Pres­i­dent stirs the pot with­out feel­ing burned

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND ASH­LEY PARKER

Pres­i­dent Trump this week dis­sem­i­nated on so­cial me­dia three in­flam­ma­tory and un­ver­i­fied anti-Mus­lim videos, took glee in the fir­ing of a news an­chor for sex­ual harassment al­le­ga­tions de­spite fac­ing more than a dozen of his own ac­cusers and used a cer­e­mony hon­or­ing Navajo war he­roes to ma­lign a se­na­tor with a deroga­tory nick­name, “Poc­a­hon­tas.”

Again and again, Trump veered far past the guardrails of pres­i­den­tial be­hav­ior. But de­spite the now-rou­tine con­dem­na­tions, the pres­i­dent is act­ing em­bold­ened, as if he were im­per­vi­ous to the up­roar he causes.

If there are con­se­quences for his ac­tions, Trump does not seem to feel their bur­den per­son­ally. The Repub­li­can tax bill ap­pears on track for pas­sage, putting the pres­i­dent on the cusp of his first ma­jor leg­isla­tive achieve­ment. Trump him­self re­mains the high­est-pro­file man ac­cused of sex­ual im­pro­pri­eties to keep his job with no reper­cus­sions.

Trump has in­ter­nal­ized the be­lief that he can largely op­er­ate

with im­punity, peo­ple close to him said. His po­lit­i­cal base cheers him on. Fel­low Repub­li­can lead­ers largely stand by him. His staff scram­bles to ex­plain away his mis­be­hav­ior — or even to laugh it off. And the White House dis­ci­plinar­ian, chief of staff John F. Kelly, has said it is not his job to con­trol the pres­i­dent.

For years, Trump has fired off in­cen­di­ary tweets and cre­ated self-sab­o­tag­ing con­tro­ver­sies. The pat­tern cap­tures the mus­ings of a man who traf­fics in con­spir­acy the­o­ries and al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties and who can’t re­sist in­sert­ing him­self into any story line at any mo­ment.

“In an in­tensely po­lar­ized world, you can’t burn down the same house twice,” said Alex Castel­lanos, a GOP cam­paign con­sul­tant. “What has Don­ald Trump got to lose at this point?”

Castel­lanos added that for many vot­ers, and es­pe­cially Trump’s base, there’s an “up­side” to his bel­li­cos­ity. “A strong daddy bear is what a lot of vot­ers want,” he said. “Right or wrong, at least he’s fight­ing for us.”

On Wed­nes­day, Trump took to Twit­ter be­fore sun­rise to share three un­ver­i­fied videos with his 43.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers that seemed de­signed to stoke anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ments. He then rel­ished in the fir­ing of Matt Lauer from NBC’s “To­day” show for al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct and fanned un­sub­stan­ti­ated ru­mors about three other NBC and MSNBC ex­ec­u­tives and per­son­al­i­ties.

Two days ear­lier, Trump used a cer­e­mony hon­or­ing the World War II Navajo code talk­ers to de­ride Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (DMass.) by us­ing his nick­name for her, “Poc­a­hon­tas.” Na­tive Amer­i­can lead­ers and other Amer­i­cans have ob­jected to the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as a racial slur.

Trump trav­eled on Wed­nes­day to Mis­souri, where he pitched the tax over­haul plan. He ex­plained that he did not mind that the bill might close loop­holes for the wealthy like him­self.

Trump and other wealthy Amer­i­cans are poised to ben­e­fit from the plan, ac­cord­ing to tax ex­perts, be­cause of cuts to es­tate and busi­ness taxes and other re­lief for real es­tate hold­ings. Trump has re­fused to re­lease his tax re­turns, so it is im­pos­si­ble to say ex­actly how he would ben­e­fit.

In Mis­souri, he was talk­ing about taxes, but he might as well been de­scrib­ing his mind-set.

“Hey, look, I’m pres­i­dent,” Trump said. “I don’t care. I don’t care any­more.”

Trump’s anti-Is­lam tweets on Wed­nes­day — he retweeted videos first posted by a leader of the far­right Bri­tain First party, an ex­trem­ist group that tar­gets mosques and Mus­lims — earned him a sharp re­buke from the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter’s of­fice.

The retweets also caught his West Wing team off guard. One aide said staffers were un­sure ex­actly how to re­spond to — let alone de­fend — his tweets, while an­other noted that the tweets were un­ex­pected but not nec­es­sar­ily out of char­ac­ter.

“He got pretty fired up this morn­ing,” said the sec­ond aide, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to of­fer a can­did as­sess­ment. “This was not planned.”

White House spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders de­fended Trump’s post as ev­i­dence that he wants to “pro­mote strong bor­ders and strong na­tional se­cu­rity.” But she sidestepped ques­tions on whether the pres­i­dent should give his Twit­ter en­dorse­ment to con­tent whose au­then­tic­ity was not ver­i­fied.

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real, and that is what the pres­i­dent is talk­ing about,” San­ders told re­porters.

Ja­son Miller, a for­mer Trump cam­paign ad­viser, said the me­dia were over­re­act­ing to the pres­i­dent’s shar­ing of anti-Mus­lim videos. “A very small num­ber of peo­ple, pri­mar­ily in New York and Wash­ing­ton, are com­plain­ing about the ori­gin of the tweets, and most of the rest of the coun­try is talk­ing about the need for stricter border se­cu­rity and the threat of rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism,” Miller said.

Still, by shar­ing the videos, Trump cre­ated prob­lems for him­self. He un­der­mined the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s le­gal strat­egy in de­fend­ing the con­tro­ver­sial en­try ban by of­fer­ing ev­i­dence of an­tiMus­lim bias. Fed­eral judges have blocked var­i­ous ver­sions of the ban be­cause it is akin to an un­con­sti­tu­tional ban on Mus­lims, which Trump had called for dur­ing the cam­paign.

One of Trump’s aides, deputy press sec­re­tary Raj Shah, also may have com­pli­cated the le­gal strat­egy. Aboard Air Force One on Wed­nes­day, Shah an­swered a reporter’s ques­tion about whether Trump thinks Mus­lims are a threat to the United States by say­ing, “No, look, the pres­i­dent has ad­dressed th­ese is­sues with the travel order that he is­sued ear­lier this year and the com­pan­ion procla­ma­tion.”

Trump also strained, at least tem­po­rar­ily, the spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with Bri­tain. A spokesman for Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May de­liv­ered a rare re­buke from 10 Down­ing Street: “Bri­tish peo­ple over­whelm­ingly re­ject the prej­u­diced rhetoric of the far-right which is the an­tithe­sis of the val­ues that this coun­try rep­re­sents: de­cency, tol­er­ance and re­spect.”

On Wed­nes­day evening, Trump re­sponded on Twit­ter: “Theresa May, don’t fo­cus on me, fo­cus on the de­struc­tive Rad­i­cal Is­lamic Ter­ror­ism that is tak­ing place within the United King­dom. We are do­ing just fine!”

Trump’s ad­vis­ers and friends said he feels em­bold­ened, even in­vin­ci­ble, to com­mu­ni­cate as he chooses — es­pe­cially on cul­tural is­sues, be­liev­ing that his stances work for him po­lit­i­cally by gal­va­niz­ing his base.

Hav­ing long traf­ficked in con­spir­acy the­o­ries — his po­lit­i­cal rise was fu­eled by his role as one of the na­tion’s lead­ing cham­pi­ons of the false claim that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was not born in the United States — Trump con­tin­ues as pres­i­dent to pro­mote false­hoods and re­ject facts.

Trump has re­cently told friends that he be­lieves spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be wind­ing down by the end of the year and that he will be ex­on­er­ated, even though many ex­perts and oth­ers close to the wide-rang­ing probe say that view is overly op­ti­mistic.

Trump has watched as other high-pro­file men’s ca­reers have crum­bled un­der the weight of pub­lic ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct. Yet Trump has faced no dis­ci­plinary reper­cus­sions, even af­ter brag­ging on a 2005 tape about hav­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted women. “Grab ’em by the p---y. You can do any­thing,” Trump told “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” host Billy Bush, who lost his job over the in­ci­dent.

Dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, more than 12 women pub­licly came for­ward with claims that Trump had sex­u­ally ha­rassed or as­saulted them. Yet Trump cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nied the women’s ac­counts and won the elec­tion.

Trump oc­ca­sion­ally has even spec­u­lated, in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions with ad­vis­ers and friends over the past year, that the voice in the tape may not be his or that the tape may have been un­fairly doc­tored.

Roger Stone, a for­mer po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to and long­time friend of Trump’s, said the pres­i­dent is less strate­gic and more spon­ta­neous with his con­tro­ver­sial com­ments.

“I just think you’re see­ing the pres­i­dent as way too Machi­avel­lian,” Stone said. “He doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have a strat­egy. His in­stincts on the news cy­cle and how to tweak his en­e­mies is ex­tra­or­di­nary. . . . He’s a mas­ter mar­keter, and the only thing worse than be­ing wrong is be­ing bor­ing. We’re talk­ing about this now.”

Trump feels es­pe­cially lib­er­ated when he is at Mar-a-Lago, his lush sea­side re­sort in Palm Beach, Fla., where he spent the Thanksgiving hol­i­day, ac­cord­ing to his friends. There, Trump en­joys a less struc­tured and dis­ci­plined en­vi­ron­ment than at the White House, where Kelly at­tempts to tightly con­trol whom the pres­i­dent sees and what in­for­ma­tion he re­ceives.

In Palm Beach, friends and club mem­bers can ap­proach Trump at will and plant ideas in the pres­i­dent’s head, which he some­times re­peats or acts on.

Two out­side ad­vis­ers to Trump sus­pected it was no co­in­ci­dence that he re­turned to Wash­ing­ton on Sun­day night and soon there­after struck a pug­na­cious tone in his pub­lic com­ments.

“Mar-a-Lago stirs him up,” said one of the ad­vis­ers, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to be can­did.

On Capitol Hill, Repub­li­cans strug­gled Wed­nes­day to de­fend the pres­i­dent. Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.) said Trump’s retweets of the videos were “par­tic­u­larly un­help­ful.”

“We don’t want to take a fringe group and el­e­vate their con­tent,” Gra­ham said. “I think it also is not the mes­sage we need to be send­ing right now where we need, you know, Mus­lim al­lies.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an out­spo­ken Trump critic, agreed: “I just thought it was highly in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Not help­ful.”

GOP strate­gist John Braben­der said Trump’s tweets dis­tracted from his agenda to pass a tax cuts bill and fo­cus on the nu­clear threat from North Korea. But, Braben­der said, “this is not new in Don­ald Trump’s world.”

“We’re see­ing the mes­sage hi­jacked by the mes­sen­ger,” Braben­der said. “That’s been prob­lem­atic for a long time and it’s still prob­lem­atic. . . . Some­times we all just scratch our heads.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump walks to­ward Marine One as he heads to Mis­souri to pro­mote the Repub­li­can tax-code over­haul.

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