Like an aging rock star, the president is now reprising many of the greatest hits from his hellion days. He has bullied and projected — at times leveling against others the very charges he faces — while simultaneously depicting himself as a victim. And he has turned to ominous depictions of America, and in moments sounded an authoritarian tone.
Trump’s moods flared on Twitter. Five days after the impeachment inquiry began — on Sunday, Sept. 29 — Trump sent forth a torrent of four dozen tweets and retweets, making it at the time the third most-prolific day of tweeting of his entire presidency. Over nearly 16 hours on Twitter, he suggested that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) be questioned for “Fraud & Treason” and quoted an evangelical pastor who warned that the impeachment of Trump would “cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation.”
Then on Friday, Trump passed that milestone with 59 total tweets, including 33 in just 20 minutes. All told, in the week before the launch of the inquiry, Trump averaged 18 tweets per day. In the two weeks following the launch, that doubled: On average, Trump was tweeting three dozen times a day.
His behavior during a news conference with the Finnish president appeared so erratic to some viewers that a hashtag — #TrumpMeltdown — began trending on Twitter. Commentary about the president’s mental fitness ensued.
Staring down impeachment, Trump has seemed to play the role of the nation’s Shakespearean monarch. At a rally Thursday in Minneapolis, Trump boasted about his own fortitude in surviving so many scandals.
Raising his hand and twirling his fingers to point to his right temple, the president mused, “Maybe I’m a little different up here. I don’t know.”
Here is a look at the characteristics Trump has displayed — and the characters he has inhabited — since impeachment proceedings began.
Trump strode onstage to rapturous applause Thursday night at a packed arena in Minneapolis ostensibly to campaign for reelection in 2020. But he was obsessed instead with the 2016 election, delivering a jeremiad of persecution and self-pity.
“From Day One, the wretched Washington swamp has been trying to nullify the results of a truly great and democratic election, the election of 2016,” Trump said.
The president cast himself as the ultimate victim of harassment from congressional Democrats, the intelligence community and the media.
“I can do the greatest things in history, and they’ll make them bad to very bad,” Trump declaimed. “And if I do a neutral, something neutral, it worked out okay, not great, it’s like, ‘Give him the electric chair! That was terrible!’ ”
Victimization has long been central to Trump’s political identity, rooting him in the grievance politics of the right and inspiring in his millions of followers a duty to protect the president from any perceived threat. But Trump’s feelings of oppression and persecution have been especially pronounced during the impeachment crisis.
As Trump tells it, he is the victim of a corrupt, “deep state” whistleblower who, along with other perceived enemies, has orchestrated a broad conspiracy to claim malfeasance in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — which, in the president’s estimation, was “perfect” and “totally appropriate.”
“The first so-called second hand information ‘Whistleblower’ got my phone conversation almost completely wrong, so now word is they are going to the bench and another ‘Whistleblower’ is coming in from the Deep State, also with second hand info. Meet with Shifty,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 5, deploying his nickname for Schiff.
Driving Trump’s persecution mentality is his undying frustration that his electoral victory in 2016 is undermined by the fact that Russia interfered to boost his candidacy — and that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.
“I was investigated, okay? Me! Me!” Trump told reporters Oct. 4 at the White House. “In my campaign — I ran, I won. I was [investigated]. You won’t say that, will you? I was investigated. I was investigated.”
It was another episode of “Chopper Talk” — Trump’s freewheeling question-and-answer sessions with reporters before he boards the Marine One helicopter — only this time the president was especially agitated. He strode back and forth and sliced the air with his hands.
Then, as Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News asked him to clarify what exactly he was trying to say, Trump gave her The Hand — five fingers splayed across the lens of her iPhone.
The gesture was perhaps inadvertent, but the resulting snapshot epitomized Trump’s bullying persona, in which he heckles, belittles and bellows with abandon.
As has long been his habit with rivals, Trump has applied derogatory nicknames to his impeachment antagonists. Schiff is “Shifty Schiff,” Pelosi is “Nervous Nancy” and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republican most outspoken about Trump’s conduct, is “Pompous Senator.”
During the Oct. 2 news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Trump acted like a schoolyard bully when Jeff Mason of Reuters pressed him repeatedly on a question he did not want to answer: what, specifically, Trump sought from Zelensky during a controversial phone call in which he asked him to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
After Trump offered a lengthy digression that failed to answer the question, Mason followed up twice. The second time, Trump was curt.
“Are you talking to me?” he asked.
When Mason answered affirmatively, Trump began to badger him, using his perch behind the presidential lectern to order Mason to pose a question to his foreign counterpart.
“Did you hear me? Did you hear me?” Trump angrily admonished Mason, before again urging him to switch topics. “Ask this gentleman a question. Don’t be rude.”
Trump went on to berate Mason for being part of the “fake news” and “corrupt media.”
The president never did answer the original question.
In Trump’s “great and unmatched wisdom,” he is a leader to be obeyed.
In fact, the president offered that self-assessment in response to criticism of his decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria and, in doing so, abandon a longtime critical ally.
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” Trump tweeted.
But the general sentiment also reflected the often defiant posture Trump has adopted while facing impeachment, a “Dear Leader” tone more associated with an authoritarian regime than a democracy.
In defending his call with Zelensky, Trump used a similarly autocratic construction.
“As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!” Trump tweeted.
The phrase is one with which the president is comfortable; Trump has asserted he has the “absolute right” to do something — including the absolute right to pardon himself — over a dozen times since taking office.
If the Twitterati takeaway of Trump’s news conference with Niinistö was that the president was having a #TrumpMeltdown, in Twitter parlance, Trump had a different view of the situation: It was Schiff who was imploding.
At one point during the East Room event, in response to a question about whether the White House would comply with House subpoenas, Trump accused Schiff of having “some kind of a mental breakdown.”
He repeated the claim several days later at another White House event, this one ostensibly about the U.S.-Japan digital trade agreement. Referring to previous Schiff comments, in which the Democratic chairman summarized the controversial conversation between Trump and Zelensky using mock dialogue, Trump said Schiff had delivered “a horrible speech” not based in reality, and concluded: “I think he’s having some kind of a breakdown.”
The tactic is one long favored by Trump, in which he takes a charge or accusation leveled against him and wields it like a cudgel back on a perceived foe, even in cases where the counterassault may seem hypocritical or preposterous.
Now facing impeachment over a problematic call with his Ukrainian counterpart — where he asked Zelensky to dig up dirt on a political rival as “a favor” — Trump has rejected the notion that his conversation with Zelensky was anything but “perfect.” Instead, he has accused Biden and his son Hunter of corrupt dealings of their own with Ukraine, despite little evidence of wrongdoing.
Facing the assessment of his own intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the goal of helping elect Trump, the president has frequently rejected that verdict — while offering a contradictory theory of his own, supported by no evidence: that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, but with the goal of helping the Democrats.
Trump has even tried to upend impeachment itself, suggesting Pelosi and Schiff should be impeached instead — never mind that it has been a matter of practice for over two centuries that members of the House and Senate cannot be impeached. He also turned on a member of his own party, Romney, after the Utah senator was critical of him for calling on both Ukraine and China to investigate Biden.
“#IMPEACHMITTROMNEY,” Trump wrote, again suggesting his own potential penance be meted out instead to someone with whom he was feuding.
Trump decried the impeachment effort against him as a “coup.” He accused the intelligence community whistleblower — as well as the whistleblower’s sources — of spying on him and committing “treason.” He described the impeachment process being run by Pelosi and Schiff as “a totally compromised Kangaroo court.”
To Trump, the impeachment probe is evidence of a plot to remove him from office, part of a dystopian alternate reality he is combating with ominous language and dark proclamations.
“As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 1.
Schiff has been a particular target of Trump’s apocalyptic worldview. The president has suggested on Twitter no fewer than four times, for instance, that Schiff might be guilty of treason — a crime still punishable by death.
He even brought up the charge while sitting next to the Finnish president, saying of Schiff’s behavior: “And some people even say it was treason.”
Trump has spread conspiracy theories, including that he has been investigated by the Australians, British and Italians, among other foreign governments. He has also suggested that it was Ukraine — not Russia — that meddled in the 2016 election, and on the side of the Democrats.
Perhaps most ominously, Trump has warned of a civil war. On Sept. 29 — a day of extreme presidential angst as measured by his near-record output of tweets — Trump shared with his 65.6 million followers a warning from pastor and televangelist Robert Jeffress from Fox News.
“If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they never will be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal,” Trump wrote.
In moments, Trump seems to understand the peril he faces — and acknowledges the differing ways he has responded to the impeachment threat engulfing his presidency.
“What they did to this country is unthinkable,” he said on Oct. 7 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “And it’s lucky that I’m the president, because I guess — I don’t know why — a lot of people said very few people could handle it.”
“I sort of thrive on it,” he concluded.
Philip Bump contributed to this report.