difference between what he's doing now and what he was doing in his businesses decades ago is who it affects. Long ago, his bungling harmed his investors and employees and some of the communities in which he operated. It was troubling, but the damage was limited. Now Trump inhabits the presidency and the radius of potential wreckage is global.