Trump is just not very good at this

My twitter feed was all alight yesterday with the ridiculous letter that Trump sent to Erdogan.  Jon Bernstein builds off this to clearly make the case at just how stunningly incompetent Trump is at being president:

Every once in a while, some event offers a clarifying reminder of the president’s poor judgment. On Wednesday, it was the release of a letter Trump wrote to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The letter itself was an embarrassment, in which Trump, soon after telling Erdogan on the phone that U.S. forces would move out of his way to enable Turkey’s invasion of Syria, tried to walk things back. Sort of. As Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman put it at the Monkey Cage, the president opted for “threatening rhetoric reminiscent of a Mafia boss” to “make loud threats that he may not be able to deliver on.” As soon as the letter was published, professional diplomats and historians said they had never seen something so amateurish from a U.S. president.

But what really underlined Trump’s problem for me wasn’t that he wrote an incompetent letter to follow up on what seems to have been an incompetent phone call. Or that his Syria policy, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake notes, has resulted in chaos and death. Or that, on a crass political level, he’s managed to alienate his congressional allies just as he needs them most, with House Republicans voting overwhelmingly on Wednesday to condemn his decision.

No, what really got to me was that Trump distributed copies of this letter to congressional leaders when they showed up at the White House for a briefing. Think of it. Even if the letter had been perfectly normal, what Trump was handing them was an Oct. 9 request to Erdogan to halt his invasion — a request that Erdogan has, as we’ve seen, totally ignored. Trump was bragging about what he considered to be a sign of his own brilliance without realizing that it was instead evidence of abject failure.

This isn’t new, of course. Trump still brags about how the 2018 election was a glorious victory for Republicans (it wasn’t). He brags that a published summary of his call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy cleared him of wrongdoing (it incriminated him). And on and on. The thing is, it’s possible for others within the political system to deal with a liar. But how do you deal with a president who can’t tell the difference between victories and losses? Someone for whom normal incentives don’t apply because he doesn’t seem to realize when things are going badly?

Every president has policy fiascoes at some point. Every president slumps in the polls. Every president makes hiring decisions that go wrong. But normal presidents, most of the time, recognize their errors — even if they don’t admit them publicly — and work hard to improve things. Trump, to be blunt, doesn’t. It’s destroying his presidency, and damaging the nation.

On a kind of related note, Bloomberg has a very aggressive paywall, but lets you get all the Bernstein you want for free in a daily email.  I’m glad I subscribed to it.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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