In the past few days, as President Trump’s rage-tweeting has grown more erratic and littered with capital letters, news organizations have come up with multiple delicate ways to hint that he’s showing unusual levels of mental strain. Trump has been acting “rattled and encircled.” He has been “nursing past grievances” while “seeing enemies everywhere.” He’s newly given to “scattershot” outbursts and feels “isolated” and “under siege.”
On Wednesday, Trump will travel to Ohio in what will be his first visit since the GOP’s 2018 bloodbath to a state that is crucial to his reelection hopes. Trump’s political team will hype the visual of Trump touting the economy in this industrial Midwestern state.
Yet what’s going on in Ohio is plainly nagging at Trump very deeply. The closing of a GM plant in Lordstown is one of the things that prompted the barrage of bizarre tweets that inspired all the veiled hints that Trump is feeling more unsettled than usual.
It’s an interesting paradox of this moment that these signs of strain are emerging right when Trump and his allies are redoubling efforts to create the impression that he’s winning everywhere and has everything totally under control.
Trump, his team proclaims, is presiding over a gangbusters economy heading into 2020. He’s boasting that his border wall is getting built. His advisers are leaking word that the special counsel’s underwhelming findings will allow him to unleash a fearsome, table-turning political offensive. His aides are crowing that they’re stonewalling Democratic investigations.
Yet on every one of these fronts, if you peek behind the facade, serious trouble is lurking.
Trouble in Ohio
First, Ohio. When Trump raged about the Lordstown plant, he insisted this shouldn’t be happening “in one of the greatest economies in our history.” Yet this boast undermines itself: If this is such a great economy, why should one plant closing matter politically?
One answer is that Trump made it matter. He has repeatedly touted his efforts to reverse individual plant closings, which has now left Trump convinced that he can’t allow this one to close. A local union leader has claimed that many Trump-backing autoworkers are waking up and understanding that he isn’t delivering as promised — indeed, that’s one thing that set Trump off this time. Worse, experts say Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs are already hurting the industry and local manufacturing.
Trump’s own metric — placing too much significance on individual plant closings — and his inability to foresee the damage from tariffs represent a failure to understand the complexities of global supply chains. Thus, Trump’s unwillingness to inform himself about these complexities created the petard on which he is now being hoisted.
On top of that, Politico now reports that Trump is moving closer to slapping massive tariffs on imported automobiles, and that officials have told him he can justify this in the name of national security. But many of his own advisers are desperately trying to stop this, arguing it could alienate allies, and industry watchers say it could cost untold jobs.
As one expert puts it: “The reality is auto tariffs would put Ohio in a recession.” Trump may refrain. But at best, his administration is in turmoil about what to do, and at worst, he may actively make the situation much worse. All this may not cost Trump Ohio. But remember, in part due to his trade policies, Republicans lost all six statewide races in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — which are also crucial to his reelection hopes.
Trump’s imaginary wall won’t help him
Second, the border. Trump’s advisers have instructed his supporters to chant “Finish the wall,” rather than “Build the wall,” to sustain the lie that the wall is actually being built, something he often falsely tweets himself.
But trouble lurks here as well. The Post recently reported that not only is the influx of migrant families swelling; officials expect that to keep ballooning next month. This would again reveal Trump’s toughness-as-deterrence to be failing. And remember, Trump himself erupted in a fury when this happened last spring, precisely because he sees this as a metric by which his presidency will be judged a failure.
False bravado from Team Trump
Finally, the investigations. Trump’s political team is making a big show of plans to go on offense if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings underwhelm. And his advisers are claiming that when they successfully block House Democratic investigations, it will excite his supporters.
But, while it’s true that Democratic investigations will face tough sledding, this reeks of false bravado. As CNN’s Stephen Collinson reports, the latest filings from Mueller’s team reveal that even after his probe wraps up, multiple other outside investigations will continue “penetrating deep into Trump’s business, personal, and political life” for “years to come.”
Trump, for instance, is still implicated in the criminal hush money scheme carried out by Michael Cohen. Trump’s former lawyer testified that Trump had gamed his assets for fraudulent purposes, leading the New York attorney general to launch a separate investigation into Trump projects.
And as NBC News’s Ken Dilanian reports, even absent further charges, Mueller may still have collected much evidence on Trump’s dealings with Russia — and on whether he is compromised — as part of the counterintelligence investigation (as opposed to the criminal one) his team has been pursuing for years. Legal experts tell Dilanian this matters because those findings must be turned over to Congress, meaning Trump will not keep them suppressed — and that Democratic investigations will get a big assist, in potentially explosive fashion.
Reflecting on all the legal travails Trump will continue to face, former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi told MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace:
“He is looking at the destruction of his organization, his foundation, certainly his presidency and its legacy, and possibly even criminal exposure for family members. He should be worried every day. And there’s certainly evidence from his behavior that he is.”
That’s a simple explanation for Trump’s unusually unsettled state, and sometimes the simplest explanations are the right ones. We’d only add that this applies beyond his legal travails, and on all these other fronts as well.