Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Michael D'Antonio: Trump's firing of Comey is just the latest impulsive and childlike move he has taken as President
He seems incapable of behaving maturely, even if it's in the interests of the American people, writes D'Antonio
Like most little boys, Donald Trump can be disarmingly honest, as when he once said, “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” The trouble is that the first grader is now President of the United States, and his temperament is on display for the world to see.
Unpredictable, impulsive and immature, Trump acts in a way that would be expected of a 6-year-old boy, but is terrifying in a man whose moods dictate decisions carried out by adults on behalf of the most powerful nation in the world.
Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey offers a sterling example of the childish – and reckless – Trump style. When Comey broke with bureau tradition and spoke negatively about Trump’s rival in the election, though initially he was criticized by candidate Trump, he was later praised – and effusively. Over and over again, the soon-to-be-president described how Comey had done the right thing in criticizing Hillary Clinton. Comey remained in Trump’s good graces after he was inaugurated, and Trump’s team expressed confidence in him up until last week.
As CNN’s John King and Jeff Zeleny reported, the change in Trump’s feelings about Comey were evident to a friend who spoke with him last weekend and noticed the President was “white hot” over Comey’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill. Comey had said he felt “mildly nauseous” about the possibility of having affected the November election. This, and continued investigations into possible connections between Trump’s associates and Russians who meddled in the election, were causing a presidential temper tantrum.
Views on Comey's firing
Like many a 6-year-old, the stewing President chose to act on his feelings. Within days he had signed a letter dismissing the director. But instead of doing the adult thing and firing Comey face-to-face, Trump sent his former personal bodyguard Keith Schiller to deliver it to Comey’s office – while Comey was away in Los Angeles.
Schiller’s last star turn involved bullying newsman Jorge Ramos out of a Trump rally. Long a human security blanket for Trump, Schiller now hangs out at the White House. His appearance at FBI headquarters signaled that the buddies – Trump and Schiller – were in charge of this power play.
Like a boy who plays with matches and sets the back yard on fire, Trump has been surprised by the effects of his actions. He expected Democrats who resented Comey’s election season performance to applaud the firing. Of course, this thinking ignores the fact that Comey was in charge of investigating Russia’s influence on the election and very real concerns about providing stable leadership to the American people. The FBI is so vital an agency that directors receive 10-year appointments precisely because they shouldn’t be fired on the basis of presidential pique.
In the aftermath of the President’s incendiary act, we have seen the adults around him scramble to put out the fire. White House spokesman Sean Spicer reportedly met with his staff near bushes on the White House grounds while nearby reporters sought comment, and Kellyanne Conway was dispatched to offer on-air gobbledygook to CNN’s Anderson Cooper. At one point, she complained to Cooper that people “are looking at the wrong set of facts.”
The struggle of the administration officials tasked with cleaning up the Trump/Comey debacle resembled the frenzied effort of parents who do whatever they can to shield fellow diners when a child has a meltdown in a restaurant. They know they have lost control of the situation, but there’s not much you can do once the meatball has sailed across the room and the spaghetti has been dumped on the floor.
White House officials have tried to cover the mess with shifting explanations. First it was a sudden loss of confidence. Next it was a long-simmering dissatisfaction. And, most recently, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt it was because Comey was a “showboat.” But the equation doesn’t add up.
Fortunately, the President himself, true to first grader form, can’t help but give us clues to his process.
In his first tweet about the controversy, he taunted “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” and complained that the New York senator had gone from Comey critic to defender. Hours later he was at it again, tweeting that Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal “cried like a baby” during a previous and unrelated controversy. In the tweet, which was written as Blumenthal spoke on CNN, he called the senator “Richie” and said, “He should be the one who is investigated.” Next he’s going to say, “I’m rubber, you’re glue…”
Watching Trump this week recalls the days when he was a tabloid sideshow in New York City, and his antics energized headline writers who couldn’t get enough of his boy-in-daddy’s suit behavior. In the most notable example, Trump became a source in the war of scoops over his divorce from his first wife Ivana.
But now the man is President, and he seems incapable of controlling his temper even if, in the long run, maturity would serve the country’s interests. If you want proof, just consider the report from Time magazine on Trump’s odd White House habits, including the fact that he got extra dessert when he dined with the magazine’s writer. A grown-up, upon getting two scoops of ice cream when others at the table only received one, would quickly fill his companions’ dishes. A child, who sees every moment as an opportunity to demonstrate he is the special boy, would, as Trump did, just wolf it down.
The solution to the problem posed by the fact that we have a first grader in the Oval Office lies in whatever systems exist to take decisions out of his hands. The courts have already acted to thwart him on his proposed ban on Muslim visitors to the United States, and Congress possesses the power to moderate other initiatives. Next must come special counsel to run the Russia investigation, who could be appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Rosenstein was the author of a critical memo that the White House is citing to justify Comey’s dismissal. By all accounts, he is an adult who understands the need for a credible investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. He should act before he’s hit by a meatball.
Note: An earlier version of this article cited news reports that Sean Spicer hid in the bushes to avoid reporters’ questions. It has been updated in light of a correction in the Washington Post, which said, “Spicer huddled with his staff among bushes near television sets on the White House grounds, not ‘in the bushes.’”