The country is entering a new and precarious phase, in which the central question about President Donald Trump is not whether he is coming unstrung, but rather just how unstrung he is going to get.
The boiling mind of Trump has spawned a cottage industry for cognitive experts who have questioned whether he is, well, all there. But as the impeachment inquiry barrels ahead on Capitol Hill, several associates of the president, including former White House aides, worry that his behavior is likely to get worse. Angered by the proceedings, unencumbered by aides willing to question his judgment, and more and more isolated in the West Wing, Trump is apt to lash out more at enemies imagined and real, these people told me. Conduct that has long been unsettling figures to deteriorate as Trump comes under mounting stress. What unfolded Wednesday inside the West Wing’s walls might be only a foretaste of what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described that day, after a meeting with Trump, as a presidential “meltdown.”
“He’s grown more comfortable in the job and less willing to assimilate new information and trust new advisers,” a former White House official told me. “He’s decided to throw caution to the wind and go it alone, especially when he’s stressed and feels under attack and threatened in various ways. Then his worst impulses and vices shine through.”
On Wednesday alone, he peddled a discredited conspiracy theory in an Oval Office meeting with his Italian counterpart; threw a tantrum during the meeting with Pelosi; dismissed former Defense Secretary James Mattis as “the world’s most overrated general”; and released a letter he wrote to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that was so bizarre, people weren’t convinced it was real (“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”).
At least one associate has confronted Trump recently about his judgment, specifically his decision to repeatedly attack the Biden family. Isn’t it unseemly for a president to target Joe Biden’s son Hunter? Wouldn’t it be smarter, at least, to outsource this sort of attack to someone else?
According to a person close to the president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations, Trump’s explanation was that he acts as any normal person might, and that he won’t be moved by what he calls “political correctness.” “You don’t get it,” Trump said.
Most presidents in the modern era have had emotional moorings to sustain them during crises. President Franklin D. Roosevelt fussed over his stamp collection as he plotted victory in World War II. President Barack Obama would play miniature golf with his young daughters and basketball with old friends from Hawaii as he navigated the financial crisis. In Trump’s world, these sorts of leavening influences don’t seem to exist. Apparently absent from his life are traditional family bonds, creative outlets and hobbies, even exercise. (While some of his children are visible and vocal advocates for their father, Trump’s relationships with them are notoriously complex.) Splayed out on Twitter, his life has always seemed a limitless diet of Fox & Friends episodes and interpersonal disputes. Long gone are the trusted aides with whom he seemed comfortable (and who were willing to speak their mind), such as the senior adviser Hope Hicks.
“I think what we’re viewing, if you think about the human side of it, is the man has no life. He just has no life,” the person close to him told me.
A common question these days is whether Trump has an impairment of some sort that might explain his behavior. Writing in The Atlantic earlier this month, the lawyer George Conway, who is married to the Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, described how some health professionals have ascribed two personality disorders to Trump: pathological narcissism and antisocial personality disorder.
But the latest concerns about Trump are just a crescendo in a long-running drama. Sam Nunberg, a former 2016 Trump-campaign aide, told me that a colleague once approached him and asked if Trump was losing it, saying they had just had the same conversation twice. Nunberg dismissed such concerns, assuring him that it was only because Trump likely wasn’t paying attention the first time.
His speech has changed over time, too. Software programs show that Trump currently speaks at a fourth-to-sixth-grade level. (Politicians are practiced at speaking to wide swaths of Americans, but Obama, for example, according to those speech analyses, spoke at an 11th-grade level in his final news conference as president.) A study last year by two University of Pittsburgh professors examining Trump’s appearances on Fox News found that the quality of his speech was worsening. They studied his comments over a seven-year period ending in 2017—just as his presidency began—and found that he had begun using substantially more “filler words”such as um and uh, though the authors did not conclude that the change signaled cognitive decline.
Even a casual observer can see the disordered and nonlinear thinking behind Trump’s speech. A case in point was Trump’s rally last week in Minneapolis. Within minutes of taking the stage, Trump launched, without explanation, into a dramatic reading of what he imagined was the pillow talk between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, a pair of former FBI officials who had exchanged text messages critical of the president. He gave no context as to why he was talking about them, leaving it to the audience to fill in the Mall of America–size blanks. Trump never even mentioned that they had worked for the FBI or that Strzok was at one point involved in the Russia investigation—just that they were “lovers” who disliked him. (Still, as theater, it seemed to work. When Trump cooed, “Oh, God. I love you, Lisa!” the audience laughed appreciatively.)
Other people who have worked with Trump in the White House and on the 2016 campaign pushed back on the notion that his mental acuity has eroded over time. “Every president has a super-exaggerated ego and personality in some way,” Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland-security adviser and a former official in President George W. Bush’s administration, told me. I asked him if presidents or presidential candidates should be subject to a fitness test measuring whether they’re up to the job. Various psychologists have floated this idea in response to Trump’s behavior. “I’m not sure what the fitness standard would reveal about people who are already wired that way,” Bossert said.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that impeachment won’t lead to Trump’s removal, but that view rests on Republicans continuing to stay by his side. Even those most loyal to Trump could lose patience if his rash decision making collides with their own interests. Trump’s impulsive decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria last week, setting the stage for Turkey’s attack on America’s Kurdish partners, has already infuriated some of his closest friends in Congress. It was soon after the House, in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, rebuked his Syria gambit on Wednesday that Trump lashed out at Pelosi, prompting her to abruptly walk out of their meeting. (Democrats, of course, are seizing the opportunity. “For those who don’t do politics professionally or even follow it closely: It is getting worse. He is getting worse,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii tweeted last night.)
At least one lawmaker thinks that Republicans could hit a tipping point—though he’s a Democrat. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland told me that it might be easier for Republicans to concede that Trump is unwell than that he’s a criminal who violated his constitutional oath by committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The path to removing Trump, in this formulation, might not be impeachment, but the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
Raskin, a former constitutional-law professor, is sponsoring a bill aimed at clarifying a provision of that amendment—a vehicle for removing a president who is unable to carry out his duties, with the consent of the vice president—by shifting responsibility for making such a judgment from the Cabinet to a panel created expressly for that purpose.
“It may be easier for at least certain Republican colleagues just to admit that the president is acting increasingly incapable of meeting the arduous tasks and duties of his office,” Raskin told me.
That’s still a lot to ask of Republican lawmakers who fully grasp Trump’s mystic hold on his political coalition and fear backlash. The question is whether Trump’s base starts to notice, or care, that the man it elected, facing pressures he’s never seen before, is devolving unmistakably into a different sort of man.