Have you ever had a job you loved, but one where you felt like you’d achieved everything you could? So you looked for a new job, went through a fairly grueling application process, if you do say so yourself, got the offer. Then you started the job, and you hated it. Worse, all the tricks you’d learned in your old job seemed to be pretty much useless in the new one. Did you ever have that experience?
The president of the United States can sympathize.
Donald Trump held the first extended press conference of his presidency on Thursday, and it was a stunning, disorienting experience. He mused about nuclear war, escalated his feud with the press, continued to dwell on the vote count in November, asked whether a black reporter was friends with the Congressional Black Caucus, and, almost as an afterthought, announced his selection for secretary of labor.
One of the few continuous themes through the otherwise disjointed performance was how little fun Trump is having. “As you know, our administration inherited many problems across government and across the economy,” Trump started in, continuing:
To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country; you see what’s going on with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other places, low pay, low wages, mass instability overseas, no matter where you look. The Middle East is a disaster. North Korea—we’ll take care of it folks; we’re going to take care of it all. I just want to let you know, I inherited a mess.
Much of the press conference proceeded as an airing of grievances, as Trump unspooled his frustrations—principally with the press, but also quite clearly with the federal judiciary, the Senate, the Democratic Party, the intelligence community, ISIS, and whoever else came to mind.
The litany of misery wasn’t always consistent. On the one hand, “Jobs have already started to surge,” he said. On the other, “Jobs are pouring out of the country.” Trump’s doomsaying on the economy cut directly against a triumphant tweet Thursday morning, in which he boasted, “Stock market hits new high with longest winning streak in decades. Great level of confidence and optimism - even before tax plan rollout!”
There’s been a boom in the cottage industry of diagnosing the president’s mental health from afar these days, the kind of thing that shouldn’t even be done by licensed professionals, much less amateurs. But it’s hard not to suspect that Trump isn’t having a lot of fun. He’s eyed the presidency for decades, and now that he’s in the White House, he seems deeply unhappy.
And who can blame him? The administration is plagued by leaks, from rival factions sniping at each other within the West Wing to intelligence officials speaking for stories that have damaged the administration and brought down National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. (Yes, Virginia, that was this week, even though it feels like forever ago.) Trump’s signature immigration executive order has been halted by federal courts. The storied wall isn’t under construction, and Mexico still won’t pay. Several Cabinet spots remain unfilled. There’s little progress on repealing and replacing Obamacare. He is beginning to learn just how slowly the wheels of action turn in politics. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have slowly begun to agitate for investigations into various questionable Trump moves.
Trump tried to insist everything was fine. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos,” he said. “Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my cabinet approved.”
He argued that, in the face of the evidence, he had already accomplished much. “In each of these actions, I’m keeping my promises to the American people. These are campaign promises,” he said. “Some people are so surprised that we’re having strong borders.”
His mood and words suggested otherwise. “I’m not ranting and raving,” he ranted and raved. There are other signs of frustration. Rather than spend weekends at the White House, he has made a habit of going to Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort where he apparently feels more comfortable. On Saturday, he’ll hold what his aides have described as a campaign rally, effectively starting his 2020 reelection race. These are excuses to leave Washington, but they also point to a president who misses the presidential campaign, when he was an underdog who kept beating expectations, and before he had to wrestle with the work of governing. That nostalgia manifested itself in a reverie about the election, and how no one thought he could win.
“We got 306 because people came out and voted like they’ve never seen before so that’s the way it goes,” he said. In fact, he got 304. “I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan,” Trump said, again falsely.
Trump is not alone in encountering some challenges in his early presidency. John Kennedy joked to Robert McNamara, “I'm not aware of any school for presidents.” After receiving his first classified briefing as president-elect, in 2008, Barack Obama quipped, “It’s good that there are bars on the windows here because if there weren’t, I might be jumping out.”
Nor is Trump alone in his battles with the press. “I'm kind of sitting back and enjoying Trump's war with the press,” Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff, CIA director, and defense secretary, told me recently. “I've worked in one way or another under nine presidents. There isn't one of them that had a loving relationship with the press. The nature of it is presidents hate bad stories.”
But Trump seems to take this unusually personally, perhaps because he has always recognized the power of the media to craft his image, and so masterfully manipulated it in building his business legend and his presidential campaign. Now he can’t seem to catch a break from the press.
What about the problems he identified—ISIS, the economy, and so on: Did Trump not expect them to be intractable, thorny problems? After all, his campaign was predicated on a dark vision of America coming apart at the seams. On stumps from Arizona to Appalachia to Akron, he warned of the evils of the establishment, the threats of ISIS, the struggles of the economy. “I alone can fix it,” he pledged. Did Trump not believe his own rhetoric, or did he imagine that these problems would melt away simply by virtue of his inauguration?
The early Trump presidency has been more chaotic than any other recent launch, even the hectic first days of the Clinton administration. It’s hard to know what to make of Trump’s jeremiad, which, beneath the bluster and fury, telegraphed a plaintive frustration that he had been unable to accomplish more, and perhaps moreover to convince the press and the public that he was accomplishing more. The catch-22 for Trump is this: As his ratings obsession shows, he desperately wants to be loved. Yet that desire for approval is leading Trump toward campaign events, to Mar-a-Lago, to searingly weird press conferences—all things that distract him from getting down to the real work of governing, without which his performance and approval are unlikely to rise.