Is Trump Becoming Self-Aware?

The president’s reported criticism of Cabinet members Wilbur Ross and Ryan Zinke strikes directly at some of his own shortcomings.

Wilbur Ross and Donald Trump
Wilbur Ross and Donald Trump (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Taking a job with Donald Trump means agreeing to sometimes be attacked by Donald Trump. This week’s victims are Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“These trade deals, they’re terrible,” Trump told Ross, according to Jonathan Swan at Axios. “Your understanding of trade is terrible. Your deals are no good. No good.” The president rejected a trade deal that Ross thought was closed. Ross also reportedly falls asleep repeatedly in meetings.

Zinke’s problem is different. First the administration announced a major expansion of offshore oil drilling. Then Florida Governor Rick Scott protested, because drilling is unpopular among Floridians, and since Scott is a Republican Trump ally and likely 2018 U.S. Senate candidate, Zinke hastily announced Florida would no longer be covered by the change. That, of course, led governors in other states to demand the same treatment. More recently, the Interior Department has had to walk back the exception.

Swan again: “Trump has made clear to Zinke that he’s angry about this move, according to two sources with direct knowledge. Zinke's decision is both legally and politically dangerous for the Trump administration. Zinke did not coordinate with anybody, and gave the White House no forewarning of his controversial action.”

In short, Ross is a Wall Street titan of an earlier age, he’s lost a step and often seems out of touch, and he can’t strike a deal. Zinke is impulsive, makes short-sighted decisions, offers unwise favors to friends, and fails to coordinate with staff before making announcements. Do these shortcomings sound familiar?

Frustration with top appointees is not new for Trump—just ask Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, Sean Spicer, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, or any number of others. What’s interesting here are the specific complaints. While Trump has criticized those other figures for various sins, from weakness to skullduggery to simple disagreements over approach, the things that Trump criticizes in Ross and Zinke are flaws that the president himself has demonstrated.

Trump, like Ross, is a business star of an earlier period. Both men have struggled to conform to ethics rules. As Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury made clear, many of Trump’s aides have made the same observation that outsiders have: Trump is incapable of or uninterested in mastering even fairly basic details of policymaking, and refuses to concentrate on his tasks, drifting off into digressions and his own obsessions like television. (Trump has not, however, drifted off in any meetings; his doctor notes that he barely sleeps at all.) Neither man seems able to make decent deals these days.

Zinke, like Trump, is a relative political neophyte with an instinctive grasp for political theater (the man rode a horse through the streets of D.C. on his first day of work) and has a weakness for private jets. Moreover, his impulsive decision to announce an exception for Florida from drilling is a classically Trumpian move: Made with a keen nose for political benefits and a total disregard for the procedures needed to pull it off. It’s reminiscent of the scene Howard Kurtz draws in a new book of Trump tweeting his decision to ban transgender people from the military, announcing it ahead of a planned meeting with no warning for staff. (The transgender ban, like Zinke’s exception, is now tied up in red tape.)

Ross, effectively confirming that reports of his tension with Trump last year were true, said they were now obsolete. Zinke told Breitbart his relationship with Trump was strong, but didn’t deny tension over the Florida matter.

As McKay Coppins wrote last year, Trump has a tendency to hire people who resemble himself. They are, however, unable to get away with doing the same things that Trump does. Tump’s attacks on Ross as an over-the-hill space cadet and Zinke as an intemperate, nasty decision-maker seem like recognition that these flaws can pose real problems for federal officeholders. Combine that with his silence during the government shutdown, leading to what has so far been rated as a Republican win, and it raises the question of whether Trump is becoming self-aware.

Eh, perhaps. Trump has a much longer history of projecting his own faults onto others and a long history of false pivots, so it would be imprudent to quickly label this some sort of turnaround.

Trump’s method of handling disappointment with top aides has not changed. Despite making it his catchphrase, he has shown a real aversion to telling staffers they’re fired, and much prefers to lambaste them either publicly or privately. He fired James Comey outright (a decision now apparently being scrutinized by Special Counsel Robert Mueller) and forced resignations from Michael Flynn, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci, and Steve Bannon. More often, however, he’s preferred to leave people dangling. He continues to criticize Attorney General Jeff Sessions during interviews, but has rejected at least one resignation offer. He tried to get Sean Spicer to stay on. He has repeatedly insulted and undercut Secretary of State Rex Tillerson but has not pushed him out.

Maybe it’s better to keep these beleaguered aides around, though. If they were gone, Trump might have to focus on his own flaws instead of theirs.