Donald Trump is “unglued.” He is “unraveling.” This time is “different.” The president’s advisers are “scared” as he is “spiraling, lashing out, just out of control.” “Pure madness,” says one Trump ally. “We haven’t bottomed out,” warns another.
These quotes refer to the political events from last week, which, even by Trump’s standards for unhinged and irrational behavior, were impressive.
From all accounts, the president imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, potentially sparking a global trade war, largely out of pique. He ignored key advisers and didn’t have his decision vetted. Indeed, his White House is so chaotic that even his own staff had no idea what policy he would announce on Thursday morning — and appear to have been caught by surprise when he spontaneously announced it.
Trump again attacked his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and even became enraged at Sessions’ “disloyalty” when he had the temerity to defend himself against Trump’s latest broadside.
As for what set Trump off, the testimony of communications director Hope Hicks to Congress, in which she said that she’d told “white lies” on behalf of the president, was a key spark. So too is the growing legal noose around his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In all of the accounts from last week’s meltdown, Trump is variously depicted as isolated, paranoid, angry, and delusional.
While I can certainly understand why media observers might view last week as a new low, even for this president, it’s worth asking a variation of a soon-to-be topical question: How is this week different from all other weeks?
Was Trump “unglued” when he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate treaty back in June, against the advice of most of his key aides? How about when he threatened North Korea with the possible use of his “nuclear button?”
Was he “unraveling” last March when he accused President Obama of wiretapping him? Was he “spiraling” when he refused to condemn neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
How about when he said that if he’d known Jeff Sessions would have recused himself from the Russia investigation he would have never made him attorney general, which for all intents and purposes means he was criticizing Sessions for not obstructing justice on his behalf?
What about that time Trump basically admitted on national television that he fired Comey over the Russia investigation, in effect admitting to committing obstruction of justice?
What of the hundreds of tweets that highlight Trump’s ignorant, conspiratorial, and bullying nature?
Maybe this time is different; maybe Trump has waded even further into full-fledged crazy territory.
Or maybe we’ve all become so inured to Trump’s relentless debasement of our basic democratic norms that we’ve lost all perspective on the collective toll his presidency has already taken.
I can still remember, two months ago, when Trump referred to sub-Saharan African and Latin American countries as “shitholes,” and this seemed like a new bottom. Guess again. It’s been nearly six weeks since we found out Trump wanted to fire Mueller, and no steps have been taken by Congress to protect the special counsel’s investigation. These stories have largely been forgotten, overtaken instead by new outrages, new disgraces, and new scandals. Remember Rob Porter? No one in the White House appears to have paid any price for allowing access by a credibly accused domestic abuser with a temporary security clearance to highly classified material and daily access to the president. Jared Kushner, who has been stripped of his top-level clearance, still has a job.
Quite simply, there is no rock bottom for Trump to hit in which he realizes the error of his ways and shifts course. Rather, the Trump presidency is like one of those free-falling amusement park rides, but this one never ends.
I understand the impulse to cover the latest temper tantrum from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s like rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash on the highway — and I’m as guilty as the next person. But stories of Trump’s “unraveling” are no longer surprising or even notable. Until Congress or Trump’s staff is ready to do something about the unstable man in the Oval Office, we’re going to keep having weeks like last week over and over again.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.