He blamed “the generals” for a raid that led to the death of a Navy SEAL in Yemen. He accused former president Barack Obama of fomenting protests against him and leaks within his administration. He blamed the judiciary for future terrorist attacks against the United States, and the media for the firing of his first national security adviser. He even blamed the weather for his smaller-than-desired inauguration crowd.
The one person President Trump never seems to blame is himself.
For a businessman who views the world through a binary win-or-lose lens, Trump has become the “don’t blame me” president — struggling to adjust to the reality of a job often revealed in shades of gray. The man in the nation’s highest elective office, who is eager to claim credit for positive developments, has yet to show signs of accepting responsibility or blame when things go wrong.
“When you run on a campaign of win, win, win, you never can admit a setback,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has met with Trump several times. “If that’s the case, that’s a pathological situation.”
Nearly six weeks into his presidency, Trump has regularly faulted his political opponents for many of the obstacles — some of them of his own making — that he has encountered so far. The buck rarely stops with him.
Since his inauguration, he has railed against the “fake news” media and “leakers” for his own decision to fire his national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. He has continued to claim that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton because of millions of illegal voters but has provided no evidence of such activity. When a federal court blocked the implementation of his controversial travel ban, he preemptively warned that the judge and the court system should be blamed “if something happens.”
“I guess it was Truman who said the bucks stops here,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), referring to the plaque, mounted on a walnut base, that former president Harry S. Truman kept on his White House desk. “Part of campaign rhetoric is blaming the weather, blaming the other person, blaming the party. That ends with governance.”
White House aides contend that in most cases, Trump is not deflecting responsibility but rather stating facts.
“Any suggestion that the President is trying to shirk responsibility for the critical decisions he makes in the Oval Office on a daily basis would be misguided and false,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.
Obama has been a particularly frequent target for Trump during the rocky early weeks of his tenure. He accused his predecessor of leaving him “a mess,” despite a strong economy, a low unemployment rate and historically low crime levels. During his joint address to Congress Tuesday evening, the White House blasted out a seven-bullet point list of economic problems Trump “inherited” from Obama, including the false suggestion that 94 million Americans are involuntarily out of work. In fact, nearly all are teenagers, seniors or people with disabilities who cannot work or don’t want a job.
Trump also blamed Obama this week for widespread protests against his policies, and has alleged that Obama administration officials are behind damaging leaks from within federal agencies.
“In the early days, you might be able to get away with blaming your predecessor for some of the problems that you’ve inherited, but that wears off after a while,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). “I don’t know how long that is, but that dog will only hunt for so long.”
“Over time, you have to stand up, and it’s a function of leadership that sometimes you just have to take it on the chin,” Dent added.
One of the most striking examples came Tuesday, when Trump — the commander in chief who authorized the mission — defended the raid in Yemen that claimed the life of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens while minimizing his own role in the decision-making process.
“Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said on Fox News. “This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do.”
“My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades,” he added. “And they lost Ryan.”
The White House disputed the suggestion that in the interview, Trump did not take responsibility for the raid.
“He is clearly talking about the military and the fact that they lost one of their own,” Walters said.
The comments were a stark break in a long tradition of presidents, as commanders in chief, taking responsibility for military actions authorized under their command and ultimately bearing the burden of life lost. President Ronald Reagan, for instance, wrote that the responsibility of speaking to the families of those who died in the line of duty was a “weight on my shoulders” that “felt like a ton of iron.”
“I served under commander in chief George W. Bush. I disagreed with him, I didn’t vote for him, I thought his war was a mistake. But he took responsibility for it,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine Corps officer who served four tours of duty in Iraq. “President Trump is not a leader. He’s a coward. Real leaders take responsibility.”
“He’s a draft dodger who has never put his life on his line for the country and has no idea what it means to do so,” Moulton added.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was similarly blunt. “When you’re talking about complicated Special Operations raids, the responsibility is the president’s, and you cannot pass responsibility down the chain,” Murphy said. “It involved a lot of men, a lot of planning, and ultimately that’s the president’s call.”
On Tuesday night, Trump hailed Owens as a hero and led a lengthy and emotional standing ovation for Owen’s wife, Carryn, who wept openly at the mention of her husband’s name.
It was among the most powerful moments of his speech and one that drew praise from his allies and critics alike.
“I think most presidents are this way. Very seldom do they say, ‘Hey, this is my bad,’ so I don’t think there’s anything unusual there,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “Presidents always blame it on messaging. Obama did, he gave himself a lower grade on messaging.”
Passing blame is nothing new for Trump. Among many culprits during the campaign, he blamed a faulty microphone for a debate performance, a purported Internal Revenue Service audit for his refusal to release his tax returns and an intern for retweeting a message mocking Iowans before the primary.
The responsibilities of the White House seem to have only heightened that instinct. Trump said in a Fox interview this week that he “could never” acknowledge when he deserved criticism. “You know what, honestly, if I do that, if that does happen and if I take a hit, I won’t give you any additional ammunition,” he explained.
He has, however, been insistent on receiving credit for things that are going well, even if he had nothing to do with them.
After years of slamming Obama for claiming credit for job growth, Trump immediately took credit for the first positive jobs report of his tenure — which actually covered a period mostly under Obama.
He has also taken credit for businesses’ announced intentions to expand within the United States — most of which were decided long before he became president — and for job creation. And over the weekend, Trump tweeted his displeasure that the news media did not give him credit for a minuscule drop in the federal debt, a statistic that fluctuates daily.
“Due to his Twitter habit and impetuousness, he constantly has to seek credit for anything that happens,” Brinkley said. “Whether the stock market rises one day or a company opens a factory, it’s always ‘me, me, me.’ ”
Trump’s penchant for wrapping himself in positive news and dodging accountability for negative headlines under his watch has already frustrated Democrats.
Many were quick to note that Obama did in fact “inherit” a true mess — a crumbling economy and a globe tumbling into a deep recession — when he took office in 2009.
“The irony is he’s ‘Mr. Don’t Blame Me,’ but he’s also ‘Mr. I Want Credit,’” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic operative and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“It is consistent with his belief that he shouldn’t be held responsible for things he said or the things he did in his life before politics, and he now doesn’t think he should be blamed for the things he does in public life,” Ferguson added.