Early Returns

Trump, Not Presidential? You Don't Say

Words matter, but the president doesn't seem to notice. Plus, Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Ask Libyans if it matters.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Remember when Donald Trump said that "being presidential" would be easy for him, what with him being (supposedly) so smart and all? 

Turns out: not so much. And just this week we have two examples of its real-world consequences. Not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Item One: Libyan media and Libyan authorities seized on Trump's tweets denouncing CNN as "fake news" to undermine CNN reporting about slave auctions in that nation. Presumably protection of human rights is still part of U.S. foreign policy, but Trump's attacks on a free press at home make it difficult to protect a free press abroad. 

Item Two: Trump on Wednesday morning retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a British bigot, sparking condemnation from Prime Minister Theresa May and from members of Parliament on Twitter. In other words -- leaving aside the appalling ethical disaster of spreading ultra-nationalist propaganda -- he has also picked a fight with the U.S.'s closest ally. The Netherlands got in on the act, too, pointing out that (at least) one of the videos was phony.

Trump seemed to believe during the campaign that "being presidential" was a question of demeanor and facial expression, and that it was all just symbolic nonsense anyway. But that's simply not true. Whatever comes out of the president's mouth, especially in public, has an importance that things said by practically anyone else in the nation don't.

Everyone in politics, at home and abroad, listens to what presidents say and do. It counts. It sets policy. It establishes the president's professional reputation, which is always being carefully evaluated by those who have to deal with the president, from bureaucrats to members of Congress to foreign politicians. And it creates a kind of truth in the world, even if the truth consists, as it often does with Trump, of falsehoods.

And so by Wednesday afternoon the White House was backing up the tweets with further anti-Muslim language, and later Trump escalated his spat with May. After all, the words count. Which means the president has to either back them up (a problem if what he said was foolish or harmful in the first place) or back down (de-escalating the situation but undermining a different part of the president's reputation). There are no simple takebacks. 

Perhaps the best illustration of the importance of a president's words was the 1993 movie "Dave," a fun political yarn starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The premise of the movie is that Dave is an ordinary schmo who happens to be a dead ringer for the president. He's recruited by the White House to act as a body double for the president -- distracting the media so the real president can sneak away -- but then, when the real president falls into a coma, Dave is recruited by Frank Langella's evil White House chief of staff to continue playing the president while the chief of staff does the real work of the job. But the scheme eventually backfires when Dave realizes that anything he says on camera "counts" as real, including when he eventually fires the chief of staff. While the film's view of how the presidency and politics work has more than a few flaws, that part is exactly correct.

The lesson for real presidents is that what they say really does matter. That's one reason Barack Obama (and all other modern presidents) used teleprompters and read from written speeches, and frequently answered questions with pat, prepared answers even when there was no visible script: Presidents never want to say something by accident. Get a fact wrong, and the president will find it harder to use facts in the future to persuade. Get the nuance wrong, and the president may offend those he had no intention of offending. Sound like a moolyak, and people are going to treat the president as if he has no idea what he's talking about. 

Trump, of course, ignores all of this. He shoots off his mouth (and his Twitter finger) constantly, seemingly oblivious that it has real effects that it never had when he was just a reality-television star. And he, and the nation, are constantly paying the price. 

1. Greg Koger at Mischiefs of Faction on how to think about fixing Congress. Good points. What I'd add: The first thing to figure out is whether the problem is with Congress, with the political parties, or with just the Republican Party. 

2. Andrew Rudalevige at the Monkey Cage on the fracas over who is legally entitled to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

3. Also at the Monkey Cage, Kathleen Doherty on what's actually happening with personnel within the federal bureaucracy

4. Dan Drezner is not impressed with Republican competence on taxes.

5. James Wallner on the complications of using reconciliation for the tax bill.  

6. Margot Sanger-Katz on the agencies in for automatic spending cuts if the tax bill passes and Congress does nothing to protect them. The big one in absolute dollars is Medicare, but many other small portions of the government could get hit very hard. 

7. And Josh Kraushaar on all those Democratic women running for office in 2018. He focuses on the relatively high-profile contests, but watch out for state legislative and other state and local races, too. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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