The most damaging claims in Fire and Fury concern Trump’s behaviour – and it could cost him his job, writes Lesley Riddoch
Left and liberal-leaning folk across the world have been praying for his political demise since he entered the White House a short but eventful year ago. Many were at a loss to know exactly how this vain, foul-mouthed, misogynistic climate-change denier had been elected in the first place and have remained uncertain about how he can be dislodged.
But now the storm clouds are unquestionably gathering, because Michael Wolff’s devastating fly-on-the-wall account of life in the White House has exposed the president’s biggest weakness – his own character and personality.
The detail contained in Fire and Fury is heady stuff. Political attention focuses on insider Steven Bannon’s claims that Trump’s son had a “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower during the 2016 election campaign. But the most damaging accusation lies beyond politics and policy – it’s the suggestion the president may have mental health issues.
According to Wolff, who interviewed more than 200 people in Trump’s inner and outer circles, “They all say, ‘He is like a child – he has a need for immediate gratification. It’s all about him.” In addition, Wolff claims, “Trump doesn’t read, he doesn’t really even skim… he can read headlines and articles about himself, or the gossip squibs in the New York Post.” He repeats himself “word-for-word and expression-for-expression” every 10 minutes and has failed to recognise a succession of old friends.
Bandy Lee, an assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine, recently briefed members of Congress on the potential risks associated with Trump’s behaviour. Lee says she and other psychiatrists are speaking out because they feel “the danger has become imminent”.
This matters – because in theory it could cost Trump his job.
If the president is deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, the vice-president takes over. However, his cabinet and vice-president must kickstart the process, so that’s still unlikely to happen. Far more likely that Americans start watching Trump’s TV and Twitter output with increasing rigour and suspicion. Some websites like American scientific news site Stat are already on the case.
Stat asked psychologists and psychiatrists to compare Trump’s speech patterns from 1990 to 2017; they all agreed there had been a deterioration that could reflect changes in the health of his brain.
Thirty years ago Trump was articulate, could insert dependent clauses in sentences without losing his train of thought and peppered answers with relatively sophisticated words such as “subsided,” “inclination,” “discredited,” “sparring session” and “a certain innate intelligence”. Now his vocabulary is simpler. He repeats himself over and over again, and lurches from one subject to another.
Of course he could be trying to appeal to his core vote, experiencing the normal decline that comes with age or suffering from stress. Or his speech changes could be down to a neurological condition such as Alzheimer’s. Stat noted that during one speech Trump lifted a glass awkwardly with both hands and in another his speech became strangely slurred.
Next week Trump will undergo his first medical examination since taking office – although the findings will be confidential, any problems will hardly stay secret for long.
Of course presidents have suffered from mental ill health. Abraham Lincoln’s depression prompted several breakdowns and Ronald Reagan suffered confusion and seemed unsure of where he was occasionally. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years after he left office but somehow remained well regarded by Republican America.
So it’s possible that slight confusion wouldn’t damage Trump – if the public rated him on his policies. But they don’t. A Gallup poll in July found that 65 per cent of Trump “disapprovers” cited personality and character explanations while 65 per cent of Barack Obama disapprovers in July 2009 gave issue and policy reasons.
Those critical of Trump listed his temperament, arrogance, tendency to act “non-presidential,” inexperience, self-focus, excessive Twitter use and perceived untrustworthiness.
And that was six months before his boast about the size of his nuclear button and the publication of Fire and Fury. According to veteran Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein; “Trump’s stability is really what this book is about.”
So if there are any policy meltdowns, Trump could soon face the perfect storm. And several are brewing.
Trump insists Mexico must still pay for a wall along the southern US border, but was forced to ask Congress for $18 billion on Friday so construction can begin. Mexico has repeated it will not pay a penny. And Trump’s attempt to use Mexican child migrants as a bargaining chip could backfire.
Congress must pass a federal budget by 19 January to avert a partial government shutdown and needs Democratic support. But they won’t agree to pay for the wall or sanction Trump’s plans to deport up to 800,000 child migrants, most from Latin America.
Then there’s Israel. Trump calculated that fear of a US trade embargo would limit international reaction to his recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. But far from cowing world opinion, Trump has breathed life and unity of purpose into the United Nations – an organisation he claims to despise.
It took Obama 18 months in the White House for his approval ratings to slip to 44 per cent in Gallup polling. George W Bush took four years. Trump got there before he was even sworn in and still hasn’t recovered.
With each policy debacle the forces against him are getting stronger and more organised. So 2018 could prove to be the world’s lucky year.