The week that began on August 8, 2011, found President Barack Obama in the midst of what The New York Times would call “the most dismal stretch of his presidency.” Days before, Congress had finally managed to strike a deal on raising the debt ceiling, thus averting a disastrous default on the national debt. But the process had been long and hideous, like an ugly domestic argument waged in front of the neighbors. On the 5th, a Friday, Standard & Poor’s had handed the United States its first ever credit-rating downgrade, citing a lack of “predictability of American policymaking and political institutions.”
Obama tried to calm the nation with a Monday afternoon speech in which he declared the nation’s economic woes were “eminently solvable.” The financial markets disagreed, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average taking a 635-point dive that day. There was talk of a double-dip recession. And there was anger at Obama, who saw his approval rating drop to 40 percent, the lowest yet of his presidency. Seeking a respite, Obama went golfing that Saturday, ahead of an “economic bus tour” of the Midwest.
The following Monday, the 15th, there came a tweet from Donald Trump, host of the popular Apprentice franchise. He’d recently become a hero of the right for insisting Obama may have been born a Muslim and outside the United States. It was not his first tweet needling Obama, but it was the first on a subject to which Trump would return time and again: the president’s love of golf. “@BarackObama played golf yesterday,” Trump’s tweet announced. “Now he heads to a 10 day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. Nice work ethic.” (Obama had actually played golf two days before, and his vacation wasn’t until week’s end.)
Trump pounded this plaint for the next five years, even as the economy improved, the Affordable Care Act provided health care to millions and the war in Afghanistan came to an end. Every time Obama picked up a golf club, it was incontrovertible proof that he was incapable of feeling (or addressing) the pain of ordinary Americans. Obama, as Trump put it in a tweet in 2011, “plays golf to escape work while America goes down the drain.” His last tweet on the subject came in the summer of 2016, when he was already the Republican nominee for president.
Were he to reach the White House, Trump said, he wouldn’t make the same mistake for which he’d been lambasting Obama since 2011. “I’m going to be working for you,” he told supporters in August 2016. “I’m not going to have time to go play golf.”
Now that he’s president, Trump frequently departs the White House and spends the weekend golfing at either his South Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, or his country club in the New Jersey suburb of Bedminster. The promise he’d made a year before was discarded so quickly, you have to wonder if he even remembers making it. Politico did the legwork: George W. Bush didn’t golf for the first five months of his presidency, while Obama stayed away from his beloved links for four months following his inauguration. Trump held out for all of two weeks. He has visited a golf club 40 times since taking office in January, according to the self-explanatory site Trump Golf Count, which estimates the forays have cost American taxpayers $55 million. Another Trump tracker, this one by The New York Times, finds that his visits to Trump-branded properties total 56 days, nearly a third of his time in office.
Trump’s friends say golf is important to his well-being, just as cycling and rock climbing are de rigueur for the younger titans of Silicon Valley. “He is always working,” longtime confidant Roger J. Stone Jr. tells me, “even while socializing, playing golf or traveling. He is constantly asking questions, taking notes and placing phone calls.
“A better question would be, Does he ever really relax?”
Not really, says Sam Nunberg, a former close Trump associate who was fired from his campaign in 2015. Nunberg tells me he “never had a boss who worked harder and was more 24/7 than the president. And I’ve worked for billionaires.” As for the golfing, Nunberg insists that Trump works as he plays. “He has a schedule. Remember, he went to military school,” Nunberg explains, alluding to Trump’s five years of secondary schooling at the New York Military Academy. “He knows how to keep his employees on their feet.”
His many detractors see it differently. If the golf bothers them—and, judging by the number of websites devoted to chronicling Trump’s excursions, it does—it is only because they see it as symbolic of a lackadaisical approach to the presidency. “This is the laziest, most ignorant president in history,” says MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell. Sure, take MSNBC with a grain of nonpartisan salt, but all those who believe, as O’Donnell does, that Trump is the most ineffectual occupant of the Oval Office in the nation’s history cite, for one, his well-reported lack of involvement in congressional legislative efforts. They point to the numbers like doctors surveying grim lab results: only one solo press conference since his inauguration (he has held joint press conferences with foreign heads of state, after which he usually entertains questions from the press), and just a single foray west of the Mississippi since taking office (and that for a campaign rally). He’s visited neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.
In the first six months of his presidency, Trump found the time to send 1,029 tweets. They include accusations of Obama “tapping” Trump Tower, juvenile taunts hurled at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warmed-over insinuations about the Clintons cribbed from Fox News, complaints about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, complaints about “the Republicans” and endless laments about “fake news,” many of them followed by assertions that are comically untrue.
Of course, many critics want Trump to fail. To them, reports of his ineptitude may be the only good news coming out of the White House. As the editorial writer Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune mused in May: “The people who fear that Trump is trying to subvert democracy, persecute Muslims and dismantle the rule of law can take heart that he won’t put much effort into it.”
Yet in the uncertain autumn days following Trump’s victory, there was budding hope of a “pivot” from the bluster of his campaign to the pragmatism some claimed lay underneath the spray-tanned surface. There was the $1 trillion infrastructure plan, for example. What happened to that? For the love of Lincoln, someone tell him to forget tax cuts and Muslim bans. He should be out there paving I-95, slapping fresh paint on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Instead, he is playing golf and tweeting anti-CNN wrestling memes. When the weekend concludes, Trump returns to the D.C. swamp with all the enthusiasm of an office lackey slouching toward his cubicle on Monday morning. Only six months in, he seems “a most unhappy warrior,” in the words of Trump biographer and CNN commentator Michael D’Antonio. The scowl that haunts his face, the monotone he uses to deliver official pronouncements: These suggest a second-term lame duck dreaming of a lucrative post-Washington book deal.
These should have been sunnier times. Trump got the biggest political victory imaginable last November, stopping Hillary Clinton’s “inevitable” coronation. Only he didn’t quite realize that the campaign was the beginning of the hard work, not the end. That his supporters would repeat back something he’d said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, two years ago, and ask him if he’d meant it about prosecuting Clinton or making Mexico pay for a border wall.
So he sits and stews, like Al Bundy, the shoe-selling protagonist of Married … With Children, the sitcom of roiling white discontent that predicted Trump better than any political scientist or pundit. Unsatisfying job, ungrateful children, all around him a nation in decline. Bundy dreams of the days when he was a high school football star; Trump, of his election-night romp through the Upper Midwest.
But that was long ago. Reality is here, an unwelcome intrusion for the aging reality television star. That “reality” was fun. This one isn’t. This one has special counsel Robert S. Mueller III rooting around like a bloodhound in his personal finances and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell droning on about budget reconciliation, whatever that is, and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter hectoring him on Twitter about illegal immigration. On the television, there is always California Representative Adam Schiff, talking about collusion with Russia and looking pissed.
Is it Friday yet?
Overwhelmed and Frustrated
Two days before the presidential inauguration, Trump tweeted a picture of himself seated at a desk, pen hovering above a stack of papers. On his face was the faraway look of a great man lost in deep thought: Pericles pondering the Athenian dead, Churchill surveying a blitzkrieged London. The accompanying text revealed that the president-elect was composing his inaugural address at the Mar-a-Lago resort, which he’d already rebranded “the Winter White House.”
The tweet was supposed to show leadership at work, but it instead revealed the lengths to which Trump will go to foster the image of diligent leadership. It didn’t take a team of CIA digital forensicists to figure out that the Spanish tile wall behind Trump in the photograph matched the one in the reception area at Mar-a-Lago. A photograph soon surfaced of a young woman at the very same desk, looking like she was ready to confirm your dinner reservation. Further scrutiny—that is, clicking a magnifying glass icon to zoom in—revealed that the papers on the desk were seemingly blank, while the writing instrument in Trump’s hand appeared to be a Sharpie, not especially useful for writing out a lengthy speech. Wanting to look like a head of state, Trump instead ended up looking like a concierge-in-training.
That wasn’t Trump’s first lesson in the perils of faking it, or his last. His campaign was the most engrossing spectacle in the history of American politics, so terrifyingly entertaining that many failed to grasp its hold on the public until the returns from Florida and North Carolina started to come in on November 8. Trump’s presidency, however, has been a listless sequel, its leading man seemingly no longer interested in his role.
I raised the issue of Trump’s work ethic with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Completely false story,” she says. “The president is focused on creating jobs, securing the border, protecting Americans and growing our economy, and has been working on those issues every day.”
Every day? In April, Elaine Godfrey of The Atlantic used news reports about Trump’s well-chronicled habits to calculate that he watches about five hours of television daily. That makes him an average American; whether it makes him a sufficiently engaged American president is another matter. He seems to trust Fox & Friends more than the members of the intelligence community who brief him each morning. He certainly finds the former more compelling. “He gets bored and likes to watch TV,” as Politico summarized the insight of one White House insider.
Seemingly aware that he’s being called lazy, Trump described himself in a May 12 tweet as “a very active President with lots of things happening,” which only made him sound like a teenager informing his parents that he’d definitely done his homework. A writer for The Washington Post decided to investigate, using publicly available logs to conclude that Trump’s schedule was “awfully light…. We are left to make one of two assumptions,” the Post concluded. “Trump either is hiding a lot of his presidential business from the public, or he is not doing much at all.” Reuters, in turn, found that in his first 100 days in office, Trump “made fewer appearances outside of the presidential bubble than his three immediate predecessors,” confining himself for the most part to the White House and Mar-a-Lago.
It may be that Trump is overwhelmed. When I was training to become a teacher, veteran educators said students would use boredom to mask their inability to do the work. Is that what’s happening here? Well, to use a Trumpian construction, some people are saying so. One of those people is Donald Trump. In late April, the president confessed that he was both overwhelmed and frustrated. “I loved my previous life,” he said. “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” That may be the most remarkable admission ever made by a sitting American president. Clinton’s infidelities, Nixon’s paranoia: Those were the usual failings of the powerful. But a disdain for power because wielding power is harder than pretending to wield power in a reality television series? That is Al Bundy coming home from another miserable day of work at the New Market Mall, cracking open a beer and wondering when his nightmare of shoe-selling drudgery will end.
The Royal Ennui
Now come the excuses. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump said in February. Oh, but everybody knew. That’s why Obama spent months explaining his Affordable Care Act to Americans. Trump never held a town hall to sell his own “terrific” health plan, which mysteriously turned into the less-than-terrific slop cooked up by congressional Republicans. He didn’t campaign for that either, doing nothing to remake the lackluster legislation in his own splendid vision.
There were tweets from the president. There are always tweets. But little else. He maligned the House proposal as “mean” and casually introduced his own suggestions on Twitter to compete with McConnell’s in the Senate. Eventually, those Republicans concluded it would be infinitely more effective to craft the bill and marshal support without him. “White House officials privately concede that it is actually better for Republicans when the president disengages more from being a policy negotiator,” reported The Daily Beast as the Republican health care scheme headed for predictable disaster. It’s hard to imagine them seeking his engagement on other complex legislative matters. “His idea of work is a Hollywood idea of work,” says D’Antonio, author of the biography The Truth About Trump. “He ‘works’ in the way a king would work.”
The most impressive quality of Trump’s myth is not just that it strays from reality but how thoroughly, even aggressively, it contravenes easily confirmable fact. When he was king, he was the King of Debt, and he may still owe as much as $1.8 billion to creditors. His casinos closed. His airline went bust. But even as he accrued failures, lawsuits and debts, Trump managed to turn “Trump” into a synonym for success. The letters were made of plastic, but they were dipped in gold.
In a May interview with Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien explained that after the erection of Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan in 1983, “he never cared again,” so impressed was he with that monolithic monument to his ego. “He’s fundamentally lazy,” O’Brien told Dowd. “He free-rides so many processes he doesn’t know anything about. He used to do it in the business world, and now he does it in the political world.”
Trump’s foray into politics would have been impossible without The Apprentice, which introduced him to Middle America, the onetime King of Debt reborn as a capable chief executive both ruthless and uncannily perceptive. But that was also an illusion, as we were recently reminded by Clay Aiken, the singer and onetime Celebrity Apprentice contestant. On a podcast last month, Aiken revealed that Trump wielded the show’s famous slogan—“You’re fired!”—at the instruction of others. The great leader of men was, at least in Aiken’s telling, a puppet. “The show’s producers from NBC made those calls,” explained a report in The Washington Post, “giving Trump instructions through a teleprompter on his desk that looked like a phone.”
Something must be said here in Trump’s defense. Laziness is frequently a trait we ascribe to politicians we dislike. Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman and Trump mentor, mused to a biographer of Obama: “How often does he play basketball and golf? I wish I had that kind of time.… He’s lazy, but the media won’t report that.” Liberals weren’t especially nice to George W. Bush, either, lambasting Dubya for exercising too much, for going to bed at 9 p.m., for clearing brush on his Texas ranch when he should have been, well, not clearing brush on his Texas ranch. His forays from the White House were covered just as assiduously as Obama’s and, now, Trump’s.
I asked Tommy Vietor, a longtime Obama campaign and White House staffer, to compare Trump’s schedule to Obama’s. “It doesn’t seem like he works very hard,” Vietor tells me. “More importantly, it doesn’t seem like there’s any structure to his day. That’s a huge problem. It takes discipline to keep yourself from getting buffeted around by events of the day.”
Trump’s activities are hard to pin down because his daily schedule includes “downtime,” for which the White House does not provide detailed descriptions. Figuring out the president’s doings is “the holy grail of reporting” on Trump, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times told New Yorker editor David Remnick. Haberman, who probably knows Trump better than any other journalist, is still on the hunt.
There have been clues. Mark Leibovich, a politics reporter for the The New York Times Magazine, recently paid a visit to the White House and was, to his great surprise, led into “a small dining room just off the Oval Office” to meet the president. It was a weekday afternoon. Trump was alone, watching a recorded episode of Fox & Friends.
Donald, Not Ronald
When Trump hit the six-month mark of his presidency, Mike Pence, his unfailingly loyal vice president, marked the occasion with an op-ed for Fox News. Doing his best Soviet apparatchik imitation, Pence wrote that “President Trump’s accomplishments are nothing short of historic.”
Even by the dismayingly loose standards of political discourse, that is untrue. Although Trump has signed 42 bills since taking office, they are mostly minnows, whereas his supporters thought he’d be harpooning whales. An analysis by CNN found that 15 of those bills “have rolled back rules and regulations issued under Obama’s administration, eight had to do with designating something or working to create a new initiative, five changed or expanded existing legislation, and 11 were related to government funding or operations.” One act renamed a courthouse for Fred Thompson, the actor and Republican senator. Aside from the ban on travelers from some Muslim-majority nations, his 42 executive orders have also been minor, undoing Obama’s legacy as opposed to creating his own. The grand gestures he promised remain the stuff of fantasy. The dealmaking he claims to have mastered remains holstered.
It’s not just Trump. The entire White House is in disarray. White House political adviser Steve Bannon once grandly boasted that the Trump administration would undertake a “deconstruction of the administrative state,” but controlled shrinkage of the federal government would have required far more focus than the exhausting disarray now at work. The Washington Post, for example, has found that Trump has done little to fill “key positions” in his administration, with only 50 confirmed so far. Another 165 have been nominated, and while the White House will blame Democratic “obstructionism,” that hardly explains the 357 positions for which no one has been nominated.
Trump has held several campaign-style rallies since becoming president. He is good at these, and he enjoys them, as do his most ardent supporters. Even non-campaign events, like his appearance at the Boy Scouts of America National Scout Jamboree in late July, tend to remind us less of Ronald Reagan battling communism than of Donald Trump battling Hillary Clinton. That isn’t an accident. During the campaign, Trump did work hard, because it was on his own behalf, the glory of rapturous crowds redounding directly to him, not to some abstract institution of government. He branded himself as the can-do outsider who’d build that wall and lock her up. He branded his opponents as crooked, lying, low energy, emasculated, corrupt, crazy. It was a marketing campaign, and to Trump’s apparent dismay, it worked just a little too well.
Trump does have defenders more principled than Hannity and the Fox News commentariat. One of them is Greg Ip, a business-friendly economics commentator for The Wall Street Journal. In late July, Ip disputed the claim that Trump is a “do-nothing president.” Acknowledging that Trump hasn’t scored any legislative touchdowns, Ip claimed that Trump’s appointees “have begun nudging the economy and the country in a more conservative, pro-business direction.” Then again, Trump was never about incrementalism. “Make America great again” was policy shock and awe, not small-bore executive memoranda celebrated as if each were the Louisiana Purchase.
Unable to take credit for his own achievements, Trump has laid claim to those of his predecessor. Obama took office during the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent and rising. Eight years later, as he prepared to leave the White House, it was 4.7 percent, a nine-year low. And yet Trump cites “absolutely tremendous economic progress,” as if he were the one who pulled the nation out of the foreclosure crisis. He brags about having quelled the flow of immigrants entering the United States illegally, but it was under Obama that illegal immigration fell to a 44-year nadir. Trump has, however, managed to keep out tourists. America has become so great, international travelers aren’t coming like they used to.
If you are one of the millions of Americans counting the days until Trump is no longer president, his failures may seem like victories. Except he is your president, and nobody wants to live in a nation in decline, a superpower devolving into a laughingstock. And while several of Trump’s proposals are either unworkable, unhinged or potentially disastrous, that’s not true for all of his ideas. There is infrastructure, above all, blessed infrastructure. The firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base in Syria was a sign that Trump knows Bashar al-Assad is a butcher of innocents who must be deposed. So why not marshal international support to remove him? And why expend so much energy keeping out the refugees who are Assad’s victims?
“His work ethic is just fine,” says Joe Walsh, the former Tea Party congressman from Illinois who now hosts a radio show. “His problem is he’s focusing on the wrong things.”
Some have likened Trump’s governing style to Reagan’s. Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan’s presidency for The Washington Post and later authored five books on his two terms in office, disagrees with any attempt to burnish Trump’s reputation by comparisons to the hero of modern American conservatism. “I can’t think of a single characteristic they share,” Cannon says.
Reagan was “much more diligent than President Trump is, in every respect,” Cannon tells me confidently. That diligence extended to the way he treated others, including White House staffers and political opponents. “He might not have known the details of the missile thing,” Cannon concedes in reference to 1983’s Strategic Defense Initiative, often derided in the press as “Star Wars” for its futuristic vision of national security. “But he’d know if an aide had a sick mother.” For example, after his mother died, Cannon got a call of heartfelt consolation from the president.
“Reagan had a conscious management style,” the historian reminds. “He wasn’t lazy.”
A Modern Harding
“Chicago Wine Party” was the seventh episode of the seventh season of Married…With Children. It premiered on November 1, 1992, a Sunday. The following Tuesday, the nation elected William Clinton as its next president.
Only five days later, a kind of despair had already set in, at least according to an unflattering report in The New York Times. Clinton’s supporters, wrote David Rosenbaum, “clearly recognized that the policy changes Mr. Clinton promised daily during the campaign can only take effect slowly, incrementally and painfully.”
Bundy was waging a political fight of his own. The premise of “Chicago Wine Party” involves a proposed 2-cent beer tax. About halfway through the episode, Bundy, bedecked in anti-beer-tax buttons, gives a rousing address:
The USA has been run too long by people who know the issues. People that watch the news on TV, read books, generally pay attention… well, no more. ‘Cause now it’s time that WE had a say in the future of America. Family…the Bundys are gonna elect a President.
It took 25 years, but the Bundys now have their man in the Oval Office. And while the election of Trump may have been a middle finger thrust at the coastal establishment by the white working class, it was also an expression of grievances legitimate and pervasive. Trump channeled those grievances masterfully for his campaign, but the urgency of those days is gone.
Trump is a fighter, but before November 8, 2016, he only fought for himself. He never served in the military. He rarely gave to charity. “He’s a terribly self-indulgent individual,” says Robert Dallek, the noted presidential historian, who doesn’t think the weight of the presidency has “fully taken hold yet.” It may never. In his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his humiliation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his casual disregard of ethics rules, Trump has made it clear that he sees the White House as little more than a branch office of his marketing business, the Trump Organization.
As his crude dismissal of Comey demonstrated, Trump has little interest in understanding the scope of the executive branch, of limits set by tradition and the U.S. Constitution. And he will always defend his gilded image, even when he should be defending loftier goals. There have been countless reports in recent months that Trump supporters “don’t care” about the investigations of his campaign’s potential collusion with Russian hackers and the Kremlin. What that statement—often treated like a revelation—misses is the obvious fact that Trump deeply cares about the Russia probes. Judging by his Twitter account, there are many days when he cares about nothing else.
Dallek compares Trump unfavorably to presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson, who endlessly “cajoled” legislators to pass landmark civil rights and anti-poverty bills. For all his dealmaking skills, Trump hasn’t shown much ability to negotiate with Congress, probably because it would require a knowledge of what members of Congress want, need and, above all, fear. And that would require doing homework. It’s much easier to just threaten Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski on Twitter. It’s also a lot less effective.
Trump reminds Dallek of Warren G. Harding, whom he calls “the least effective president” before the current one. “He didn’t have the big picture or the small picture,” Dallek says of the man known as Wobbly Warren. “He was not very bright.”
Trump plainly wants his legacy to reflect that slogan on the baseball hat donned by his supporters. He wants to be the man who pulled America out of its postindustrial malaise, silenced talk of national decline and China’s ascent. But he can’t do that if he keeps sinking into his own debilitating malaise, weighed down by his shortcomings and an unwillingness to address them. He is entitled to rage at insults and defeats. Achilles raged, too. But then Achilles fought, leaving aside personal slights to charge the ramparts of Troy. Trump’s approach is the approach of Al Bundy. It begins in rage. It ends there, too. Both the president and the shoe salesman are driven by their unreasonable demands and unsoothable grievances to the couch, where they sit in front of the television, stewing.