Call Donald Trump an egomaniac, call him a showoff. Point out that he seems to revel in insult and outrage. The thing is, he might just agree.
The uniqueness of the 45th U.S. president extends to his pride in his brazenly unconventional persona. Trump doesn’t just admit to a litany of flaws and actions that would sink an ordinary politician. He delights in them.
On Sunday, 72-year-old Trump reaches the halfway mark of his presidency’s first term. So far he has turned the White House into the planet’s most gripping theater—and don’t expect any intermission.
“The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere. I’ve had fun doing it and will continue to have fun.”
So Trump told Playboy magazine back in 1990, when he was the young, lurid prince of New York real estate. He could just have easily been speaking today.
For two years Trump has alternately horrified and electrified. He’s upset solid alliances, embraced confirmed enemies and dared to take on China in a trade war. Against all the odds, he’s transformed himself—in the eyes of devoted supporters, at least—from billionaire playboy to man of the people.
Along the way, he’s become the first president to appear regularly in headlines alongside porn stars, Russian spies and fast food chains. And he’s become a master of what one senior aide nicely termed “alternative facts.”
According to The Washington Post’s running Fact Check tally, Trump made 7,645 misleading or plain untrue statements by the end of 2018. That’s almost 11 a day. And that was just Act One.
As Trump shifts attention to reelection in 2020, his hardball tactic of shuttering nearly a million government jobs to pressure opposition Democrats into funding his Mexico border wall project shows he’ll stop at nothing.
Something even more dramatic, though, may stop him—the still secret report from special prosecutor Robert Mueller on the Trump team’s links with Russia.
Impeachment? Resignation? Constitutional crisis or mere scandal? No one knows anything except for the obvious: in Trump’s Washington, anything could happen. “Trump is a president without precedent in the history of the United States,” says American University professor Allan Lichtman.
One of the country’s foremost presidential experts, Lichtman reels off a dramatic list: “We never before have had a president who continually and routinely lies to the American people about matters big and small,” he says. “We have never before had a president who makes it a practice to undermine the institutions of American democracy, including the free press, the law enforcement and intelligence communities, and the judiciary. We never before had a presidency who has been under investigation as a possible agent of a hostile foreign power.”
The start to his third year in office finds Trump isolated and angry—“all alone [poor me] in the White House,” as he tweeted over Christmas.
Democrats are refusing to back the border wall, the main campaign promise in his surprise 2016 election victory. And heavyweight advisers keep walking away, leaving him ever more dependent on daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who double as top aides.
Trump backer Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor, says the president is surrounded by “amateurs, grifters, weaklings” and “felons.”
Trump’s presidency hit a nadir this week when he was forced to answer to a report the FBI had opened an investigation into whether he was under Moscow’s control. “I never worked for Russia,” he told journalists furiously in an extraordinary moment on the South Lawn.
No less stunning, in another way, was the fast food feast Trump served up that same evening for the national college football champions, the Clemson Tigers. The bizarre scene combining a beaming president and mountains of Big Macs, pizzas and fries in the White House’s gilded State Dining Room sparked howls of derision from Trump’s many opponents. But Trump was once more showing himself to be different to regular politicians and true to his maverick instincts—the very characteristics that helped him win in 2016 and which continue to endear him to his rightwing base.
From day one, Trump’s playbook has been to tear up etiquette, disrupt, speak his mind even if it means offending, and never, ever apologize. Or, as he said in 2015, apologize in the “distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
The turmoil began right at the inauguration with a weird row over Trump’s claim to have drawn a far bigger crowd than appeared in photographs. From there, Trump never looked back, alternately sparring on Twitter with pornographic actress Stormy Daniels and lashing out against the Mueller “witch hunt,” or claiming that America faces “invasion” by Central American killers.
On the international stage, he got on famously with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and found an easy rapport with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, fueling chatter back in Washington about his marked sympathy for dictators and strongmen.
There was also a strong personal bond with China’s Xi Jinping, or there was until Trump unleashed a trade war he believes other presidents should have started years ago. “He may not be a friend of mine anymore,” Trump now says of Xi in his typically undiplomatic fashion.
America’s oldest allies, meanwhile, fared less well. Trump left the Group of Seven shaken after angry exchanges with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and he sent alarm through Europe when he repeatedly attacked NATO as a dinosaur sucking up U.S. resources.
And those interacting on a daily basis with Trump in Washington got the roughest ride of all. “Dumb as a rock,” “Stupid,” “Horseface” and “lowlife” are just a few of the hundreds of jibes leveled at those around him or getting in his way while in office.
Americans can’t say they’re surprised, not when Trump boasted gleefully in mid-campaign that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Although new to politics, he’s been a fixture in the country’s consciousness for decades.
First came the legend of his real estate prowess, a giddy tale of skyscrapers, private jets, ruthlessness and high living celebrated in the hit TV reality show The Apprentice. Then came his “birther” obsession, claiming that Barack Obama was not born on U.S. soil and therefore could not be a legal president. The relentless campaign—seen by many as thinly veiled racism—essentially got Trump’s foot in the presidential election door.
Whether the carefully tended image matched reality is an open question.
Apprentice participants now say that the cool, decisive tycoon portrayed by Trump on the show was largely a fiction created by editing.
Another pillar of the Trump mythology—his self-praising autobiographical book The Art of the Deal—was in fact penned by a ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz. Schwartz has since spoken regretfully about “the monster I helped to create.”
Even Trump’s much touted fortune may not be quite what it seems. According to a New York Times investigation, Trump is no self-made billionaire but rather the lucky benefactor of dodgy tax schemes and inherited money. At the same time, there’s a remarkable consistency to Trump that neither the decades nor the presidency have changed.
Go back to the 1990 Playboy interview and you have a preview of today’s aggressive trade policies targeting everywhere from China to old allies in Europe and Japan. “I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products, and we’d have wonderful allies again,” he said, at that point still a quarter century from becoming president. His love of bragging hasn’t changed much either. “Nothing wrong with ego,” he said. “People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more.”
Trump’s easy ride in the first two years of his administration ended with Democratic victory in midterm congressional elections, meaning he now faces an opposition with teeth. That and the looming Russia probe report signal fierce battles to come.
Although Trump constantly dismisses the Mueller investigation as a “hoax,” it has already proved to be anything but, unearthing solid evidence of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and a multitude of contacts between Trump’s team and Russian representatives.
Trump may survive and get reelected, or not, but whatever his fate he has already left an outsized mark on the highest office in the land.
Back when a successful Trump presidential run still sounded like a joke, comedians used to speculate on him transforming the elegant White House into another gaudy, Trump-branded palace. That hasn’t happened. But has the U.S. presidency itself been permanently altered?
Allan Lichtman thinks not, saying “Trump has not shifted the goalposts forever.” Or at least not yet. “If Trump is reelected,” Lichtman says, “then all bets are off.”