WASHINGTON — Tweet. Downplay. Denounce. Repeat.
The cycles of chaos and rhetorical attacks that have been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidency reached another peak this week, forcing a rare public appearance Thursday by chief of staff John Kelly, who appeared before the White House press corps in a bid to smooth the waters.
Speaking publicly for the first time in months, the retired Marine general dismissed reports that he was unhappy in his White House job and that he was on the verge of quitting or being fired. He sought to give the impression that all was normal in recent days while the president was publicly feuding on Twitter with the National Football League, all of Puerto Rico, his own secretary of state, and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee — to name just a few.
“He’s a straightforward guy, the president is,” Kelly said. “When members of Congress say things that are unfair or critical, the president has a right to defend himself.”
He dismissed Trump’s critics, saying they “kind of enjoy the attention.”
“Some people grandstand,” Kelly said.
Over the past 10 days, Trump has suggested NBC’s broadcasting license should be revoked for critical reporting he considers “fake”; called on his supporters to boycott the NFL over player protests concerning police brutality; and said he might challenge Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to an IQ test — and would surely win if he did.
And in a string of tweets Thursday, Trump seemed to suggest that federal emergency teams in Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria, may soon be withdrawn. This despite the continuing dire situation on the island, where residents — who are American citizens — remain without access to basic necessities.
“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Trump tweeted at 5 a.m.
The consolation for the American public and the nation’s allies abroad may be that this week, at least, Trump has not threatened to destroy North Korea.
Prominent Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan struggled to explain the president’s personal attacks on lawmakers.
“It’s what he does,’’ Ryan told NBC. “We’ve kind of learned to live with it.’’
Ben Carson, who leads the Department of Health and Human Services, publicly disagreed with the president about hurricane relief, during testimony in front of House members.
“We’re not going to abandon [Puerto Rico],” Carson said Thursday. “And I don’t think it’s beneficial to go around shaming people.”
In the last week, Trump and Corker volleyed Twitter insults at each other, which included the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee calling the White House an “adult day care center.” Around the same time, reports emerged that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” after the president, according to some news reports, sought a tenfold increase in America’s nuclear arsenal.
“The more often the president goes on TV or on Twitter and talks about Bob Corker or John McCain or Mitch McConnell or Ben Sasse or Rex Tillerson or Jeff Sessions . . . it is not helping move the substantive agenda forward,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former senior aide to Corker and director of national security law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.
Other Washington observers mentioned something more dire — a president who they fear is increasingly irrational.
“The glow of having won that upset election and having become president has worn off,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “And since it’s worn off, what’s he have left? Lots of problems, no easy solutions, and a whole bunch of enemies that he’s made on purpose.”
Tony Schwartz, who cowrote with Trump the 1987 bestseller “Trump: The Art of the Deal” but is now a fierce critic, said he believes the president has become more unhinged since Election Day.
“Trump’s grip on reality is spiraling down into paranoia and delusion,” Schwartz tweeted. “The core question now is whether Trump will blow up his presidency before he blows us up.”
There is no way to know what triggered the president’s recent cycle of behavior. There is certainly evidence that he is angry about news coverage of his performance. He has come under fire for his administration’s handling of Puerto Rico, instead of being hailed for relief efforts during his post-hurricane trip. Reports have leaked out of the White House that he was “furious’’ about Tillerson’s “moron’’ statement. The public also was treated to a public tiff between Trump’s current and third wife, Melania, and his first, Ivana, over Ivana’s use of the term “first lady.’’
“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” Trump wrote on Twitter this week. “Not fair to public!”
This even frustrated some Republicans, many of whom have a personal stake in the president’s success. Conservative radio pundit Charlie Sykes recently said he does not believe Trump is “stable.”
Republican Senator Ben Sasse spoke out against Trump’s antipress comments. Sasse, of Nebraska, reminded the president in a statement that the media’s right to exist comes squarely from the First Amendment.
“Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?” Sasse said in statement posted on Twitter.
However, it is unclear what impact, if any, Trump’s Twitter tantrums will have on his legislative agenda. There’s a quiet consensus that his personal attacks on key GOP lawmakers have hurt his relationship with Congress. But whether it emboldens Republicans to buck the party line on key issues remain to be seen.
Republicans can afford to lose only two votes in the Senate to pass crucial legislation such as a tax overhaul – a package that many Republicans see as a matter of political necessity after they failed to make good on years of promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Corker, who recently announced he doesn’t plan to run for reelection in 2018, may not be as motivated by the political necessity of passing a tax overhaul as some of his colleagues. Some fear Trump’s recent string of personal attacks could push the Tennessee senator to buck Trump’s agenda.
“Either Trump realizes that Corker can sink the remainder of the Trump/GOP legislative effort and is upset by that reality, or he didn’t/doesn’t know and just made it a reality,” said Chris Krueger, a political analyst with the Cowen Washington Research Group, in a recent note to clients. “Either way, we see ZERO upside for the budget process/tax reform in this Twitter-tantrum.”
This is not a universal view. Other Republicans say it’s unlikely that Trump’s recent behavior will carry real policy implications, that Trump wages these personal battles at random and so often that their practical impact is slight.
“Bob Corker is going to vote his conscience on tax reform and it is going to have nothing to do with whether Donald Trump is tweeting mean things or nice things at him,” said Jaffer, the former Corker aide.
John Feehery, Republican communications strategist, said he was also skeptical the behavior would have a legislative impact. At the end of the day, Feehery said, all congressional Republicans know the tax overhaul is a must-pass bill — regardless of Trump’s Twitter habits.
“Republicans have to understand . . . if they don’t band together and pass tax reform, it’s bad for all establishment candidates, it’s bad for incumbents,” Feehery said.