It was almost a year ago when then-candidate Donald Trump said the following (bolding ours):
"My wife is constantly saying, 'Darling, be more presidential.' I just don't know that I want to do it quite yet ... because we have a job to do. ... And we're doing so good. And we have to be tough for a little while. And I'll be — at some point, I'm going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored."
That was in Pennsylvania during the GOP primary. At that point, Trump was close to wrapping up the GOP nomination. But there were concerns about his temperament, and he was facing resistance within some corners of the party.
A string of critical northeastern primaries, including Pennsylvania with a crucial cache of delegates, was just days away.
Trump would wind up sweeping the day, setting him on a glide path for the nomination.
There was talk that he was "pivoting." But did he become "so presidential," we all got "so bored"?
We know the answer to that one.
This is what Trump does.
Repeatedly during the campaign, and now during the first days of his presidency, Trump has found himself with his back against the wall. After chaos and controversy, he dangles a reset with a promise to be more presidential, a pledge to be cool and calm or a traditional Supreme Court nominee rollout.
Observers wonder, "Is this the pivot?"
And it happened again this week. President Trump won plaudits for his scripted speech to a joint session of Congress — mostly because of his newly subdued "tone." He reassured nervous congressional Republicans and supporters who want him to be more presidential. More than 8-in-10 people who watched the speech thought that Trump, in fact, was presidential in the address, a CBS survey found.
It all came again at a critical time, with his presidency at a danger point after a month of chaos.
But by the end of the week, with more controversy swirling, he was back to grievance tweeting.
How this past week went
- Trump tweets that the Democratic National Committee chairman's race was "rigged" and that the Russia storyline of connections to his campaign was "fake news."
- Interview with father of Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who died in the recent Yemen raid, is published. He tells the Miami Herald that he wants an investigation into his son's death, that he shunned a meeting with Trump when his son's body was returned to the U.S. and that Trump shouldn't "hide" behind his son's death. The White House had been chastising anyone who criticized the raid as disrespecting Owens' sacrifice.
- An NBC/WSJ poll is released showing Trump's approval rating at 44 percent, lower than for any other president in that time frame.
- Trump meets with health insurance CEOs at the White House.
- Details of his proposed budget begin to leak before his address to Congress on Tuesday.
- Wilbur Ross confirmed as Trump's commerce secretary.
- Trump is interviewed by friendly Fox host Sean Hannity and blames the generals for Owens' death. "They lost Ryan," Trump said.
- Trump, first acting as a "senior administration official" before going on the record, tells TV anchors in a background meeting that he could be open to an overhaul of immigration policy with a path to legalization. That turned out to be a head fake, as he didn't mention a pathway in his speech to Congress that night.
- Trump delivers his joint address to Congress, striking a more somber and less combative tone. The most emotional part of the speech was when he recognized Owens' widow, who was given sustained applause. "Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he's very happy, because I think he just broke a record," Trump said apparently alluding to the lengthy applause.
- Basking in positive reviews, the White House decides to hold off on releasing Trump's new travel ban executive order.
- But the attention on the speech doesn't last long. By late Wednesday night, the talk is of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' contacts with Russia. The Washington Post breaks — and NPR's Carrie Johnson confirms — that Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice in 2016, something he failed to mention during his confirmation hearing. Instead, he said then, "I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians."
- Ryan Zinke confirmed as interior secretary.
- The Dow Jones industrial average closes above 21,000 for the first time. Trump touted stock market gains in his speech Tuesday and again in a tweet on Thursday. But many Americans won't see direct benefits.
- Zinke shows up to work on a horse.
- The day is dominated by the Sessions news: Democratic leaders call on him to resign or at least recuse himself; Republicans increasingly call on Sessions to recuse. (Marco Rubio tells NPR he doesn't want to be part of a "witch hunt" or a "cover up.")
- By the afternoon, Sessions holds a press conference at the Justice Department and says he would recuse himself from any investigation involving the Trump campaign. In retrospect, he admits he should have disclosed the meetings. A Justice Department spokesperson says the meeting was held in his capacity as a senator. Sessions says he will file an amendment to his testimony.
- Trump starts to revert. In a statement — and on Twitter — he says Sessions didn't do anything wrong, although "he could have stated his response more accurately." Still, he called it a "witch hunt" by bitter Democrats.
- The White House confirms to the New York Times and NPR's Tamara Keith that Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and key adviser, also met with the Russian ambassador. (The New Yorker reported this a week ago as a parenthetical in a lengthy piece.)
- Ben Carson is confirmed as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
- Rick Perry is confirmed as energy secretary.
- Trump is back to grievance tweeting, complaining that Democrats still haven't approved his full Cabinet and that Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer is a "total hypocrite" and should be investigated for "his ties to Russia and Putin," posting a photo of Schumer and Putin sharing coffee and donuts.
- Schumer responds that he'd be happy to talk about it in front of reporters and under oath and challenged Trump's team to do the same.
There is no pivot and probably never will be
These ebbs and flows, ups and downs, are just who Trump is. There are no two Trumps. There's one Trump, and he pings back and forth within this spectrum.
And he's given us proof of that over the past year and a half. There two reasons he's already told us for why he reverts:
1. When he feels wronged. This quote from a press conference during the campaign might sum up his thinking best. Almost exactly a year ago, on March 5, 2016, he defended bragging about the size of his genitalia during a nationally televised debate. When asked if the discourse should be at a "higher level," he responded this way (again, bolding ours):
"Here's the story: I would love it to be at a high level. I will be the most presidential candidate in history, other than honest Abe Lincoln. He was very tough to beat, okay? You look at Abe Lincoln. He was serious, right? I will be a very — but when I get attacked by these people at a low level, I have to attack back. I can't stand it. Some people say, you're above it, you should stand it. That's not me. I won't do it. And you know what? I'll never do that for our country, either."
So, if he feels attacked, don't expect him to ever take the high road.
2. When reverting could mean bad ratings (or small crowds). This is the rest of the quote from his event in Pennsylvania from the beginning of this story:
"And I'll come back as a presidential person, and instead of 10,000 people, I'll have about 150 people, and they'll say, 'But, boy, he really looks presidential.' "
In other words, the worst thing that could happen to Trump — is if no one pays attention.