White House

This week just gave a clear snapshot of all Donald Trump's leadership troubles

Key Points
  • Trump faces trouble across various levels — legal, political, and managerial.
  • The president made a series of befuddling claims in the press this week.
  • Trump attacked former FBI director on Friday: "James Comey better hope there are no 'tapes' of our conversations."
Donald Trump
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

Beginning with warnings of Russian blackmail and ending with confounding presidential statements, this week revealed a White House in deeper trouble than buoyant financial markets have recognized.

The strongest evidence came not from attacks by opponents but rather the words and actions of President Donald Trump and his aides. Taken together, they pose the greatest threat to fulfillment of a presidential term since Bill Clinton faced the Monica Lewinsky scandal two decades ago.

Trump's troubles span every element of executive leadership:

  • Legal: He fired FBI director James Comey as the agency investigates ties between Trump's campaign and Russians who interfered with the 2016 presidential election. He told NBC's Lester Holt that unhappiness with the investigation played a role in his decision — an acknowledgment that could influence assessments by prosecutors or lawmakers as to whether he aimed to obstruct justice.

    Trump insisted he is not personally under investigation, even if campaign aides and associates are. But the president also disclosed that he was concerned enough to ask Comey the question directly while considering the director's job status. He hired a private law firm to respond to Senate investigators about business ties to Russia.

  • Political: Trump's penchant for false statements had long since undercut his credibility with most Americans; just 25 percent in last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal rated him highly for "being honest and trustworthy." But the president's admission that advice from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein played no role in his decision to fire Comey — directly contradicting accounts by Vice President Mike Pence and top aides — shredded their credibility as well.

    That matters around the world. The word of presidents and their aides represents a critical component of America's economic, diplomatic and military power.

    And it matters at home, where Trump seeks support from Congress and its constituents. By week's end, Trump's approval rating had once again fallen below 40 percent in some polls, dangerous territory for fellow Republicans in 2018 congressional elections. If Democrats recapture control of the House, Trump would face the serious threat of impeachment proceedings.

  • Managerial: By firing Comey so abruptly on Tuesday, the president left his staff unprepared for the firestorm that followed.

    Management problems surfaced this week even before the firing. In testimony to Congress, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates recounted her urgent warning to White House counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn, then Trump's national security adviser, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail because the Russians knew he had lied to Pence.

    It took 18 days for the president to fire Flynn — for a different reason, by the president's account. He told NBC's Lester Holt it "didn't sound like an emergency" when McGahn relayed Yates' warning, noting that he "didn't know" the acting attorney general.

Other interviews this week demonstrated related problems for a president whose inexperience in government makes him unusually dependent on advisers.

To The Economist, Trump asserted that his personal pressure caused China to stop manipulating its currency to the disadvantage of American competitors. "As soon as the president got elected, they went the other way," added his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who sat in on the conversation.

Those assertions are false. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama pressed China on currency values for years; by 2015, the International Monetary Fund declared the yuan no longer undervalued. If Mnuchin in fact knew that — as any U.S. Treasury secretary would be expected to — then the exchange suggested he felt the need to humor the president rather than address him honestly.

To Time magazine, Trump blasted digital technology employed on new Navy aircraft carriers and said he had directed that, instead, "you're going to goddamned steam" power to launch jets. The comments blindsided and befuddled defense officials, one of whom told The Washington Post that Trump was misinformed even though there were "elements of reality in what he said."

Friday Twitter blasts 

On Twitter, Trump's comments turned even stranger.

Responding to reports of how he had belied his own subordinates' words, the president on Friday morning undercut their credibility even further. "It is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!" he wrote. He mused about canceling all future briefings.

Current and former FBI officials dispute Trump account of a meeting with Comey

Answering accounts from Comey allies that the FBI director resisted his request to pledge loyalty, Trump threatened a personal war. "James Comey better hope there are no 'tapes' of our conversations," the president wrote.

Such statements shatter historic norms of presidential propriety and decorum — as did Trump's discredited claim that Obama had spied on him. After Trump made that accusation on March 4, Comey described him to associates as "crazy" and "outside the realm of normal," The New York Times reported this week.

The Dow Jones industrial average stood at 21,006 when Trump issued that allegation. By midafternoon, it was at 20,888.

That's a decline of just half a percentage point. If turmoil in the White House matters for American economic performance, investors who have settled into the Trump roller coaster should brace for a rough ride.

Watch: Majority of Americans think Comey firing 'inappropriate'

Poll: More Americans think Comey firing was 'inappropriate'