During the conversation, he was gently asked about various world events, including the release of Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage.” That book documents an incident in which Trump demanded the assassination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a request which then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declined to enact.
Despite having previously denied making that order, Trump confirmed it on Tuesday. He went on to — not for the first time — disparage Mattis’s tenure in his administration.
“Mattis was a highly overrated general,” Trump said. Pressed to agree that Mattis was a “good American,” the president demurred.
Again, we’ve heard similar dismissiveness before. When Trump tapped Mattis to run the Defense Department, he offered hyperbolic praise. When Mattis decided to resign, Trump soured on him. To Trump, you’re either an ally or an enemy. Mattis, like many others, had become an enemy.
In general, this is an odd way for a president to act. Trump has disparaged at least a half-dozen former employees in strident terms, suggesting that he gave them jobs as acts of charity and quickly dismissed them when their incompetence was revealed. In some cases, those claims conflict with previous praise; in other cases, the incompetence should have been obvious at the outset. But the pattern remains: Trump, whose well-defined reputation includes his ability to hire the best possible people, hires administration staffers whom he’s later forced to denounce.
Often because they have offered frank assessments of Trump as a leader and boss.
What’s particularly odd about the Mattis riff on Tuesday, though, is that it is happening now. Trump’s reelection is on the ballot in less than 50 days; is this the time at which he wants to remind people that a number of people he has hired have been failures by his own standards? In general, the answer would be no — but, in this case, the answer is more likely that it doesn’t really matter.
At the end of the day, there is only one person on whom most general-election voters will be weighing in: Trump. Republican supporters of Trump are voting because Trump is the Trump who disparages his enemies, whoever happens to be on that list at the moment. Democrats are voting for former vice president Joe Biden because Biden is the person who would replace Trump. Sure, there are people who are voting for Biden out of affection for him, but polling indicates that opposition to Trump is a bigger driver.
There has probably been no other election in modern history for whom the campaign is more centrally focused on one particular candidate. Before 2017, Barack Obama was the most polarizing president in Gallup’s history of presidential approval polling — but Trump quickly claimed that title. The gap in his approval rating between Democrats and Republicans last year was 82 points, five points higher than the partisan gap for Obama in 2016.
The result is a remarkably static view of Trump over the course of his presidency. That’s obvious from Gallup’s historical trend of approval ratings.
Most presidents before Obama saw wide swings in approval depending on what was happening. Under Obama, there was less movement: Democrats loved him and Republicans hated him, and most of the movement was among independents. For Trump, that’s even more pronounced. Compared with, say, George W. Bush, Trump’s approval over the course of his presidency looks like a flat line.
That shows up in national presidential polling, too. During the period from 200 to 50 days before the election in 2008, the margin between Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ranged from Obama leading by six points to McCain leading by two, a range of nine points. In 2016, the range was 13 points. In 2020, it was six points.
More to the point, the range of support for the candidates has been remarkably narrow during that period. Trump’s moved in a four-point and Biden in a three-point range.
The 2012 race was similarly stable in the same period — but it was also less stacked against the incumbent. In 2012, the race was fairly static, and fairly close. Now, the national race is static to Biden’s advantage. It mirrors Trump’s approval rating, which ranged from 38 to 42 points in Gallup’s polling from June to August.
Another reflection of how static the race is can be measured in how committed voters say they are to their chosen candidates. In the most recent polling from CNN and their polling partners SSRS, about 85 percent of those with a pick in the 2020 election say their minds are made up. Among partisans, though, the percentages are higher: More than 9 in 10 Democrats and Republicans say they’re definitely going to support the candidates they’ve picked. That’s slightly lower than what CNN’s polling showed in 2012 — two days before the election.
What that graph also shows is that a lot of independents haven’t made up their minds as firmly. (After all, if both Democrats and Republicans say that they’re very certain to back their chosen candidates, only independents are left to pull down that overall level of certainty.) Where they land could decide the election, which probably isn’t great news for the incumbent.
Trump’s strategy since his inauguration was to win reelection by delivering over and over for his base of support while continuing to reinforce their dislike of his opponents. He has encouraged a situation in which Democrats hate him and Republicans love him, believing that, like in 2016, he can leverage that balance to win.
So what difference if, with fewer than 50 days until the election, he badmouths one of his highest-profile hires? That does little to shift what Americans understand about Trump; if anything, it simply reinforces that understanding. Trump’s not interested in wooing people who hate him. He wants to energize people who love him. And disparaging a long-standing government official has proved repeatedly to be a way to do that.
And here we are.