Remember August 2019? It was a simpler time, when President Trump canceled a foreign visit to Denmark because that country refused to sell Greenland to the United States.

Way back then, two whole months ago, conservatives, libertarians and centrists speculated that Trump was losing it. His erratic behavior and incessant tweeting suggested a man on the verge of collapse. At the time, I offered a dissent, arguing that Trump was who he had always been: “There are excellent reasons to be worried about Trump’s behavior through 2020. The cognitive decline of the president is not one of those reasons. Rather, it is that the benign environment and support structures that restrained Trump’s worst impulses are gone.”

Two months later, it is worth checking in on that claim because, oh boy, the president has had a week. You can check the #ToddlerinChief thread for all the instances in which Trump supporters talked about him like a toddler over the past seven days. After hitting the thousand mark last Monday, there were at least another 15 additions in the next seven days. That is a lot. And it did not even include the single dumbest letter I have ever read on White House stationery.


It would be easy to infer that this is merely further evidence that Trump is losing it. A closer look at the past week, however, strongly suggests that Trump is the constant. The caliber of his staff is the key variable.

This story by my Post colleagues Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey and David Fahrenthold, for example, shows Trump still making political calculations when threatened. He reversed himself on hosting the Group of Seven summit at his private golf club, conveniently located near Miami International Airport, because “it became clear the move had alienated Republicans and swiftly become part of the impeachment inquiry that threatens his presidency.” This suggests a man who might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but someone who reacts to external political stimuli.

The question to ask is not why Trump tried to use foreign policy to enrich himself and harm his domestic political opponents. We know for a fact that he has been doing this since 2017, when he gave a not-so-subtle green light to Russian officials in the White House for further election interference. This is who he is.


The difference between 2017 and now is that the ability and interest of Trump’s staff to deflect and curtail his bad ideas. Exhibit A of this laxity in the staff has been acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Even back in the spring, Mulvaney adopted a “let Trump be Trump” approach, loosening access to the president and enabling the president’s more disruptive tendencies. He also made it clear to reporters that he enjoyed the perquisites of power and was uninterested in attempting to constrain Trump’s impulses.

That disinterest in opposing Trump came to a head this past week, first in his disastrous news conference on Thursday and then in his almost-as-disastrous “Fox News Sunday” interview with Chris Wallace.

One of the amusing aspects of Mulvaney’s witless incompetence as a Trump shill is learning of Jared Kushner’s disenchantment with his performance. When Kushner seems like the more competent person in a staff, that is a sign that the staff has scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel.

Politico’s Daniel Lippman had a story over the weekend that bolsters my “it’s the staff, stupid” hypothesis:

Trump has never felt shackled by traditional ways of running a government. But earlier in his administration, “there was enough guardrails around Trump or enough caution on his part that when he did things that were more impulsive, they had less significance and fewer external ramifications,” a former White House official said....
Trying to constrain Trump is “a pipe dream,” one current White House official said. “Everyone who has tried had eventually failed in some way.”
“It’s just looking like everything is coming apart,” a former White House official said. Another former senior West Wing aide agreed that the White House seemed to be “a little bit unraveling” in recent days.
Some current White House officials say they are exhausted amid the constant fighting and lack the energy to constrain a willful president bent on having his way. It’s normal for officials to return to the private sector after a few years of pressure-cooker public service, but the Trump administration has seen extraordinary levels of turnover, and the administration’s ranks are thin and getting thinner. A White House official described a “Who cares?” attitude creeping through the building under Mulvaney’s hands-off management style.

Let me be perfectly clear: Trump is his own worst enemy. His governing impulses, to the extent that they exist, are awful. But he has not suddenly gotten worse. His staff, on the other hand, has devolved.