The American Obsession With Donald Trump’s Mood

As the president endures a brutal news cycle, gauging his state of mind has become a fixation of Washington.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Donald Trump isn’t mad—in fact, he’s having the time of his life.

That was more or less the spin coming out of the White House on Wednesday evening when I spoke to a senior Trump aide about the ruinous news cycle it was in the midst of enduring. Over the past 36 hours, Trump’s former campaign chairman had been convicted of financial crimes while his ex-lawyer had turned in a guilty plea that implicated the president in directing payoffs that violated campaign-finance laws. The dueling courtroom dramas had rocked Washington, unleashed an onslaught of “breaking news” alerts, and prompted widespread speculation about the peril now facing the Trump presidency.

But, according to the White House aide, Trump was entirely unfazed by the news. “He’s in a very good mood today,” the aide said, before offering up a litany of alleged reasons for his high spirits: “He was energized in West Virginia last night”; “the market is booming”; the “collusion” narrative is collapsing.

“One of the dumbest things I ever read is that the president is ‘fuming’ every day,” the aide said. “He’s really not. It’s not his natural resting place.”

Several hours after that conversation, at 1:10 a.m., the president—perhaps eager to spread his good cheer around the internet—posted a decidedly non-fuming tweet: “NO COLLUSION—RIGGED WITCH HUNT!”

It’s possible, of course, that Trump’s tweet was purely performative—a strategic, unemotional effort to drive the next morning’s news agenda and keep his base revved up. But the consensus among the Trump watchers of Twitter was that the missive indicated anger, restlessness, and maybe even panic.

Trump’s mood had already been top of mind in the wake of the Paul Manafort trial and the Michael Cohen plea deal, with well-sourced reporters offering somewhat conflicting portraits of the president’s emotional state. According to CNN, Trump was, yes, “fuming” over the developments, and calling Cohen a “rat.” In The New York Times, meanwhile, the president was described as unusually “subdued”—musing to his aides, “How did we end up here?”

But what’s notable about these various accounts isn’t the apparent discrepancies. (It’s not all that hard to imagine Trump, volatile as he is, spending a turbulent day of bad press toggling back and forth between rage and despondency.) What’s notable is just how fixated America has become on this kind of presidential temperature taking.

It’s a pattern that began during the 2016 election, when each new apparent crisis on the campaign trail was greeted with an avalanche of news stories describing Trump as “seething” or “ranting” or “venting” behind the scenes. Since then, it has extended into his presidency, with White House reporters dutifully chronicling day-to-day events with inside-the-West Wing “mood stories.”

Outside of Washington, meanwhile, an army of armchair analysts has made a game of speculating about what each tweet and stump speech reveals about Trump’s feelings in that moment—who hurt his ego, what has him worried, why he seems so upset or gleeful or irritated or irate.

And as my conversation Wednesday demonstrated, it’s not just the press or the political junkies on Twitter—Trump’s own advisers now proactively point to his moods as a way of advancing their own messaging agenda.

To a certain extent, this fixation makes sense. More than any other president in modern times, Trump seems to wear his feelings on his sleeve (or his Twitter feed). It’s one of the things that makes him seem “authentic” to voters. The temptation to search his emotional outbursts for clues about affairs of state can be strong. (I’ve certainly indulged in it.)

To those who oppose Trump, there is a certain comfort in the image of a president under siege, stomping around the West Wing in a fury, raging about the latest development in the Russia investigation or a recent taunt from a high-profile critic. It gives the appearance of accountability; it fosters hope that a reckoning is on the horizon. To Trump’s fans, meanwhile, the displays of chest-thumping bravado at his rallies are taken as proof that all is well in the White House—that the “fake news” need not be heeded.

Of course, Americans have always harbored a certain insatiable curiosity about their leaders’ inner lives. But our collective obsession with Trump’s feelings—his ups and downs, his tics and tantrums, his pendulum-like mood swings—reflects just how precarious the country’s situation can feel these days.

With democratic institutions facing a crisis of authority, and a norm-busting president sitting in the Oval Office, there’s a sense that the best we can do some days is monitor his moods and hope for the best.