President Trump spent much of last week obsessed with proving that he was right to claim on Sept. 1 that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian — a claim immediately (and accurately) contradicted by the National Weather Service office in Birmingham. A normal president would have simply said, “I hadn’t realized that the hurricane projections had changed by the time I spoke,” and moved on to more important matters of state. Not Trump. He has devoted 12 tweets — and counting — to insist that his false information was factual. He even held up a weather map clumsily altered with a Sharpie to claim vindication.
Coming after a report that Trump was interested in nuking hurricanes, Sharpiegate has contributed to concerns that the most powerful man in the world is losing his marbles. Business Insider quotes “one former White House official” saying, “No one knows what to expect from him anymore . . . He’s losing his s---” and a “Republican strategist who’s in frequent contact with the White House” saying: “He’s deteriorating in plain sight.” Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci says, “The guy is obviously in mental decline.”
I agree with former Republican White House aide Peter Wehner, who argues in the Atlantic that “Trump’s disordered personality — his unhealthy patterns of thinking, functioning, and behaving — has become the defining characteristic of his presidency.” But I disagree with those who insist that Trump is getting worse. Maybe he is, but those who say this conveniently forget how bad he was from the very beginning.
This was, after all, a president who suggested that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination, that global warming was a Chinese hoax, that wind farms cause cancer and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. Trump lied about the size of his inauguration crowds, claimed that Obama had wiretapped him and insisted that he was the victim of a Deep State conspiracy.
Those are not the actions of a normal person — and none of them happened recently. Some Republicans might be ignoring this history of alarming behavior to absolve themselves of responsibility for enabling a president who was so obviously unfit from the start.
So if Trump isn’t getting worse mentally, what’s going on? My theory is that there are fewer checks on him today than there were at the start. Jim Mattis, John F. Kelly, H.R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson and other officials — even John Bolton — were occasionally successful in checking Trump’s erratic impulses. But the adults are gone, and their replacements are mainly sycophants and timeservers who are happy to tell Trump that 2+2=22.
Case in point: Trump’s bizarre decision to invite the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. Then-national security adviser Bolton reportedly criticized this move (along with the general direction of Afghan negotiations), leading to a final break with Trump. Yet even as Bolton was leaving, Trump abruptly withdrew the invitation to Camp David and announced that talks with the Taliban were “dead.” Vice President Pence rushed to deny that he had had any disagreement with the president (“More Fake News!”) and told Trump on Twitter “I FULLY support your decision.” But which decision? Was Pence saying he supported both the invitation to the Taliban and the withdrawal of the invitation? It takes superhuman levels of sycophancy to always agree with a president who is constantly changing his mind.
What is truly ominous is that we have moved beyond administration officials simply affirming whatever Trump says. Some are now trying to twist the facts to conform with Trump’s twisted worldview. The New York Times reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top officials after the National Weather Service dared to contradict Trump’s claim that a hurricane was heading for Alabama, and that Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Ross to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration disavow its own forecasters. NOAA then did just that. (The Post reports Mulvaney was responding to pressure from Trump.) The word “Orwellian” has gotten a lot of mileage lately. But if this isn’t Orwellian, it’s hard to know what is.
As lawyer George T. Conway III (who is married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway) tweeted: “What’s next? Will the National Air and Space Museum construct exhibits on the significance of military aviation during the Revolutionary War?” This was, of course, a reference to Trump’s Fourth of July ad-lib, when he said that “our army . . . took over the airports” during the War of Independence. This imaginative rewrite of history might itself be taken as evidence that the president’s mental faculties are in decline — were it not for the fact that all the way back in 2016 Trump engaged in another bit of historical revisionism by claiming that Obama founded the Islamic State.
The evidence suggests that Trump hasn’t gone off his rocker lately — because he was never on it to begin with. That’s an uncomfortable thing to say about a president of the United States, but we can’t ignore reality because it’s so alarming. Trump’s supporters ill serve the country — or a president in obvious need of help — by pretending that everything is normal when it so obviously isn’t.