Supporters of President Trump have long hoped he could rise to the occasion and provide calm, unifying leadership. Two recent letters from him and his campaign show how impossible that hope is.

The first note, sent by the White House to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), is simply childish. Written in response to a note from Schumer asking the president to invoke the Defense Production Act to direct more manufacturing of key equipment needed to fight the coronavirus, Trump’s note starts by calling Schumer’s request a “Democrat public relations letter.” It descends from there to attack the minority leader for pursuing “the ridiculous impeachment hoax” and mention rumors that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) might primary Schumer in 2022. The putative leader of the free world concludes by saying “I’ve known you for many years, but I never knew how bad a Senator you are for the state of New York, until I became President.”

This is a grown man’s version of third-grade playground taunts. Let’s grant that Schumer’s note might have had political motives and that he always intended to leak Trump’s reply to the media. There’s a reason that a long-standing joke in Washington says “the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a camera.” This still does not excuse Trump’s words.

Trump could, and should, have replied sharply while using courteous language. Cite the facts, defend your decisions and move on. Writing a carefully worded note exposing Schumer’s somewhat transparent political motives would have reduced the matter to normal political disputation or made the senator look foolish. Marc Antony’s classic funeral oration from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is a masterpiece of how to cut a political opponent to ribbons while staking the high moral ground. Instead of taking that route, Trump did what he too often does: go straight to the gutter and make people wince with shame.

The second note didn’t come from Trump himself, but it displayed all of the president’s lack of class. This letter was sent to former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who is running to regain his old Senate seat in Alabama. Sessions was taunted by Trump for a long time before being dismissed for his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Sessions, nonetheless, knows that Trump’s voters hold the key to his return to the Senate. He has thus tried to thread the needle by expressing his support for Trump and his agenda despite the president’s decision to endorse Sessions’s opponent in the Republican primary, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville.

This is an old political tactic. Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and now-former candidate Mike Bloomberg both employed it during the early primaries, using past associations with President Barack Obama to claim his legacy and support for their own. Trump could, and should, have simply restated his current support for Tuberville, and perhaps wade deeper into the Alabama contest by reiterating his opposition to Sessions.

Instead, the chief operating officer for Trump’s reelection campaign wrote to Sessions demanding that he and his campaign stop making claims that “wrongly suggest” Trump is backing Sessions. The letter called Sessions “delusional” and accused the former attorney general of trying to “confuse President Trump’s loyal supporters in Alabama into believing the President supports your candidacy in the upcoming primary run-off election.” Like the letter to Schumer, this note takes the focus off Sessions and places it squarely on Trump and his campaign’s mean-spirited words.

Trump is right to fight back against his critics rather than take their blows without complaint. Past Republican leaders often did this and gained nothing. Their good manners were like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Too often, though, Trump brings a bomb instead. His verbal bomb explodes, damaging his target but also himself. That collateral damage to his reputation is one of the biggest reasons why he is disliked and distrusted by so many Americans.

I’ve long hoped that a president who so clearly seeks to convey an image of virile masculinity could just grow up and become a real man. Instead, he is what he is: a deeply flawed man who nonetheless often does things that I and many others believe are in the nation’s interest. Unfortunately, those flaws are hurting his ability to lead us through this crisis just when we need him the most.

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