Week One of the Trump administration was among the most alarming in the history of the American presidency.
There have been scarier weeks for the country, certainly — the Cuban missile crisis and the Sept. 11 attacks. There have been more tragic ones — the Sept. 11 attacks again, the terrible toll of wartime, the horror of four presidential assassinations.
There have been occasions of terrible presidential judgment — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order to detain U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II. And there have been moments of looming constitutional crisis — during Watergate alone, the Saturday Night Massacre, the showdown with the Supreme Court over the release of the tapes, the impeachment inquiry that resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation.
But the first week of the Trump presidency was alarming in a different way, because the frightening part involved the president’s own erratic, even bizarre, behavior.
Anyone who paid even glancing attention to the 2016 campaign already understood Donald Trump to be undisciplined, easily provoked and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. But it was one thing to know that in theory; it was much more unsettling to witness President Trump in action. In depressing retrospect, the dark inaugural address, with its invocation of “carnage” and “tombstones,” was the week’s high point.
On the new president’s agenda when he woke up the next morning, The Post’s Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin reported, was an angry phone call with the acting director of the National Park Service. Peeved over reports about inauguration crowd size, Trump ordered up new photographs of the event.
That was followed by Trump’s extraordinary performance at the CIA where, before a wall honoring fallen employees, he once again boasted of his intellect (“trust me, I’m, like, a smart person”); falsely blamed the media (“among the most dishonest human beings on Earth”) for inventing his feud with the intelligence community; complained about coverage of his inauguration crowds (“We caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they’re going to pay a big price”). And, oh yes, lamented that the United States did not “keep the oil” in Iraq even as he dangerously observed, “Maybe you’ll have another chance.”
And so it went, each day feeling scarier than the one before, and Trump’s sycophantic aides modeling his own fact-free rants — press secretary Sean Spicer’s falsehood-filled briefing-room tirade, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway’s brazen defense of “alternative facts,” chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s brutish admonition to the media to “keep its mouth shut.”
Trump himself outdid his petty obsession with crowd size with his delusional obsession with popular-vote fraud, first behind closed doors with incredulous congressional leaders , then for all the world to watch in his ABC interview. What was once delusional ego-salving now appears headed for official inquiry.
This is ominous not only for the implicit threat of imposing new and unnecessary obstacles to voting, but also because it means that no one, neither American citizens nor foreign leaders, can believe the president of the United States when he makes an assertion. Meantime, the destabilizing cost of Trump’s behavior manifested itself with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s abrupt cancellation of his trip to Washington.
You will notice that my lament about the week is largely devoid of ideological content. That is not because his policy moves are not appalling — they are. But you don’t have to disagree with Trump’s policies to be rattled to the core by his unhinged behavior. Many congressional Republicans privately express concerns that range from apprehension to outright dread.
There have been reasons to worry about other presidents’ mental health. Lyndon B. Johnson’s senior aides were so concerned about his behavior that they consulted psychiatrists. Nixon in the throes of Watergate was drunk and unstable, so much so that his defense secretary, James Schlesinger, reportedly ordered the military not to respond to White House orders without approval from him or the secretary of state. Still, other presidents’ outbursts occurred behind closed doors, and there was some hope that aides would intervene. Trump’s inner circle seems divided between enablers and inciters.
What is to be done? In a meeting last week with The Post editorial board, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight Committee, said he was weighing legislation to require presidents to undergo an independent medical examination, including for mental health. Chaffetz cautioned that he wasn’t “talking about some of the rhetoric that’s flying around” about Trump. Still, he said, “If you’re going to have your hands on the nuclear codes, you should probably know what kind of mental state you’re in.”
That can’t happen soon enough.
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