First, Donald Trump remade the Republican Party in his own image. And after his double-dip of G-7 and North Korea nuclear diplomacy, it’s even more obvious he’s doing the same to the presidency.
Some congressional Democrats are worried the former reality television star’s eagerness to break with decades-old norms and traditions is soiling the office and influencing future chief executives to mirror Trump’s ways. And though a handful of Republican members publicly share those concerns, most are helping him transform the highest — and long the most revered — job in the land.
Trump’s makeover of the office he holds progressed rapidly as Air Force One ferried him from Quebec to Singapore.
The unlikely U.S. leader had had enough of lectures — in person, to the media and on Twitter — from other G-7 leaders. So he fired off some tweets of his own, lambasting close American allies like Canada, France and Germany. Even GOP lawmakers cringed, urging the president to resist taking his gripes with allies public. But it was too late. He had already put on notice not only America’s allies, but also the foundation on which the entire post-World War II economic order stands — or stood.
Then came his Tuesday summit with Kim Jong Un, which showed how the U.S. presidency looks less and less like the one occupied by his modern-day predecessors. And while numerous moments provide examples, perhaps none illustrates how fundamentally and rapidly the presidency has changed in the last 16 months than a video Trump boasted about showing Kim on an iPad.
The video is stunning. It appears to portray the U.S. president and the North Korean supreme leader as equals. And it paints Kim, whom human rights organizations call a brutal dictator who operates gulags and overtly oppresses his citizens, as a heroic and beloved leader. When the White House played it on large screens in the hall where Trump addressed reporters for over an hour Tuesday, some of them tweeted they mistook it for Pyongyang-produced propaganda.
Previous presidents have sought to avoid such optics. Not Trump.
“I hope you liked it. I thought it was good. I thought it was interesting enough to show. One in English and one in Korean,” Trump said Tuesday, very much back in his television executive producer mode. “I showed it to him today. … And I think he loved it.”
“About eight of their representatives were watching it, and I thought they were fascinated,” he said. “I showed it to you because that’s the future. … Now, I don’t think I had to show it, because I really believe ... he wants to get [a nuclear deal] done.”
Then, as Air Force One was over the Pacific Ocean as the president and his team made their way back from feting Kim, the president tweeted, urging voters to unseat incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Sanford in the Virginia primary. “He is better off in Argentina,” Trump wrote, referring to Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman.
‘Reality show discourse’
It’s all triggering alarm bells among congressional Democrats, who hope the emotions and frustrations Trump tapped into to win the presidency won’t lead to a shift in the country’s politics that leads future presidents to lob insults and ignore experts’ and aides’ counsel, all while slamming allies and cozying up to dictators.
“Oh, absolutely he’s changing things. He has done things as president since day one that I don’t like. I’m not talking about policy, I’m talking about the actions of the president,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said Wednesday.
“To put that kind of praise on a despot and human rights violator and a dangerous person, it’s just not what the president of the United States should have done,” Cardin said, referring to Kim. “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything if you’re the president. And certainly don’t give praise.”
Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson said he “won’t say that the president’s changing the institution,” but he sees a broader shift being spawned by Trump.
“Already, we see politicians following his bombastic, shoot-from-the-hip style with all the dismissals of experts and the improvisational style — and a style of insulting with a decrease in civility,” Johnson said. “Those things have become the norm in American politics. We’re sinking to a new level of incivility led by the president of this county.”
Johnson joined other Democrats, like the Maryland duo of Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, in criticizing Trump for conducting the business of the presidency like it’s a season of “The Apprentice.”
“The leaders are a reflection of the people — if the people are angry, that is reflected in the leadership that they select,” he said. “It’s going to be up to the hearts and minds of the people … when they get tired of this reality show discourse.”
Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, says Trump has made decisions at home and abroad with a “you’re-either-with-me-or-you’re-against-me” mindset.
“This White House certainly hasn’t done things with the basic level of grace and dignity we’re used to,” Grumet said. “Whatever you feel about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, there was a sense the presidency was a real jewel the nation shared together and should be treated as such.”
Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says Trump has put “the presidency at a crossroads.”
“One on hand, there’s pulling out of all kinds of international agreements and shaking up Washington — things he promised to do. On the other hand, a lot of the things this president has done is like driving the Constitution and laws into a ditch,” she said.
‘The Trump mold’
Still, Trump has plenty of defenders among congressional Republicans. They appear fine — at least publicly — with an approach the president himself has described as “modern-day presidential.”
“He has his own style, there’s no doubt about it. As far as Kim, that was the president putting Kim on the defensive,” Rep. Peter T. King said Wednesday. “It was a charm offensive, to put him on defense and say, ‘You have to follow through on this.’ That is President Trump’s way: go over the top almost to make a point.”
The New York Republican does not share his Democratic colleagues’ fears about future commanders in chief doing things like showing a nuclear-armed foe the inside of the heavily classified presidential limousine. “I don’t think anybody can follow the Trump mold,” King said with a laugh.
And Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Wednesday applauded Trump’s treatment of Kim as necessary to “disrupt the status quo” with North Korea, which hasn’t worked for the past three presidents.
“They were racing toward a nuclear weapon having multiple independent ICBMs with nuclear-tipped warheads on top of them. The president needed to disrupt the status quo, and the president has disrupted the status quo. He should be applauded for doing that,” Ryan said.
But other Republicans — mostly those who are retiring — are not so sure.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker on Tuesday slammed his party during a floor speech, saying they would rather avoid an action that would “poke the bear” (Trump) than vote on his proposal to curb Trump’s trade and tariff authorities. Why so fearful? Consider Trump’s tweet against Sanford, and then his three-point loss in his GOP primary. Anger the bear, suffer the consequences.
Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is not ruling out a 2020 primary run against Trump, said Wednesday it has been “bothersome the way we refer to our allies, as opposed to the way we refer to dictators.” And when informed by a reporter that Trump showed Kim the inside of “The Beast,” Flake’s eyes went wide: “You’re kidding.”
For his part, Cardin acknowledged that Americans have come to expect Trump to buck traditions of the office.
“He does these kinds of things every day. I hope we never get used to it,” Cardin said. “I really do believe that President Trump represents an aberration of the temperament, quality and concerns of someone who will occupy the office next, whether that be a Democrat or a Republican. I hope this is just something we have to live through, but it does not have a permanent impact on the conduct of every president of the United States.”
The jury on that, however, is very much still out. Trump is unlikely to change. And Republican lawmakers appear unwilling to force him to. “Yeah, Kim’s not a good person,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham said Tuesday. “But I don’t mind President Trump doing what he has to in order to end this peacefully.”