With Trump, don't confuse the unthinkable with the impossible

Trump: China's Xi is president for life
Trump: China's Xi is president for life

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Trump: China's Xi is president for life 01:12

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)If there is one thing we have learned since Donald Trump took office is that we should not confuse the unthinkable with the impossible. That's why we should pay attention to the President's words in a private meeting with Republican donors when he told them he might try to become president for life.

Was it a joke? Was it a promise? Was it an innocent, meaningless musing? No one really knows. Trump is an illusionist. He's a manipulator standing on the stage with a fog machine, trying to distort our sense of reality and direct our attention where he wants it.
When he ruminated aloud about staying at the White House forever, Trump was surely not launching a "Trump for life" campaign or announcing his intention to change or ignore the Constitution. But there is also little doubt from his track record that Trump finds the checks and balances of democracy highly inconvenient. He openly admires dictators. When he speaks of other countries' strongmen he sounds envious.
    He made the comments Saturday, during a fundraising lunch at Mar-a-Lago. CNN obtained a tape of Trump talking in the closed meeting about China's President Xi Jinping, the increasingly authoritarian leader who just had term limits abolished so that he can stay in power for the rest of his life. "I think it's great," Trump said. "Maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day."
    The audience laughed.
    This response to the gaslighter in chief is nothing new. He mixes lies and truths in a swirly haze, but also reveals his true feelings even as he tries to confuse us, saying he was just joking, or was misquoted, or he never said what we all heard him say. It's all part of his act.
    Trump's impulses are already in the mold of an autocrat. He is restrained only by the democratic rules that still survive his tenure. Like dictators do, he hates the media -- unless it reports only glowingly about him. Like tyrants, he wants to sic the Justice Department and the FBI on his political opponents. Like most rulers, he loves nothing more than to stand in a sea of raucous admirers, soaking in their adulation, stoking their hatred for those he sees as the enemy.
    Trump sells himself as the macho president. The man who threatens fire and fury like the world has never seen. But, instead, his insatiable thirst for praise makes him vulnerable. And that weakness makes American vulnerable.
    Foreign governments know that Trump can be seduced with flattery. So they manipulate the President and US foreign policy by treating Trump like the king he wishes he were.
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    From the days of the campaign we heard it. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump said, "called me a genius." That's not exactly what happened, but Trump believed it, and it helped add to the mysteriously voluminous reservoir of respect that Trump holds for the Russian president.
    Trump's admiration for Putin seems boundless. "He is really very much of a leader," he said during the campaign...the man has very strong control over the country."
    The combination of admiration for Putin, belief that Putin has great respect for him, and whatever else there may be in that relationship, has contributed to Trump -- the supposedly macho President -- acting like a pussycat when it comes to Russia.
    Trump finds it impossible to criticize Putin. He has failed to enact sanctions already approved by Congress, and the State Department has not touched the $120 million allocated to fight Russian election interference.
    And in a shocking new revelation, a New Yorker article says the Kremlin reportedly instructed Trump not to choose Mitt Romney as secretary of state and choose someone more sympathetic to Russia. After dangling the job before Romney, who had called Russia "the single greatest threat to America," Trump chose Rex Tillerson, who had just received a medal from Putin.
    Trump may be the weakest of weak presidents when it comes to Russia, but he has the highest regard for strongmen, even -- perhaps especially -- the ones who systematically dismantle democracy.
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    Putin? "He's getting an 'A'," Trump declared. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also laying the groundwork for an all-powerful, endless presidency? He is "getting very high marks," Trump said, even as human rights and democracy monitoring organizations raised the alarm about his attack on free speech and democracy, and Erdogan becomes effectively a dictator. Trump called it "a great honor and privilege," to introduce Erdogan in a press conference.
    Then there's that other object of Trumpian admiration, Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines who has unleashed a brutal war against suspected drug traffickers -- a campaign that a recent investigation found has left more than 12,000 people dead without any semblance of due process -- while attacking judges and journalists who dare criticize him. Trump praised him for doing "an unbelievable job on the drug problem."
    And, of course, there's Xi, the Chinese president who took a country that was already a dictatorship, a prolific human rights violator, and tightened the screws on critics even further, massing more power for himself, now securing the top job for as long as he wants it.
    Despite all his tough talk against China during the campaign, once in office Trump called Xi "a very good man," no matter Xi's harsh crackdown. And after Xi rolled out the thickest red carpet possible to flatter him during his visit to China, Trump sounded genuinely stirred by the lavish reception.
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    Now Trump is even more impressed with Xi's move to secure power potentially for life. "Look," he told donors at Mar-a-Lago, "he was able to do that. I think it's great."
    Does Trump want to be like Xi? Does the President of the United States want to upend the foundational creed of the Republic, the notion that power should change hands regularly to someone chosen by the people? That seems unfathomable. And yet, history has shown time and again that just because something is unthinkable it doesn't mean it cannot happen.