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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Trump Is Riding High. Can He Keep from Blowing It?


Late Friday night following his rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, Donald Trump paused before boarding Air Force One and did something surprising. He appeared to attempt to measure his words. He gathered himself, he exhaled slightly, and he held up both hands, palms out, which is a tic he usually deploys to shut someone else up but in this case felt almost like an act of purposeful self-restraint.

“She led an amazing life,” the president said of the deceased Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, beginning his short, reasonable, even gracious comments. “She was an amazing woman,” he added. He called himself “saddened.”

His official statement was equally anodyne.

It might sound a little unseemly, and even a tad nuts, considering the ongoing pandemic, the wheezing economy and his trailing position in most polls, but … all of a sudden, Trump’s in a pretty good spot. Maybe one of the best of his presidency. With the imminent chance to pick his third person for the nine-seat high court, he has the ammunition he needs to amp up enthusiasm for his reelection among the most fervently pro-life portion of his base and maybe flip a script that has had Joe Biden in the lead for months. After the often chaotic, erratic last four years, Trump has within plausible reach a shot at being one of the more consequential presidents ever.

But close observers of Trump’s career know that such moments are fraught with risk for him. In the past, when he’s been in such situations, wide-eyed with a triumphant runway coming more and more into focus—in the late ‘80s, for instance, when he went on an epic buying binge, or in the mid-2000s, when he preened on a hit television show—he has gloated and boasted. He’s gotten greedy and reckless. He’s tried to run up the score. And he’s paid for it.

So many questions, of course, roil this tumultuous moment in American politics, but the most operative for Trump might be this: Can he, at 74 years old, continue to do for days or weeks what he did Friday night—arguably for the first time in his whole life—and just hold himself in check, say the diplomatic thing rather than the nakedly partisan one, and let the possible or even probable spoils of this development wash over him?

“He might be a little reserved for a day or two,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me Saturday, “but then look out.”

“Donald can act for a time,” Trump biographer David Cay Johnston said, “but he can’t sustain it.”

“I’m sure his staff will try to get him to hold back,” former Trump Organization executive vice president Barbara Res said, “but …”

“Let’s not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” Alan Marcus frequently beseeched him in the ‘90s, he told me. But it was almost always no use. “I did not fully realize at the time,” said Marcus, his former publicist, “his need to steal the spotlight no matter what the cost.”

In the late ‘80s, when he was in his early 40s, Trump responded to his soaring celebrity in the wake of The Art of the Deal and its best-seller success by cheating on his first wife and buying a yacht he didn’t need or even want along with a hotel, an airline and another casino he couldn’t afford. Critics likened him to Icarus. All of it led to a thicket of bankruptcies and a (fleeting) comeuppance.

A decade and a half later, rejuvenated by the surprisingly high ratings of the debut of “The Apprentice,” Trump responded by flooding the marketplace with Trump-tagged ephemera, saying what he said to Billy Bush on that hot mic on “Access Hollywood,” starting a scam of a “university” and ultimately cheating on his third wife.

Now, at this dialed-up-to-11-and-then-some juncture of what already was an utter cauldron of an election season, Democrats from early indications are equally energized by these suddenly super-charged stakes. “That alone may ‘trigger’ a Trump eruption,” Marcus wrote to me in an email. What will Trump say about what Republican senators Mitt Romney, or Susan Collins, or Lisa Murkowski say about how they will vote when it comes to what could be a confirmation hearing that makes the Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas or Brett Kavanaugh imbroglios look low-key? Will he treat a funeral or memorial service the way he did John McCain’s? What if the pink “pussy hats” return to D.C.? Are we in for a repeat of this summer’s Lafayette Square clampdown?

“Can the leopard change its spots?” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair asked in an attempt to answer my question. “The tiger its stripes?”

Her answer was implied.

Another biographer’s was more blunt.

“No. Absolutely not. Does Trump ever lay low? And this is a major event. It’s like red meat for him. He’s not going to be, you know, a wallflower while people are debating Ginsburg and the future of the court,” Tim O’Brien told me when we talked Saturday afternoon. “He’s first and foremost, because he’s so insecure, an attention addict—so any event that he can participate in, in which he gets attention, he does, no matter how grotesque or crass it is.”

As of Saturday evening, Trump had tweeted only that he would move forward with sending to the Senate his selection for a replacement, “without delay!” And at another rally, this one in North Carolina, he said he would nominate a woman. “I actually like women much more than I like men, I have to say,” he said.

O’Donnell, the former Trump casino exec, considered that and the president’s demeanor Friday night on the tarmac in Bemidji. He predicted such moderated thoughts about Ginsburg or the contentious process to come won’t last. “It will not be long,” O’Donnell told me, “before he says she was actually a very bad judge.”



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