It is a strategy that President Donald Trump has deployed throughout his life, as instinctive and natural to him as the act of breathing: Villainize whoever is blocking his way.
Distasteful as Trump’s taunts might be, ridiculing adversaries has been the blunt-force instrument that propelled his political rise, with the president turning people into targets of scorn. As the impeachment fight enters its public phase, though, Trump faces a quandary. His go-to move may be inadequate in this moment for the very same reason the impeachment threat is so grave. There may be too many accusers who believe he shook down Ukraine, too many people who find fault with his behavior for the president to smack with a rhetorical mallet.
As dawn broke on the East Coast this morning, the name-calling commenced. Trump tweeted that Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrat from California leading the impeachment probe, is “shifty,” the latest in a scattershot series of attacks leveled against anyone and everyone who might be skeptical that he’s utterly blameless when it comes to Ukraine. Over the past month, he’s lampooned Schiff; the “fake” news media; “Nervous” Nancy Pelosi; “Sleepy Joe” Biden; the first whistle-blower; the second whistle-blower; the attorney for both whistle-blowers; the “spy” who fed information to the first whistle-blower; and the intelligence community’s inspector general, who fielded the first whistle-blower complaint.
No one seems to unnerve Trump more than that original whistle-blower, who kick-started the House impeachment investigation into how he browbeat Ukraine into digging up political dirt on Biden. Again and again, he’s painted this person as a deep-state partisan acting in cahoots with Democrats.
That the whistle-blower has stayed out of view seems to have left Trump only more aggrieved—he prefers a flesh-and-blood foe. “I want to find out who’s the whistle-blower,” he said yesterday at a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as the first public impeachment hearing unfolded on Capitol Hill.
Yet the case has moved far beyond a single person, and that’s precisely the problem for Trump. Now he has so little time, but so many to tarnish—some with sterling résumés. Still, Trump is giving it his best shot. “NEVER TRUMPERS!” the president tweeted in the hours before the first TV hearing opened yesterday, an apparent effort to sully the witnesses by claiming they don’t, well, like him all that much. “The president is very invested in constructing narratives that make him the aggrieved party in these investigations,” Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who was the press secretary to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, told me.
Discrediting the first witnesses who testified won’t be easy. William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is a Vietnam War veteran who took the ambassadorial post at the explicit request of one of Trump’s closest allies, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. George Kent is a State Department official who oversees Ukrainian policy, and like Taylor has served for decades under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. In his opening statement, Kent stressed his pedigree, mentioning how three generations of his family swore an oath to defend the Constitution. His father graduated first in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a captain on a nuclear submarine; a great-uncle was taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II.
As Taylor and Kent described back-channel efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Biden family, the president spent time retweeting Republican allies who criticized the hearing.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump was working out of the Oval Office and didn’t see the proceedings. “I’m too busy to watch it,” Trump echoed during a photo spray with Erdoğan. Seconds later, however, he contradicted himself: “I see they’re using lawyers that are television lawyers; they took some guys off television.” It’s almost inconceivable that Trump wouldn’t watch: He spends hours each day in front of a television, former White House aides have told me. He hung a 60-inch TV in a private dining room off the Oval Office, and often reads newspapers and paperwork in front of it with the sound down. (He turns up the volume when he sees something that interests him, the ex-officials have said.)
Knowing Trump’s reflex is to lash out, aides have in the past warned him that character assassination is a bad idea. They told him to avoid savaging Special Counsel Robert Mueller, for example, advising that it would do him no good. Trump didn’t listen, treating Mueller as another in a long line of antagonists to be trampled.
“He’s a street fighter,” said a former senior White House official, who like others I talked with this week spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s personality. “He’d rather be tearing the head off a rooster than putting caviar on a cracker.” A Republican senator told me the president “has two speeds: hostile, and hostile on steroids.”
Another president might try to avoid the scrum and argue his position on the merits. That’s one more norm Trump has effaced. A 2017 paper in Political Science Quarterly showed that Trump, more than his predecessors, uses hostility as a rhetorical tool. “Although personal attacks are a longstanding and indispensable part of politics, in recent times, those seeking the presidency have typically avoided ad hominem,” the authors write. “Not so Trump.”
Why exactly does Trump behave this way? Some mental-health professionals who have studied him—and a few politicians and aides who have worked with him—describe him as a narcissist whose self-image is mortally threatened by criticism of any sort. For Trump, criticism seems to amount to “an attack that is lethal to the public veneer,” Seth Norrholm, a neuroscientist who’s written about Trump’s mental state, told me. The invariable response is “not just [to] extinguish the threat, but to humiliate and destroy the threat.
“Some of this comes from immaturity—you can imagine a person who’s narcissistic, but has the intelligence and brains to back it up,” said Norrholm, who believes that Trump is unfit for office. “But there’s not a lot of firepower behind [Trump’s] narcissism, so you end up with grade-school nicknames and playground-level insults.”
It would take far too much space to recount the long list of people demonized by the 45th president in recent years. But one family’s remembrance is especially revealing. Khizr Khan is the Gold Star father who pulled a copy of the Constitution from his jacket pocket at the 2016 Democratic convention, in Philadelphia, and dared Trump to read it. In an interview later with ABC News, Trump suggested that Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq, was parroting Hillary Clinton’s talking points. “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s scriptwriters write it?” Trump asked. Trump also questioned why Khan’s wife, Ghazala, stayed silent during her husband’s speech. He suggested she had not been “allowed to have anything to say,” the implication being that as a Muslim woman, her speech was stifled for religious reasons. In fact, she had told her husband she was too distraught to talk publicly about her fallen son.
I spoke with Khan on the eve of the first impeachment hearing and asked how his family had weathered the moment. Disheartening as it was, Khan told me, he was more discouraged to see how the presidency had done nothing to ennoble Trump. “That is far more disappointing than our saga with him,” Khan said. “We were hoping that the office—the dignity of the position—would change him, but it hasn’t, because, fundamentally, the moral compass is missing. Fundamentally, there is no realization of where he sits.”
Witnesses are now getting a dose of the disrespect Trump showed the grieving Khan family. After the hearing yesterday, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, released a statement denigrating Kent’s and Taylor’s long records of public service, calling them “unelected, career bureaucrats who think they know best.”
Ultimately, the screeds about dissident anti-Trumpers may be seen for what they are—an appeal to the tribalism coursing through a polarized country, and an attempt to preserve a presidency shaken by Trump’s own ill-advised schemes. “Of course it does worry me,” the Republican senator told me about Trump’s Ukraine gambit. “He’s not nature’s best diplomat. He doesn’t use a scalpel; he uses a meat ax.” As the hearings continue, Trump will be taking the meat ax to ever more witnesses—so many that the blade could end up dulling.