Donald Trump: a president without ties


WASHINGTON — He threw his lunch across the room, smashing the plate in a fit of anger as ketchup ran down the wall. He seemed to approve of supporters who wanted to hang his own vice president. And in a scene staged by a former aide who looked more out of a movie than real life, he tried to wrestle the steering wheel of his presidential vehicle and lunged at his own Secret Service agent.

Former President Donald J. Trump has never been considered the most stable occupant of the Oval Office by almost anyone but himself, but the jaw-dropping testimony presented by his former aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, during Tuesday’s House Select Committee hearing portrayed an unhinged commander in the leader lost control as he desperately sought to cling to power and pushed armed supporters to help him get there.

The president who emerged from his narrative was unstable, violent and vicious, determined in his quest to nullify an election he lost no matter what he was told, anxious to get to Capitol Hill to personally disrupt the constitutional process that would finalize his defeat. , dismissive of warnings that his actions could lead to disaster, and utterly indifferent to the prospect of sending a crowd of supporters to Congress whom he knew included people armed with deadly weapons.

A president who liked to describe himself as a “very stable genius” was anything but, as Ms Hutchinson observed during those frantic final days in office. It was not a description that surprised many who worked for Mr. Trump and had seen him up close over the previous four years, or for that matter, many who had known him in the decades since. had preceded his political life. But hearing him recount it all under oath, on live television, made it clear just how far Mr. Trump and his White House have exploded in his perilous final chapter.

“It’s crazy,” said Pat A. Cipollone, his White House attorney, at some point on Jan. 6, 2021, as Ms. Hutchinson recalled, when Mr. Trump was busy lambasting the vice president. Mike Pence rather than trying to call off the attack on the Capitol.

Mr. Cipollone was not the only one to think so. According to Ms Hutchinson’s account, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Cabinet members were so concerned about Mr Trump’s behavior that they considered invoking the 25th Amendment, used to remove a president deemed incompetent. to discharge his duties.

Mr Trump, who regularly accuses his critics of being ‘crazy’ and ‘psycho’, bombarded his new social media site during Tuesday’s hearing with posts attacking Ms Hutchinson and denying the most sensational anecdote that she provided to the committee.

“His false story that I tried to grab the wheel of the White House limo in order to direct it to the Capitol building is ‘sick’ and fraudulent, as is the screening committee itself,” wrote Mr. Trump on his Truth Social website. “His story of me throwing food is also fake.”

A Secret Service spokesperson said in a statement that the agency would formally respond to the House committee about Ms Hutchinson’s account of what happened in the armored car.

Secret Service officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the potential testimony said Robert Engel, the head of Mr. Trump’s protective service, and the driver of Mr. Trump’s sport utility vehicle were willing to give a sworn statement. that neither man had been assaulted by the elder. president and that he did not drive. Officials said the two men would not dispute the allegation that Mr. Trump wanted to go to the Capitol.

Ms Hutchinson did not witness the scene in the vehicle herself, but said she was told about it moments later by Anthony Ornato, the president’s deputy chief of staff and former Secret Service agent, Ms. Engel being present in the room and not challenging him. .

Regardless, other Trump White House veterans who broke with the former president said Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony resonated with their own experiences. Mr. Trump was prone to tantrums, clapping his hands on his desk and yelling at advisers he considered insufficiently loyal. As Ms Hutchinson said, his destruction of tableware in a post-election explosion was not the first time he went after White House china.

“His temper was scary. And fast,” Stephanie Grisham, who served as his White House press secretary and communications director and Melania Trump’s chief of staff, said after Tuesday’s hearing. “He would snap and almost lose control.”

She recounted a number of instances in her tell-all book published after she left office and noted that when Mr Trump went berserk his staff resorted to summoning an aide, nicknamed the Music Man, to play favorite show tunes they knew they would do. appease it, including “Memory” from the Broadway musical “Cats.”

Other presidents have exhibited erratic behavior behind the scenes, from Andrew Jackson to Lyndon B. Johnson. Richard M. Nixon threw an ashtray across the room upon learning of the Watergate burglary and on another occasion was seen shoving his own publicist. During the days of scandal that led to his resignation, Nixon drank, talked to paintings of former presidents and seemed so unsettled that his Secretary of Defense ordered generals not to carry out orders he issued without checking. first with him or the Secretary of State. .

Even so, it’s hard to imagine another president accosting his own Secret Service agent, in a vain attempt to turn his vehicle toward the Capitol, so he can enter the House chamber to oppose his own electoral defeat.

“We never know everything that happens behind closed doors in the White House, and presidential history is full of gross behavior,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “But I find it hard to think of a previous case where a president has physically assaulted, or even threatened, someone charged with protecting them.”

Mark K. Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation and author of “Incomparable Grace,” a new book about John F. Kennedy, said he was unable to offer a historical comparison. Johnson and Nixon “could be emotionally unstable, but nothing approaching physical abuse,” he said. “Like almost everything else with Trump, this is totally unprecedented.”

One who might know would be John Dean, the White House attorney whose own testimony during the Watergate era helped bring down Nixon. “Cassidy’s testimony clearly shows that Trump is prone to temper tantrums, like an unruly child,” he said after the hearing. “I cannot tell from his testimony whether they are controlled or not. I suspect that at his age, these are controlled temper tantrums.

Mr. Trump’s mental state has been a regular problem throughout his four years in office and the idea of ​​declaring him unfit for service by application of the 25th Amendment has arisen within his own administration, even in his first months.

The shelves were filled with volumes speculating on his psychological health. His speech patterns were analyzed for signs of dementia. His own niece, Mary L. Trump, a clinical psychologist, said he had “so many pathologies” and “shows sociopathic tendencies.” At one point during the 2020 campaign, he took a cognitive test to prove his mental acumen, reciting in order: “Nobody. Women. Man. Camera. TV.”

Some advisers have come to the conclusion that Mr. Trump has deteriorated after losing the election to Joseph R. Biden Jr. on November 3. Former Attorney General William P. Barr, whose Dec. 1 public statement that there was no evidence the election was robbed prompted Mr. Trump to attack his luncheon, told the House committee that the president seemed increasingly unbalanced.

“I was thinking, boy, if he really believes in this stuff, he’s lost touch with – he’s become detached from reality,” Mr Barr said.

The reality conveyed by Ms. Hutchinson, a top aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, became more ominous the day Congress convened to count the Electoral College votes confirming Mr. Trump. He lashed out and gave every indication he knew that the crowd of supporters he had gathered on the Ellipse included people prone to violence. Said some trying to attend his rally were armed, he slammed the Secret Service should pull out his magnetometers and let them in.

“You know, I don’t care if they have guns,” Mr Trump said in Ms Hutchinson’s account of the episode. “They are not here to hurt me. Remove the f-ing mags. Let my people in. They can walk to the Capitol from here. Let people in. Remove the f-ing mags.

The fact that he then told them to march to the Capitol, knowing they were armed, didn’t intimidate her in the least, as far as she could tell.

He wanted to go with them and told the crowd he would, even though the advisers said it was a really bad idea. “We will be charged with every crime imaginable” if he went to the Capitol, had warned Mr. Cipollone a few days earlier.

When Mr. Trump got into the presidential armored sports utility vehicle after his Ellipse speech, the Secret Service began to drive him back to the White House, prompting him to burst out. “I’m the fucking president. Take me to the Capitol now, he ordered.

Robert Engel, the chief agent, told him he had to go back to the West Wing. At that point, according to the account Ms Hutchinson later heard, the president reached out to the front of the vehicle to grab the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm. “Sir, you need to take your hand off the wheel,” the officer reportedly said. “We’re going back to the west wing. We’re not going to the Capitol.

According to the version given to Ms Hutchinson, Mr Trump then used his free hand to lunge at the officer at his collarbone. But it didn’t make a difference.

The president was flown back to the White House, where he watched the rest of the day’s action on television – shocked not by the violence unleashed in his name but by his failure to change the election result.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed report.

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