His revival of debunked claims that millions of illegal voters are to blame for him losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton — in essence challenging the legitimacy of his election — is overshadowing the otherwise fast start he has made in honoring campaign promises and changing America.
Forced to defend the President’s remarks to congressional leaders on Monday night, his spokesman Sean Spicer was unable to quell the controversy on Tuesday, citing “studies and evidence” — then refused to discuss or produce any such material.
“The President does believe that, I think he’s stated that before, and stated his concern of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign and continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence people have brought to him,” Spicer said.
The reappearance of a controversy the Trump camp had thought was in the past was another sign of one of the President’s most dominant traits — an inability to accept any suggestion that he was unable to pull off a complete and total victory in any area of his life.
The self-ignited controversies in the first five days of his presidency — including one about the size of his inaugural crowds — also hints at a deeper and consuming need to be demonstrated as legitimate that has driven Trump for decades and has sometimes been an Achilles heel.
As so often, the steps Trump takes to try to satisfy his craving for respect and to be seen as a spectacular victor threaten to make that recognition ever more elusive.
In this case, his refusal to accept that he lost the popular vote fair and square, despite winning the electoral college and the presidency, threatens to detract from another far more significant story — his sweeping use of executive power to live up to campaign promises and begin to change America.
He has moved to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and begun the process of taking apart Obamacare.
Next week, Trump is expected to name a Supreme Court nominee, a potential legacy-making opportunity most presidents don’t get in their first week in office.
But the revived debate about voter fraud is a sign that the off-the-cuff controversies that Trump used to his political benefit during the campaign have the capacity to actually damage him as President because they undermine the trust that is a vital commodity for every commander in chief.
A number of academic and governmental studies have found no evidence of voter fraud to back up what would be the most sensational story election in American history.
Trump’s deep desire for legitimacy is not some new character trait that has emerged from during his early days in power.
Throughout his campaign, his obsession with polls, boasts about his wealth, lavish praise for his buildings and business revealed a candidate unusually open to talking up his achievements and place in the world.
Michael D’Antonio, author of a recent book “The Truth About Trump” said the President’s obsessive desire for recognition was on display through his long climb to prominence as a business tycoon.
“He absolutely has done this for his entire life — going back to childhood when he had to tell people he was the best baseball player in New York state when baseball is something they keep records on and they can prove it’s not true. He was raised by a very demanding father and his father did not tolerate anything but complete victory and success in everything that Donald did.”
But now, Trump has finally arrived at a position where the scrutiny is intense and claims and boasts that could be put down to the braggadocio of a real estate tycoon in the business world no longer fly.
“This is the first time in his life that he has to play by rules that other people establish … (but) he doesn’t see any difference between salesmanship and being a president,” said D’Antonio, also author of a new book about Barack Obama called “A Consequential President.”
The most remarkable aspect of Trump’s desire for recognition is that while there are millions of Americans who would never vote Republican or who were appalled by Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail, official Washington has accepted him as President with little reservation. Even Bill and Hillary Clinton made a point of attending his inauguration Friday.
Notwithstanding his searing condemnation of the city’s political elites in his inaugural address, congressional leaders have already traveled to the White House to yuck it up with the new President. Republicans are consulting him as they lay out a legislative schedule. Democrats, as is normal for an opposition party shut out of power, are plotting their resistance.
President frusturated by coverage
But Trump seems unable to turn the other cheek — even before his inauguration he launched into a Twitter tirade against Democratic Rep. John Lewis who had said he was not a legitimate President, instead of taking the politically wiser course of just shrugging off the revered congressman’s jab.
Spicer offered a revealing glimpse into the President’s psyche during his first briefing on Monday, prompted by a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta.
“There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has,” Spicer said. “And I think that it’s just unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough, you can’t win.”
Spicer said that Trump had not been taken seriously when he started to run for president and had constantly been told he that he would lose.
“He’s gone out there and defied the odds over and over and over again. And he keeps getting told what he can’t do by this narrative that’s out there,” Spicer said, in remarkably candid comments for a presidential spokesman.
“And he exceeds it every single time. And I think there’s an overall frustration when you turn on the television over and over again and get told that there’s this narrative that you didn’t win.”
While those sentiments may accurately reflect opinion in Trump’s inner circle, they do not take into account that Trump’s preoccupation with triviality could become a liability for his administration.
He’s already triggered a furious backlash on Capitol Hill after repeating his conspiracy theory about his failure to win the popular vote in front of congressional leaders on Monday, according to several sources.
“If the President of the United States is claiming that 3.5 million people voted illegally, that shakes confidence in our democracy — he needs to disclose why he believes that,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN on Tuesday.
Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, said he saw no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“I would suggest the White House looks in their windshield and not the rearview mirror. They did something that nobody thought they could do. They should be proud (of) that and not let this be a distraction,” Hurd told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
There are also longer term implications for Trump’s failure to develop a thicker skin.
His White House will face far more political pressure and unflattering press coverage in the future than it does now.
There will be times when it feels the Oval Office is the most isolated place in the entire world. The most successful presidents are those who can still function under that intense scrutiny. And the most capable White House staffs help a president maintain the credibility and trust that he must call upon in times of crisis — whatever his press clippings say.
Trump not alone
Still, as he fends of criticism over his comments, Trump can console himself that he is not alone in experiencing intense frustration over his press coverage and feeling he is not getting his due as President.
After winning a landslide in 1964, Lyndon Johnson complained that journalists were criticizing him as having no rapport with voters or saying he was just the beneficiary of fighting against a weak Republican candidate in Barry Goldwater.
In comments strikingly similar to Trump’s, LBJ told his adviser Edwin Weisl in a telephone call: “I had the biggest crowd they ever had before and I got the biggest vote anybody ever got before. I had the greatest affection that had ever been demonstrated,” Johnson said.
“But they say ‘Aw-w-w-w, that doesn’t amount to anything,” Johnson said, in a transcript of the call included in the book “Reaching for Glory” by Michael Beschloss.
Soon after his inauguration in 1993, Bill Clinton complained that he had never really had a “honeymoon” with the press which he thought was more interested in sensational leaks than substantive politics,” according to the Taylor Branch’s book “The Clinton Tapes.”
Still, Clinton and LBJ did not take the same approach as Trump — who blared out his anger publicly — instead leaving it to history to reveal their fury.