An alarm­ingly er­ratic first week

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­

Week One of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was among the most alarm­ing in the his­tory of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency. There have been scarier weeks for the coun­try, cer­tainly — the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis and the Sept. 11 at­tacks. There have been more tragic ones — the Sept. 11 at­tacks again, the ter­ri­ble toll of wartime, the hor­ror of four pres­i­den­tial as­sas­si­na­tions.

There have been oc­ca­sions of ter­ri­ble pres­i­den­tial judg­ment — Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s order to de­tain U.S. cit­i­zens and nonci­t­i­zens of Ja­panese de­scent dur­ing World War II. And there have been mo­ments of loom­ing con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis — dur­ing Water­gate alone, the Saturday Night Mas­sacre, the show­down with the Supreme Court over the re­lease of the tapes, the im­peach­ment in­quiry that re­sulted in Richard Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion.

But the first week of the Trump pres­i­dency was alarm­ing in a dif­fer­ent way, be­cause the fright­en­ing part in­volved the pres­i­dent’s own er­ratic, even bizarre, be­hav­ior.

Any­one who paid even glanc­ing at­ten­tion to the 2016 cam­paign al­ready un­der­stood Don­ald Trump to be undis­ci­plined, eas­ily pro­voked and self­ab­sorbed to the point of nar­cis­sism. But it was one thing to know that in the­ory; it was much more un­set­tling to wit­ness Pres­i­dent Trump in ac­tion. In de­press­ing ret­ro­spect, the dark in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, with its in­vo­ca­tion of “car­nage” and “tomb­stones,” was the week’s high point.

On the new pres­i­dent’s agenda when he woke up the next morn­ing, The Post’s Karen Tu­multy and Juliet Eilperin re­ported, was an an­gry phone call with the act­ing di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice. Peeved over re­ports about in­au­gu­ra­tion crowd size, Trump or­dered up new pho­to­graphs of the event.

That was fol­lowed by Trump’s ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance at the CIA where, be­fore a wall hon­or­ing fallen em­ploy­ees, he once again boasted of his in­tel­lect (“trust me, I’m, like, a smart per­son”); falsely blamed the me­dia (“among the most dis­hon­est hu­man be­ings on Earth”) for in­vent­ing his feud with the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity; com­plained about cov­er­age of his in­au­gu­ra­tion crowds (“We caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they’re go­ing to pay a big price”). And, oh yes, lamented that the United States did not “keep the oil” in Iraq even as he dan­ger­ously ob­served, “Maybe you’ll have an­other chance.”

And so it went, each day feel­ing scarier than the one be­fore, and Trump’s syco­phan­tic aides model­ing his own fact-free rants — press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer’s false­hood-filled brief­ing-room tirade, coun­selor to the pres­i­dent Kellyanne Con­way’s brazen de­fense of “al­ter­na­tive facts,” chief strate­gist Stephen K. Bannon’s brutish ad­mo­ni­tion to the me­dia to “keep its mouth shut.”

Trump him­self out­did his petty ob­ses­sion with crowd size with his delu­sional ob­ses­sion with pop­u­lar-vote fraud, first be­hind closed doors with in­cred­u­lous con­gres­sional lead­ers, then for all the world to watch in his ABC in­ter­view. What was once delu­sional ego-salv­ing now ap­pears headed for of­fi­cial in­quiry.

This is omi­nous not only for the im­plicit threat of im­pos­ing new and un­nec­es­sary ob­sta­cles to vot­ing, but also be­cause it means that no one, nei­ther Amer­i­can cit­i­zens nor for­eign lead­ers, can be­lieve the pres­i­dent of the United States when he makes an as­ser­tion. Mean­time, the desta­bi­liz­ing cost of Trump’s be­hav­ior man­i­fested it­self with Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto’s abrupt can­cel­la­tion of his trip to Wash­ing­ton.

You will no­tice that my lament about the week is largely de­void of ide­o­log­i­cal con­tent. That is not be­cause his pol­icy moves are not ap­palling — they are. But you don’t have to dis­agree with Trump’s poli­cies to be rat­tled to the core by his un­hinged be­hav­ior. Many con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans pri­vately ex­press con­cerns that range from ap­pre­hen­sion to out­right dread.

There have been rea­sons to worry about other pres­i­dents’ men­tal health. Lyn­don B. John­son’s se­nior aides were so con­cerned about his be­hav­ior that they con­sulted psy­chi­a­trists. Nixon in the throes of Water­gate was drunk and un­sta­ble, so much so that his de­fense sec­re­tary, James Sch­lesinger, re­port­edly or­dered the mil­i­tary not to re­spond to White House or­ders with­out ap­proval from him or the sec­re­tary of state. Still, other pres­i­dents’ out­bursts oc­curred be­hind closed doors, and there was some hope that aides would in­ter­vene. Trump’s in­ner cir­cle seems di­vided be­tween en­ablers and in­citers.

What is to be done? In a meet­ing last week with The Post ed­i­to­rial board, Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, said he was weigh­ing leg­is­la­tion to re­quire pres­i­dents to un­dergo an in­de­pen­dent med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, in­clud­ing for men­tal health. Chaf­fetz cau­tioned that he wasn’t “talk­ing about some of the rhetoric that’s flying around” about Trump. Still, he said, “If you’re go­ing to have your hands on the nu­clear codes, you should prob­a­bly know what kind of men­tal state you’re in.”

That can’t hap­pen soon enough.

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