2020 Time Capsule #7: ‘I Don’t Think I’m Going to Learn Much’

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Being president is even harder than it looks. Success in the job requires a wider range of talents than any one human being has ever had: Private persuasive and horse-trading skills. Public ability to inspire. The analytical capacity to grasp decisions that lack any “good” answer. The emotional capacity to read the moods and needs of the country, as those change. Physical stamina. Psychological balance. A ruthless ability to judge character, especially among allies and staff members. A similarly steely ability to block out bitter and hurtful criticism—otherwise, you couldn’t function—without becoming deaf to warnings of genuine problems. And that’s just the start of the list.

As I noted in a piece about Barack Obama as he neared the end of his first term, these demands of office are so many, so different, and so complex that the question is not whether a given president will fail in office. All of them will fall short in some parts of the job. The relevant question is whether the areas of each president’s inevitable failures will matter more, or less, than those of his success. John Dickerson went into the ramifications of “The Hardest Job in the World” in a big Atlantic story two years ago. (Update: Dickerson did an eloquent brief segment on the requirements of presidential leadership-in-crisis, on Face the Nation yesterday.)

Because this job is impossible, people who hold it go through a predictable change of attitude toward their living predecessors. On arrival, new presidents usually think: Look at me! I’ve won the biggest prize in public life. I don’t know why these other guys messed things up so badly. Let me show them how it’s done!

The years go on; the problems mount; Congress is a headache; the public can’t be pleased. Predictably, presidents develop “strange new respect” for the only other human beings who understand what they are going through. Usually when running for the office, presidential candidates criticize those who came before—directly, if mounting a challenge, or indirectly, in suggesting how much better things will be under new management. But after a president has been roughed up for a while, he’s more careful in his criticism. (Really, it’s hard to find on-the-record examples of many of the first 44 presidents criticizing their predecessors.) Sometimes in public, more often in private, presidents go to those who have left office to ask: What do you think? Or: Can you help us out?

This reality was the premise of a question an hour into Donald Trump’s very long press appearance yesterday afternoon. In the exchange—which you can see starting at time 59:00 of this video—a reporter asked Trump:

In previous crises like the tsunami, and Katrina, past presidents have called their predecessors and said, Hey I need you to step in, and do something like that.

Do you have any interest in reaching out to presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter—

Before he finished the question, Trump was talking over him to challenge the premise. Trump answered:

Look. I have the best people in the world. I think we’re doing an extraordinary job.

If you look at the H1N1 [under Obama], if you look at that whole—that was a disaster, that was a tough period of time for our country. You look at so many other things that weren’t handled very well, whether it’s Katrina [under GW Bush] or something else.

Look, I respect everybody. But I feel I have an incredible team and I think we’re doing an incredible job….

I don’t want to disturb them, bother them. I don’t think I’m going to learn much.

What this reveals about Donald Trump’s self-regard and Dunning-Krugerism is too obvious to need elaboration. Also his intolerance for even imagined criticism, and his instinct to respond with an attack. In this case, the question invited him to step into the  long tradition of presidents facing crisis. Instead he used it not only to elevate himself but also to diminish the others. (“So many things that weren’t handled very well.”) Others presidents likely thought such things to themselves, especially early in a term. But they would not have said them—on nationwide TV, during a crisis, when supposedly trying to inspire, unite, and heal.


Two other remarkable events of the day:

  • When told by a questioner that Mitt Romney had isolated himself (presumably after meetings with his Senate colleague Rand Paul, who yesterday tested positive for the disease), Trump acted surprised. “Romney’s in isolation?” he asked. When told it was true, he said, with obvious sarcasm, “Gee, that’s too bad.” (You can judge the tone for yourself, starting at time 43:40 of this clip.)
Again, many public leaders might have thought this of their rivals. No others would have said it out loud.
  • I mentioned earlier the extraordinary position of Anthony Fauci, during the pandemic. He has a lifetime’s worth of credibility behind his words and advice. But he is being made to stand almost every day, on live TV, behind a president saying things that Fauci then needs--tactfully—to correct.
The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas had an interview with Fauci yesterday morning, in which he said that the administration had not pressured him to be more visibly supportive — “I’m not sure why.” Later in the day, Jon Cohen of Science published an interview unlike any I have read from a figure who was still serving within Trump’s orbit. A sample:

Q: You're standing there saying nobody should gather with more than 10 people and there are almost 10 people with you on the stage….

A: I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.

Q: What about the travel restrictions?… It just doesn't comport with facts.

A:  I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?

What I want, as of today, March 23, is for him to stay there, as long as he can.