Trump Is Panicking

The president has lost control of the news cycle, and doesn’t know what to do next.

Trump speaks at the United Nations
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

When Donald Trump stepped to the dais at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, he had a speech full of sharp lines: swipes at socialism, assertions of nationalism versus globalism, harsh words for Iran. Though Trump doesn’t enjoy delivering scripted remarks, he sounded listless, tired, and bored even by his own standards, struggling through the speech.

The president had a good reason to be distracted. The same morning, he had spoken on the phone with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, trying to stem a growing tide of Democratic demands for his impeachment. According to NBC’s Heidi Przybyla, Trump asked Pelosi whether there was some way they could make a deal. Pelosi said the White House had to release the whistle-blower complaint to Congress, as required by statute. “Tell your people to obey the law,” she said.

After weeks of defiance, Trump seemed to change course. Yesterday afternoon, he announced that the White House would release a transcript of his July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Later in the day, Politico’s Nancy Cook reported that the White House would release the whistle-blower complaint to Congress.

It was not enough to satisfy Pelosi. At 5 p.m. yesterday, she stepped before microphones in Washington and announced an “official impeachment inquiry,” with her support, into the president. It’s still unclear what this means materially, but it rattled Trump. At home in Trump Tower, he was stunned, believing that he’d managed to put Pelosi off in their morning conversation, according to CNN.

Chaos is a constant in the Trump administration, but this week there are signs of a far rarer impulse: panic. The indications come in Trump’s demeanor, including the listless speech; a combative, brief press availability with Zelensky at the UN this morning; and a rambling, stream-of-semi-consciousness press availability this afternoon. They also manifest in his actions, with the White House suddenly scrambling to release documents that it had spent weeks zealously defending. This is not strategic withdrawal, but a wholesale rout. Trump is probably right to be shaken. No matter how many administration officials try to spin an impeachment inquiry as somehow constituting good news for Trump, it’s not persuasive, even if the president is never impeached, much less convicted.

Though such moments are rare, this is not the first instance of panic in Trump’s political career. Each time has seemed like a moment of peril, and after each he has engineered a comeback. The first came in October 2016, after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women. Republican officials began pressuring Trump to drop out of the race, and his running mate, Mike Pence, even considered attempting to depose him, my colleague McKay Coppins reported. Trump appeared on television and apologized, showing unusual contrition. Within days, however, he’d gone back on the offensive, aided in part by WikiLeaks’ release of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

A second came in May 2017. Trump had impulsively fired FBI Director James Comey, apparently expecting that Democrats, who were furious over Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, would back him. Instead, he set off a furious political backlash, culminating in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment. Trump was apoplectic. “Oh my God,” he said. “This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” But Trump weathered that, too.

Months later, he panicked again after his response to a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump initially condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Reeling from the backlash, Trump then offered a stronger statement condemning white supremacists, then flipped back, insisting there were “very fine people” marching with the white supremacists. This furor eventually calmed as well, though not without doing some permanent damage to Trump’s reputation.

There have been other moments of panic—in January 2018, around the release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or the December 2018–January 2019 government shutdown. These were all times when control of the news cycle, consistently Trump’s most powerful political skill, has slipped from his grasp. In that regard, this moment could be even more dangerous. As I wrote yesterday, impeachment inquiries are unpredictable, protean things, prone to spinning off in unexpected directions. The president’s mastery of the news cycle is predicated in part on his control of what gets released and when, a power that seems to be slipping from his grasp at the moment.

But these past cases also demonstrate Trump’s remarkable resilience. Each crisis saps his standing a little, but he has repeatedly managed to pull himself out of a free fall in situations that would probably have toppled a less agile politician. The Ukraine crisis will be the greatest test yet of his abilities.