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Trump's approach to the presidency: Ignore the challenges and embrace the easy

CNN's John Avlon digs deeper into President Trump's history of inaction when it comes to Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Posted: Jul 3, 2020 6:41 AM
Updated: Jul 3, 2020 6:41 AM

It is notoriously difficult being president.

But no series of events has better illustrated the divergence between President Donald Trump's view of the job and the way his predecessors approached it than the health, intelligence and civic crises now engulfing the nation.

If his predecessors described the presidency as comprised mainly of impossible problems rooted in inconclusive facts, Trump has chosen this week to shrug off or deny the problems altogether. He insisted coronavirus will eventually "disappear," declared intelligence about Russian bounties a "hoax" and retrenched in old racial divisions the rest of the country appears ready to finally reckon with and resolve.

People who know and speak to Trump have always been somewhat mixed on whether he actually enjoys being President. His days in the Oval Office begin notoriously late, sometimes not until noon, after a morning in front of cable news. He has expressed boredom with the extensive briefings and decision-making sessions that have formed most presidents' days, according to several former administration officials. Issues that once would have been the subject of intensive presidential introspection are left to others, while matters that used to fall to underlings are elevated to the President's desk.

In the past, Trump's fixation with superficial or arcane pursuits -- such as purchasing Greenland, delivering an Elton John album to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un or adjusting the lighting during his televised appearances -- consume staff for weeks or months, even as he ignores more substantive problems.

While it is clear he values the attention, respect and gilded trappings that come with the post -- including his visit Friday to Mount Rushmore for a fireworks display -- Trump has often seemed less passionate about confronting the problems he, as commander in chief, is expected to help solve. Instead he has described his style as "modern day presidential," an ill-defined amalgamation of showman, provocateur and cheerleader that seems to generally mean whatever Trump wants it to but does not include the unpleasant or tiresome tasks undertaken by the men who preceded him.

"It's much easier being presidential, it's easy," he told a rollicking pre-Covid campaign rally in Dallas last October. "All you have to do is act like a stiff."

In private, Trump has led many aides to believe he has lost interest in combating the health crisis, finding few political upsides to a pandemic that has not been contained. Multiple former administration officials say Trump has an aversion in intelligence briefings to hearing warnings about Russia, which he associates with attempts to remove him from office. And in discussions about race, Trump has brushed off efforts to address historic racial inequality as something "his people" won't care about, according to three people familiar with his comments.

It's a new take on presidential leadership, one out of step with how most of his predecessors have approached the position and how many of his own aides wish he would govern. As he ventures this week to the mountainside monument to American presidents -- and the American presidency -- Trump continues to insist, both in public and in heated discussions with his advisers, that his way of doing the job is the only way he knows how.

That has steered him into dangerous political terrain, with most Americans now disapproving of how he's doing his job and a majority saying they would vote for his rival in November. At the same time, Trump is struggling to explain his rationale for serving a second term; asked twice by friendly interviewers to describe his agenda for another four years in office, Trump named no problem he hopes to solve or issue he hopes to advance once he's run his last presidential campaign.

"We're going to make America great again," he told Sinclair's Eric Bolling on Wednesday. "We're doing things that nobody could have done."

The pandemic

On coronavirus, Trump has delegated to others -- principally his vice president -- the difficult job of bearing bad news, though his aides are now debating whether Trump should focus more of his attention on combating a disease that has left 130,000 Americans dead, caused other countries to bar entry to US citizens and left millions unemployed.

This week, as Trump's loyal vice president darted from hotspot to hotspot with members of the White House coronavirus task force, Trump hardly mentioned the virus in public. When he emerged to tout new jobs numbers on Thursday, Trump offered no updated plan to confront a virus that has set daily case-count records five times in the past week. Instead he offered only vague projections of optimism.

"It's a life, it's got a life, and we're putting out that life, cause that's a bad life that we're talking about," he said.

Trump himself has not attended a coronavirus task force meeting since April, and two people close to the President describe him as having lost interest in the virus long ago.

That is not how the last Republican president has described confronting inconvenient, uninteresting or difficult problems when he was in office.

"The nature of the presidency is that sometimes you don't choose which challenges come to your desk. You do decide how to respond," President George W. Bush wrote in his post-White House memoir, "Decision Points."

Trump would hardly adopt Bush's views on how to do the job seriously; former aides have said he "despises" both Bush presidents and he regularly questions the decision George W. Bush made to invade Iraq. Nor is he likely to pay much mind to how President Barack Obama -- who he also despises and whom he has accused of treason -- described the job.

"By definition, if it was an easily solvable problem, or even a modestly difficult but solvable problem, it would not reach me, because, by definition, somebody else would have solved it," Obama said in 2018, a sentiment he voiced frequently while in office. "So, the only decisions that came were the ones that were horrible and that didn't have a good solution. They said, 'Let's send this to Obama, I don't know what to do.' "

Almost all past presidents have said the job exists in gray areas -- where decisions aren't clear-cut, intelligence is open to debate and easy problems are solved by others, leaving only the hard ones for them to sort out -- a view Trump and his team have characterized the position as almost entirely the opposite.

The Russia problem

This week, instead of developing a plan to combat Russia's attempts to pay Taliban fighters to kill American troops, Trump has discounted the intelligence, railed against those who leaked it and said little about how he might punish Moscow were the details to be confirmed.

"I think it's a hoax," he said in an interview with Fox Business Network on Wednesday. "I think it's a hoax by the newspapers and the Democrats."

The White House has decried reports about the bounties as based on "unverified" information that was not uniformly agreed upon by the American intelligence community, though successive leaks in The New York Times, CNN and elsewhere have provided an extraordinarily detailed view of the scheme.

Still, in the White House's own telling, Trump only sees intelligence only when it is "verified" and has "consensus" -- a description former administration officials have said bears little resemblance to how intelligence was delivered to presidents in the past. Even then, the White House says information only rises to Trump's level when there is a "strategic decision" to be made.

The overall portrait provided by current and former officials has been a president generally uninterested in the vast secrets compiled by the US government that only he and a select number of aides are allowed to see. John Bolton, his onetime national security adviser, said this week that Trump was generally uninterested in hearing inconvenient or contradictory information.

"It's not that the intelligence community is failing," Bolton told CBS News. "It's that the President doesn't value this information as highly as his predecessors have, and as highly as he should."

Other officials involved in briefing the President have offered similar assessments.

All leaders find that "intelligence is massively inconvenient," Sue Gordon, the former top intelligence official who provided intelligence briefings to Trump, said during public remarks at the end of last year. "So you are walking in there making things difficult because of what you are presenting. And you are limiting the choices because once it's heard it is heard and it exists."

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, said Trump was "typically frustrated with intelligence because it shows a problem but doesn't provide an answer."

Robert O'Brien, the President's current national security adviser, told reporters this week that information was never withheld from the President because it seemed inconvenient.

"I almost never go into the President with good news, unfortunately, because of my job," he said. "We brief him on everything he needs to know to keep the country safe."

Race-based culture war

O'Brien is among several administration officials who has recently denied systemic racism continues to plague the nation after a series of police killings of unarmed Black men and women. Even as entities such as NASCAR and the GOP-held Mississippi Legislature begin confronting the symbols long associated with the country's racist past, Trump has refused to engage in the discussion, deeming Confederate emblems an irreplaceable part of the country's "heritage."

That's a position that polls show is out of step with an increasing number of Americans -- a Quinnipiac University survey last month showed 52% of voters support removing Confederate statues from public spaces -- though Trump has been adamant that the people who voted for him are swayed by his argument.

Instead of seeking to bridge the cultural and racial divide, Trump has spent this week stoking the fractures: he has complained that the names of racists are being removed from buildings, vowed to reexamine a federal rule meant to combat segregation, and deemed to words "Black Lives Matter" a "symbol of hate" that would ruin the "luxury avenue" he once called home.

That Trump is not a unifying president is hardly new. Yet presented with the opportunity to address some of the problems associated with systemic bias in policing, Trump has largely turned his back, believe there is little political benefit.

After signing an modest executive order earlier this month, Trump has declined to throw his support behind GOP legislation that would go further, fearing it could alienate police and turn off the voters he claims are looking for a "law-and-order" president. Without Trump's backing, the police reform package being negotiated on Capitol Hill has an uncertain future.

Instead of reforms, Trump has focused squarely on going after violent protesters after he was warned in early June that he looked weak while fires burned outside the White House as he fled to an underground bunker. Yet protests since then have been mostly peaceful.

The focus on "looters" illustrates Trump's desire to solve only the problems he deems politically helpful, even as less convenient -- and often more substantive -- issues rage unchecked. During a string of combating press briefings this week, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has opened with long speeches about restoring "law-and-order" to the country without mention of the virus ravaging communities across the Sun Belt.

For Trump, solving self-created or self-inflated problems has always seemed more palatable than confronting the challenges no one else can solve. He admitted early in his presidency that fixing health care -- an issue he vowed to overhaul as a candidate -- was a lot more complicated than he expected.

Arriving at a moment where the hard parts of running the country are piling up even as he shows little enthusiasm for solving them, many around him believe his own 100-day assessment of the job has changed little.

"I loved my previous life. I had so many things going," Trump told Reuters in April 2017. "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier."

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