Historians have long looked to a few key criteria in evaluating the beginning of a president’s administration.
First and foremost, any new president should execute public duties with a commanding civility and poise befitting the nation’s chief executive, but without appearing aloof or haughty. As George Washington observed at the outset of his presidency in 1789, the president cannot in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.”
.. New presidents also try to avoid partisan and factional rancor, and endeavor to unite the country in a great common purpose.
They avoid even the slightest imputation of corruption, of course political but above all financial.
.. Over the decades, historians’ ratings of presidents have consistently consigned a dozen or so presidents to the bottom of the heap, including James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and, in recent evaluations, George W. Bush.
.. Yet the first years of these failed presidencies were not always so bad, and in nearly every case not as bad as Mr. Trump’s.
.. Warren G. Harding — darkly handsome, impeccably dressed and widely adored — acquired a reputation for cronyism, corruption and womanizing that continues to stain the reputation of his administration, which ended when he died of a heart attack in 1923. But while the corruption was very real, the worst of it, above all the Teapot Dome scandal, did not come to light until after his death.
.. Harding’s first year actually brought some auspicious legislative accomplishments, including passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which invested millions in the nation’s infant highway system.
In October, Harding addressed a huge segregated crowd in Birmingham, Ala., and courageously urged equal political rights for blacks, without which, he said, “our democracy is a lie.”
.. In public Harding was a paragon of dignity, and his death was universally mourned.
.. Richard M. Nixon’s first year in office produced mixed results. He continued the Vietnam War but floated reforms such as a guaranteed annual income for the poor. He hinted at retreating from civil rights laws and court rulings, but enforced them.
The year also yielded innovations like the National Environmental Policy Act, which Nixon signed into law in January 1970. The mixture of arrogance and paranoia that would lead to the Watergate scandal did not take hold until later.
.. George W. Bush has made some worst-presidents lists because of the disastrous Iraq war and the collapse of the economy under his watch. But his first year was notable for his post-Sept. 11 leadership, when he rallied the country’s spirit while cautioning Americans not to turn their grief and outrage into reprisals against Muslims. He ended his first year with an approval rating in the Gallup poll of 83 percent.
.. Only two of the failed presidents had horrendous first years, which, like Mr. Trump’s, were a result largely of their own actions. James Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor, at all times courteous and dignified, connived behind the scenes even before he was inaugurated to help coax the Supreme Court into the calamitous Dred Scott decision of 1857, handed down a few days after his swearing-in and widely considered among the court’s worst.
.. Calculated to suppress antislavery politics once and for all, the decision instead alarmed Northerners by allowing the expansion of slavery — and it helped set the nation on the political course that ended in civil war.
.. The financial panic of 1857 and subsequent depression, the splintering of the Union and the later exposure of rampant corruption inside the executive branch added to the sense of Buchanan’s fecklessness.
.. Andrew Johnson, a vituperative racist, was temperamentally and politically unsuited to succeed the slain Abraham Lincoln. His troubles began when he showed up for his swearing-in as vice president drunk and belligerent.
.. After becoming president through assassination, Johnson at first signaled he would take a hard line against the defeated rebels, but then switched to attacking civil rights for the former slaves, siding with the ex-Confederates and engaging in abusive tirades against the Radical Republicans in Congress. He closed his first year by vetoing the Civil Rights Bill, which would have given the former slaves citizenship. Both houses of Congress swiftly overrode the veto, setting in motion the events that would end with Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
.. Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office, and he has shown that this is exactly how he believes he should govern.
.. he is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
.. He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.”
He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment.
He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
.. If history is any guide — especially in light of the examples closest to his, of Buchanan and Andrew Johnson — Mr. Trump’s first year portends a very unhappy ending.
Tax cuts. Deregulation. More for the military; less for the United Nations. The Islamic State crushed in its heartland. Assad hit with cruise missiles. Troops to Afghanistan. Arms for Ukraine. A tougher approach to North Korea. Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital. The Iran deal decertified. Title IX kangaroo courts on campus condemned. Yes to Keystone. No to Paris. Wall Street roaring and consumer confidence high.
And, of course, Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. What, for a conservative, is there to dislike about this policy record as the Trump administration rounds out its first year in office?
.. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” said the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
.. And want to preserve your own republican institutions? Then pay attention to the character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public. It matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.
.. Or maybe you regret the failure to repeal Obamacare. But that had something to do with the grotesque insults Trump lobbed at John McCain, the man whose “nay” vote sank repeal... Look at every other administration embarrassment (Scaramucci) or failure (the wall, and Mexico paying for it) or disgrace (the Charlottesville equivocation). Responsibility invariably lies with the president’s intemperance and dishonesty. That puts Republican control of Congress in play. It also risks permanently alienating a millennial generation for which the G.O.P. will forever be the party of the child-molesting sore loser and the president who endorsed him... Now look at the culture of governance. Trump demands testimonials from his cabinet, servility from Republican politicians and worship from conservative media. To serve in this White House isn’t to be elevated to public service. It’s to be debased into toadyism, which probably explains the record-setting staff turnover of 34 percent.. In place of presidential addresses, stump speeches or town halls, we have Trump’s demagogic mass rallies. In place of the usual jousting between the administration and the press, we have a president who fantasizes on Twitter about physically assaulting CNN. In place of a president who defends the honor and integrity of his own officers and agencies, we have one who humiliates his attorney general, denigrates the F.B.I. and compares our intelligence agencies to the Gestapo.
Trump is normalizing all this; he is, to borrow another Moynihan phrase, “defining deviancy down.” A president who supposedly wants to put a wall between the U.S. and Latin America has imported a style of politics reminiscent of the cults of Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez.
.. Trump is empowering a conservative political culture that celebrates everything that patriotic Americans should fear: the cult of strength, open disdain for truthfulness, violent contempt for the Fourth Estate, hostility toward high culture and other types of “elitism,” a penchant for conspiracy theories and, most dangerously, white-identity politics.
The president’s tweets and public remarks will only get wilder as the Russia investigation narrows.In less than two hours, he managed to criticize his own FBI; peddle a new conspiracy theory; attack James B. Comey, Hillary Clinton and ABC; and draw more attention to the Russia probe that has already implicated several of his aides... As someone who spent hundreds of hours observing Trump so I could write “The Art of the Deal,” I find his increasingly extreme behavior entirely consistent and predictable... For five decades now, Trump’s pattern has been that the more aggrieved and vulnerable he feels, the more intensely he doubles down on the behaviors that have always worked for him in the past.Sunday’s tweetstorm won’t be the last time the president indulges in self-pity, deceit and deflection. In all likelihood, it will get worse... Trump’s first move in the face of criticism has always been to assume the role of victim. “Unfair” has long been one of his favorite words. He always perceives himself as the victim, so he feels justified in lashing back at his perceived accusers.
.. Here’s how he explained the tactic in “The Art of the Deal”:
“When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard.”
“Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”
In the weeks ahead, Trump will also probably double down on lying, even as he falsely accuses others of being dishonest. Consider his remarkable recent suggestion to aides that his remarks on the “Access Hollywood” tape about assaulting women might not be real — even though he has already publicly acknowledged that they were his, and apologized for them. Trump regularly rewrites his narrative, using what Kellyanne Conway has called “alternative facts,” to fit whatever he wants to believe and convey in any given moment. This is classic “gaslighting” — a blend of lying, denial, insistence and intimidation designed to fuel uncertainty and doubt in others about what’s actually true.
In the time I spent with Trump, I concluded that lying became second nature to him long ago, both because he lacked any conscience about being deceptive and because he discovered that he could get away with it. “Truthful hyperbole” is the sanitized term I gave lying in “The Art of the Deal,” with Trump’s blessing. I have never met someone, before or since, who was untruthful so effortlessly.
In Trump’s mind, he is only doing what’s required to win. Here’s the way he describes himself in “The Art of the Deal”: “Despite what people think, I’m not looking to be the bad guy when it isn’t absolutely necessary.”
.. The more threatened Trump feels by troublesome facts, the more preposterous the lies he will tell.
.. To get the outcome he wants, he’s willing to be scorned, parodied and even reviled in ways most of us are not. “I’m the first to admit,” he said in “The Art of the Deal,” “that I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win.” He is willing to flatter, cajole and seduce, or bully, threaten and humiliate, depending on which approach he thinks will work best.
.. I watched him switch between these modes countless times during the 18 months I spent around him.
.. If he was getting what he wanted from someone on a call, he’d invariably sign off with, “You’re the greatest, you’re the best.” If he wasn’t getting his way, he was equally comfortable hurling insults and making threats.
.. The more frequent and aggressive Trump’s tweets become, the more threatened and vulnerable he is probably feeling. But he also knows that this approach can work.
.. The other predictable pattern for Trump is his approach to loyalty. He expects it unconditionally — more so when his behaviors prompt backlash — but he provides it only as long as he gets unquestioning adulation in return.
.. One of the most revealing relationships in Trump’s life was with Roy Cohn, best known as the chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy
.. For more than a decade, Cohn fought hard on Trump’s behalf and was fiercely loyal to him. They often spoke multiple times in a day. But when Cohn became ill with AIDS in 1984, Trump dropped him immediately.
.. I can’t remember a single occasion during the time I spent around Trump when he seemed genuinely interested in the welfare of another human being, including any of his three then-young children. And at that time, he was under vastly less stress than he is now. If either Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. become Mueller’s next target, I can’t help wondering what Trump will perceive as his self-interest.