The White House bubble
Donald Trump is back on the campaign trail. The White House may be in chaos; Congress may be struggling to deliver on a promised rewrite of Obamacare; our NATO allies may be wondering whether they can still count on the U.S. to defend them; the Russians may be so emboldened they’ve parked a spy ship off Connecticut and sent their warplanes to buzz U.S. destroyers in the Black Sea; but President Trump is heading for a pep rally in Florida this weekend. Will it work? Does it matter?
The biggest temptation in any White House is to lock yourself in a protective bubble. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it happen.
If you’re a senior staffer, as I was in the Reagan White House, you drive through the White House gates shortly after dawn and don’t leave until well after sunset, sometimes late at night. You don’t go out for meetings. People come to you, mostly those who already support your mission or want favors you’re in a position to grant. You eat most of your meals in the West Wing basement mess, where you’re treated like royalty. If you must venture out, a chauffeured car drives you.
If you’re the president, it’s even worse. You don’t even go home to sleep in your own bed. The voices you hear all day come from people who largely agree with you and whose job they believe is to protect – and please – you. But if you’re President Trump, apparently, you spend a lot of time watching cable news. And what you see there is one criticism after another, a view that doesn’t jibe with what everyone around you is saying or what you want to believe about your own power, effectiveness and popularity. Is that why President Trump wants to return to the campaign trail? Does he want to be greeted by adoring crowds as he was during the election cycle? If so, he’ll be going from one bubble to another, and he still can’t escape the turmoil he’s wrought in not just Washington but the world.
Watching this White House is surreal. The level of incompetence is unlike any I’ve witnessed in 40-plus years in politics, and that includes watching the White House during Watergate and the early days of the Carter administration, when a bunch of inexperienced 30-somethings were in charge in the West Wing. The federal courts have slapped down an ill-conceived and poorly drafted Trump executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement.
The Republicans in the Senate have forced out a Cabinet nominee. Leaks have revealed extensive contacts between Russian intelligence agents and members of the Trump campaign and transition team and driven the president to push out his own national security adviser. The president himself has insulted allies, including the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia, and, after North Korea launched an intermediate-range missile, stood next to the prime minister of Japan at a hastily called news conference like a bit player in the unfolding drama.
When the president speaks, it is clear to anyone who knows policy that his depth of knowledge is a millimeter thin. When he should be talking about issues, he reverts to talking up his election victory – which he incessantly misstates as the biggest since Ronald Reagan’s second one. Whether it’s his Electoral College margin, his inaugural crowds or his hands, the president is obsessed with size. Everything about Donald Trump must be bigger, better, smarter, stronger than anything that has come before him, regardless of the facts. Any reporting to the contrary is "fake news."
President Trump will celebrate the culmination of his first month in office in a few days. In normal times, this would have been his honeymoon – but he’s turned it into a messy separation from his allies in Congress, our friends around the world and much of the American public, not to mention a divorce from the truth.
The answer isn’t to succumb to the siren song of his adoring crowds; it’s to break out of the bubble and face the mistakes he and his team have made – and fix them.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal."