The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In fun-house mirrors of Trump White House, disarray can look like victory

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump wished former White House aide Rob Porter “a wonderful career” on Feb. 9, saying Porter “says he's innocent.” (Video: The Washington Post)
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For a president who often sees himself as standing tall against powerful forces that only want him to fail, things were looking up. The tax cuts were selling well, he had gotten credit for a pretty good State of the Union address, employment numbers were good, and his approval rating was improving.

Any other president would have seen this as a week to claim some credit (Congress passed a spending bill, with bipartisan support), do some presidential reassuring (the markets sure could have used some calming words), maybe take the high road and wave the flag (the Olympics are a fine opportunity for that).

But, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, this is not your standard presidency, and that made a whack-a-mole day such as Friday nearly inevitable. President Trump’s week ended with the sudden departure of a speechwriter who had been accused of brutally attacking his wife, the president’s defense of another staffer who allegedly assaulted two ex-wives, the chief of staff’s inartful attempts to recast his own handling of that episode, and the revelation that the president doesn’t read his full intelligence briefings.

White House officials said Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told them to give information about staff secretary Rob Porter's ouster that contradicts other reports. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Yet all of that did not necessarily add up to the spectacular display of dysfunction, discord and disarray that some people perceived.

No one would argue that Friday’s tumult was planned or desirable. By most historical standards, it was monumentally embarrassing. But the way Trump operates, such days can be downright beneficial. The president learned at a very early age that what humiliates, damages, even destroys others can actually strengthen his image and therefore his bottom line.

The Trump playbook can seem like a perverse flipping of the standard Washington script. The White House learns of allegations that a speechwriter ran a car over his ex-wife’s foot, put out a cigarette on her hand and threw her into a wall. Another sign of chaos in the White House? Not to Trump: Immediately, although the speechwriter vehemently denied the allegations, he is confronted and his resignation is obtained. As the president sees it, score one for a leader who takes instant, clear action to clean up messes made by others.

Scenes from Trump’s second year in office

Jan. 8, 2019 | President Trump speaks on television from the Oval Office during a national address on border security on the 18th day of the partial government shutdown. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A trusted aide is accused of brutal behavior against two former wives. Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, initially defends the aide; then, as public revulsion swells over a photo of a black eye on one of the women, Kelly reportedly seeks to rewrite the history of how he handled the situation. The White House lets it be known that Kelly is in the doghouse. Yet the president himself goes out of his way to speak publicly in defense of the ousted aide, without so much as a nod toward what the women have suffered.

A royal mess? Not in Trump’s version of reality. As yet another chief of staff twists in the wind, the president makes clear two essential points about how he governs:

1) Always double down on your position. Through the most trying moments of the past two years, Trump has regularly argued in favor of men on his side who’ve been accused of bad behavior against women, whether that was Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama; Fox News figures Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly; last week’s case du jour, Rob Porter; or Trump himself. He weathered the “Access Hollywood” tape that many of his aides thought would sink his campaign, and he successfully batted away allegations from more than a dozen women that he was guilty of sexual misconduct toward them.

Saturday morning, the president tripled down. “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” he tweeted. “There is no recovery for someone falsely accused — life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”

2) The president must always be the focus of attention. Aides who get too big for their britches won’t be around for long.

Trump’s statement about Porter on Friday was almost indistinguishable from Kelly’s initial statement of support Tuesday.

Kelly called Porter “a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. . . . I am proud to serve alongside him.”

Three days later, Trump said that Porter “says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that. . . . We absolutely wish him well. He did a very good job when he was at the White House.”

Yet Kelly felt compelled to let it be known that he’d be willing to resign, and the president is the president.

Whether or not Kelly leaves, he has been knocked down several notches, especially in the public’s view. He’s been shown who’s boss, in case he had harbored any doubts.

Trump, contrary to the caricature he fostered on his reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” rarely excommunicates close aides forever. They almost all remain in his orbit even if he has publicly humiliated them or sent them off for a long vacation.

But they must always learn that those who attempt to grab some of the limelight will be dealt with. That was true throughout Trump’s business career, and it’s been proved again and again in the first year of this presidency. When erstwhile chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon made the cover of Time — for Trump still a vital marker of making it big, even as the magazine’s influence has severely waned — he was done for, at least for now.

Now Bannon is warning that the president faces a cratering of his support among white women. “This is coming, this is real,” he said this month, pointing to a growing wave of female Democratic candidates for offices all over the country.

But the way others perceive politics doesn’t usually alter Trump’s behavior.

On the left and the right alike, the week was perceived as a disaster for Trump. “A PR nightmare for the White House,” said the conservative Weekly Standard. “A mess from start to finish.”

Even inside the White House, the events seemed to call for a mea culpa. “We all could have done better over the last few days,” deputy press secretary Raj Shah said Thursday. From South Korea, Vice President Pence made the same point.

But that’s not how Trump responds to pressure or error. He learned in the 1970s from his mentor Roy Cohn that when you face criticism, justified or not, “you tell them to go to hell and fight the thing,” as Cohn said.

In 2016, at the Republican convention, after Hillary Clinton ran a TV ad in which wide-eyed young children watched broadcasts of Trump’s coarsest insults and most vulgar language, some advisers wanted Trump to ease off. He’d already won the nomination and things were going well. Why not tap the brakes and glide along the high road, they argued.

Trump instead leaned hard on the accelerator, ratcheting up his rhetoric, pressing for a convention lineup that doubled down on appealing to his base — Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty,” the chief of Ultimate Fighting Championship, music by Southern, white classic rock acts.

On Saturday, as news broke that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in agreed that he might accept an invitation made at the opening of the Olympic Games to meet the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump focused instead on the ruckus over two staffers’ alleged abuse of their wives.

He’s done this all his adult life. In the 1980s, Trump not only didn’t push back when tabloid newspapers turned the collapse of his first marriage into a daily soap opera; Trump actively participated in the scripting of the drama, calling gossip writers, dishing out salacious morsels almost by the hour.

“The show is Trump,” he said then, “and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”

More than two decades ago, Barack Obama, then a law professor, recognized the power Trump had discovered in painting oneself as the rich celebrity ordinary Americans aspire to be.

Obama called it “the unfounded optimism of the average American — ‘I may not be Donald Trump now, but just you wait; if I don’t make it, my children will.’ ”

Trump recognized the almost unbounded power of being that model, and he recognized that bad behavior and the notoriety it generated didn’t undermine that image. For many people, it actually enhanced it.

Inside that logic, it makes sense to look away from a stock market swinging like a bungee cord and instead lash out at Democrats as “treasonous” or announce that the president would “love to see a shutdown” of the government.

Another chief executive might look at the political landscape and feel the walls closing in — a New York Times report that U.S. spies paid a Russian last year for material including unverified compromising material on Trump, or the resignation Friday of the No. 3 official in the Justice Department, the woman who would be in charge of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election if the president gets rid of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.

Not Trump. He simply does what he’s always done — whatever it takes to claim center stage.

As he said in his book “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” visionary business leaders succeed “because they are narcissists who devote their talent with unrelenting focus to achieving their dreams, even if it’s sometimes at the expense of those around them.”