The Infantilization of the President

Aides have doubted prior presidents’ wisdom, health, or sobriety, but never have so many insiders treated the commander in chief like a child.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

As every toddler knows, bigger is better, whether that’s two scoops of ice cream (versus one for everyone else), a border wall, or a nuclear arsenal.

And that was President Trump’s reaction during a July meeting with military and national-security leaders about the nuclear arsenal, too, according to NBC News. In total, he sought a tenfold increase in the U.S. store of nukes:

Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.

Trump’s aides were taken aback: “Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the buildup.” Officials said there’s currently no plan for a massive buildup.

If Trump’s approach to nukes and ice cream alike is childlike, this story is the latest example of how Trump’s aides treat him like a child too. In the case of the nuclear weapons, advisers seem to have taken Trump’s outburst as bizarre and dangerous and quietly moved to suppress it. In the past, aides have disagreed with presidents’ judgments as unwise, worried that their drinking would on occasion render them dangerous, or expressed concern that they were suffering from senility. Nor is it uncommon for a politician’s critics to describe him as childish and unprepared—decades before Lloyd Bentsen slammed Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy,” Richard Nixon warned that Jack Kennedy was not prepared for the presidency.

What is different in the Trump administration is that it’s the president’s own loyalists who view, speak about, and treat him as a child.

This is apparent in  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s description of the president, following this meeting, as a “moron”—suggesting that Trump is simply not cognitively or emotionally up to the job. And this week has seen several other examples. There is of course Senator Bob Corker’s remark that the White House functions as “an adult day care” and his follow-up to The New York Times: “He doesn’t realize that, you know, that we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.” Corker also complained, like a weary parent, “I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.” Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicated he does not trust Trump to keep America safe, saying that Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Chief of Staff John Kelly “are those people that help separate our country from chaos.”

Other aides spoke about Trump this week like an under-napped toddler on the verge of a tantrum. The Washington Post reports: “One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam, he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. ‘I think we are in pressure-cooker territory,’ said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.”

Dan Drezner has spent months cataloguing devastating instances of infantilizing language on matters great and small. Kellyanne Conway compared dealing with him to her daughter—she has to lay out outfits for her daughter to choose from, for example. Trump encourages this attitude, especially with playground insults like mocking Corker’s height or challenging Tillerson to an IQ test.

This infantilizing impulse permeates the White House on matters concrete and abstract. Multiple reports have focused on how Kelly views controlling the flow of information to the president as a paramount task—because aides cannot rely on the president to seek out reliable news and data or to assess them critically. The Los Angeles Times reports the two men have engaged in repeated shouting matches recently, and Kelly keeps being filmed or photographed looking embarrassed as Trump speaks—like a pained father whose kid is pitching a fit in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.

Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, was not especially successful at controlling information flow to the Oval Office, but he had his own strategies for managing the president. Politico’s Josh Dawsey reported this week on how Priebus would often convince Trump to defer some impulsive decision until the following week, knowing that Trump would forget or change his mind by then: “Delaying the decision would give Priebus and others a chance to change his mind or bring in advisers to speak with Trump—and in some cases, to ensure Trump would drop the idea altogether and move on.”

Drezner approached the infantilization question through the lens of the ongoing trope among Trump allies that he just needs some time to grow into the role of the presidency. This is the view that Corker espoused until recently, when his decision not to run for reelection freed up his tongue, and it’s one still espoused by Tom Barrack, a Trump confidant who insists to The Washington Post that “in my opinion, he’s better than this.” But there’s another, larger issue at stake. The question isn’t just Trump’s stature and conduct, or the juicy stories that seep out of the West Wing, but very real policy choices, like American nuclear posture.

Or, for that matter, whether the U.S. might go to war soon with either North Korea or Iran, as I wrote yesterday. On the North Korean front, the president has repeatedly made bellicose remarks for months, even as aides try to slow-walk the slide toward war, warning of the catastrophic destruction that would result, insisting that all options remain on the table, and trying to keep diplomatic channels open—only to see Trump repeatedly undercut them. Even as the president seems eager for confrontation, more prudent members of the team have sought to redirect his anger.

Bargaining is another technique, as recent news about Iran shows. While many of Trump’s aides had their gripes about the 2015 deal with Tehran to prevent nuclear proliferation, most of them seem to agree that keeping the deal in place is far preferable to eliminating it. But now the administration seems likely to punt the issue, decertifying the deal but leaving it to Congress to either let it stand or fall. (So much for Harry S. Truman’s “the buck stops here.”) Why take this halfway step? Part of it is that, just as on DACA, Trump wants to keep a campaign promise to end the deal without suffering the consequences, but another part is childish petulance: Olivier Knox reports Trump simply hates being confronted with the need to recertify the deal every 90 days.

And then, as every parent knows, sometimes you just have to give in—let the kid have a victory on something less significant. Aides can try to prevent war with North Korea, and they can seek compromise on the Iran deal, and they can quietly kill the demand for more nukes, but they’ve got to let the president have his way on occasion. When Trump demands “goddamned steam” to power catapults on aircraft carriers, aides shrug and let it go.

Trump’s childish behavior was worrying when it involved belittling his opponents, discussing his genitalia, or taking swipes at former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, but it takes on a new level of danger when it affects U.S. military policy, from Iran to North Korea to the nuclear arsenal. There’s a powerful, perhaps too powerful, urge to seek historical analogues for Trump, but seldom has there been a president whose own loyalists and insiders were so dismissive of his maturity, judgment, and prudence. So how does the presidency work when the president’s aides treat him like a child? The immediate answer is, not very well. The longer-term answers are murkier and scarier.