The American presidency is a peculiar institution. Its occupant is supposed to be simultaneously head of government and head of state, performing the functions that in most other countries are separated between a prime minister and a monarch or ceremonial president. As head of government, the president can, and sometimes must, be nakedly partisan. But as head of state he is supposed to rise above the muck of politics, serving as a symbol of unity to bring Americans of all political persuasions together.
That is something Ronald Reagan did after the Challenger disaster, Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush did after 9/11, and Barack Obama did after the Charleston church shooting. Perhaps Donald Trump will rise to the occasion after, God forbid, some future tragedy. But so far it’s safe to say that while he doesn’t know how to be an effective president in general, he is especially bad at the ceremonial, non-partisan part of the job. He is always in campaign mode — even when it is highly inappropriate.
Exhibit A was his speech on Monday to the Boy Scouts of America. Instead of using the National Scout Jamboree to offer the assembled adolescents some inspirational rhetoric about the passage to manhood, he instead went after his favorite targets— Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the “fake media” — while extolling the size of his crowds and his impressive achievements in winning the election. At one point he actually had the boys booing Clinton, a former secretary of State, former first lady and the first female major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history. This is an offense not only against good taste but also against the Boy Scout rule forbidding any political activities in uniform.
But it is part of a pattern with Trump. Recall that the day after he was inaugurated, Trump went to speak at CIA headquarters. Good idea, coming after his vicious attacks on the CIA for reporting on Russian election interference. But the stream-of-consciousness speech he delivered — attacking the “dishonest” news media, claiming that the assembled CIA officers had voted for him, bragging about the size of his inauguration crowd and even about how many Time magazine covers he appeared on — was offensively out of place. And all the more so when delivered in front of a wall honoring CIA officers who died in the line of duty.
If you thought Trump had learned something about being presidential in the six months since then, you’d be wrong. On July 6, while in Warsaw, he violated the long-standing foreign policy injunction that domestic “politics stops at the water’s edge” by once again attacking the “fake” news media, the U.S. intelligence community and Obama. His words were especially troubling when delivered in a country where the ruling party, which had embraced him, is seeking to undermine its own rule of law.
Last weekend, at the commissioning of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, Trump blasted Democrats as “obstructionists” and urged his audience — made up primarily of active-duty military personnel and their families — to help him pass a health care bill. “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” he said. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.”
Trump clearly has no idea that military and intelligence personnel are sworn to serve a commander in chief of any party, and that they try to remain above partisan politics. In fact, servicemembers can be court-martialed for taking part in partisan political activity in uniform.
These speeches, of course, barely scratch the surface of Trump’s wildly inappropriate conduct. There are also his notorious tweets flaying the news media, confirming the existence of a secret covert action program, and even calling for a political opponent’s prosecution.
And then there was his infamous New York Times interview last week in which he trashed his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, special counsel Robert Mueller and former FBI director James Comey. Trump made clear that he expects everyone at the Justice Department to give their ultimate allegiance to him, not to the rule of law. Hence he is aggrieved that Sessions acted according to the rules by recusing himself from an investigation of the Trump campaign, in which he was a leading participant.
When Trump was attacked for his calumny against MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, he replied in his favorite communications medium: “My use of social media is not presidential — it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” No doubt he will say something similar if he bothers to notice criticism of his Boy Scouts or aircraft carrier speeches. Trump evidently thinks that norms are for losers, and that he is free to upend all expectations of presidential conduct.
Judging by his record-low approval ratings, most Americans disagree. Trump would have a lot more success if he acted a little more “presidential” in the old-fashioned sense of that word. But that is something he is evidently incapable of doing, no matter how long he stays in office.