Trump's performance fuels worry about his presidency going off the rails

Donald Trump poll numbers press criticism _00020706
Donald Trump poll numbers press criticism _00020706

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Story highlights

  • There are many reasons for people to think this still young presidency is off the rails, writes Julian Zelizer
  • Zelizer cites: His thin skin. His inability to separate fact from fiction. His continuing focus on his election victory margin

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He also is the co-host of the podcast "Politics & Polls." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)"How would you feel if that was your boss?" and "How would you feel if that was someone in your family?" asked CNN's Jake Tapper after Thursday's news conference with President Donald Trump. Although at this point nothing should surprise anyone about how Trump conducts himself, it was still hard not to have your jaw drop as his face-off with reporters played across screens.

He lashed out personally against reporters, he resumed fighting over the outcome of the election and his loss in the popular vote, and continued steadfastly refusing to admit to facts that are beyond dispute. While it is true that many of his supporters still see the person who "tells it like it is" and isn't afraid to punch back against his critics, this is not a way to conduct the presidency.
The style that we saw on display at this news conference highlighted many parts of President Trump that are causing deep concern, certainly among Democrats, but also with some Republicans. When he continues to traffic in false statements about massive voter fraud, he demonstrates his willingness to circulate false information from the highest levels of power.
When he continues to insist he would have won the popular vote, if not for fraud, and that he enjoyed the biggest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan (which he was challenged on, and had no adequate reply), it is dangerous for the body politic and fuels support for legislation that could suppress the vote. He still seems obsessed with the Hillary Clinton email scandal, even as more and more stories about his own lax security practices are on the front pages of the news.
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Despite the flood of reports about the connections between the Russians and top members of his campaign, Trump did nothing to indicate he was taking this seriously and that he was bothered by what was revealed.
His showed his thin skin with his disparaging remarks about reporters and news organizations, to the point that he couldn't contain his desire to insult. He mocked networks' ratings instead of answering the questions. Rather than offering answers to how he will deal with the "mess" he said he "inherited," he remarked instead about the "dishonest media" that was not giving him the credit he deserves.
It is easy to see he is a President who is not surrounded by advisers willing to push back on his most egregious behavior. This is a President who makes up his own worldview, defends that worldview, and is unable to incorporate real data that comes his way.
On foreign affairs and domestic policy, such an outlook can be devastating. It is also clear from his remarks that the President continues to be in a "war" with the media, and journalists need to be at the top of their game to monitor and push back against a White House and Oval Office that seems to have little interest in sharing serious information about what they are doing.
As President Richard Nixon learned, this kind of worldview can ultimately consume a President whose paranoia, pettiness and anger can push him into unethical or illegal behavior in an effort to protect his hide.
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When President Trump said, seemingly in impromptu fashion during Wednesday's news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he was open to a one-state solution, he threw many decades of diplomacy initiatives into the garbage and made the kind of statement that could easily instigate violence rather than judicious discussions.
Americans could have very different views about what this President is doing and many certainly might like a lot of his style. But there are limits. When a person is President, the ramifications of poorly thought out statements and vicious, off-the-cuff attacks can have dangerous consequences.
The kind of disorganization that seems to grip the White House can allow powerful actors, like Michael Flynn, to behave badly. This is what President Ronald Reagan discovered as members of his National Security Council conducted illegal activities in Nicaragua. Simply at the level of being a role model for the nation, this also sets a tone about how politics should be conducted that fuels, rather than dampens, the partisan anger that has afflicted this nation.
The question is whether anyone sitting near the Oval Office is going to try to restrain this President and, equally important, if there is anyone in the congressional wing of the Republican Party who will start to take a more defiant stand about how he is conducting himself.
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The withdrawal of Andrew Puzder as secretary of labor, as well as some Republicans openly calling for an investigation into the possible Trump-Russia connection, are the very first signs the otherwise solid Republican Party might be breaking up, at least a bit.
As Republicans on the Hill watch Trump squander more of his time on these kinds of petty fights rather than sending them legislation, they will grow increasingly anxious about the kind of impact this can have on their future majority. If Trump pushes them to that particular tipping point, it would be the most dangerous political moment the administration would have to face.
President Trump loves to boast about his ability to make a deal and get things done. As Bloomberg reported Thursday, so far he isn't doing much. His legislative record is pretty barren compared to other presidents at this moment in their term.
Most of his still young presidency has been about the kind of public fireworks we saw Thursday rather than real governance. Indeed, even a Trump supporter must be disappointed at the sloppy manner in which the White House handled the executive order on immigration, which left the measure dead in the courts.
There is time for Trump to recover, and given the strong partisan incentives of the GOP, to make this moment of divided government work, Democrats certainly shouldn't be too confident about this challenging moment. Yet Tapper's remarks were right on target, and that basic thought — the impression Trump makes — will continue to sink deeper and deeper into the minds of voters and legislators who are watching these events and wondering just what kind of President we have.