It was bound to happen. President Trump, after agreeing to follow a scripted retreat from his much-criticized remark that "both sides" were to blame for the Charlottesville street violence, was back to being Mr. Trump again in Phoenix last Tuesday night.
In a totally unscripted 77-minute rant before his adoring faithful, he doubled down on insisting the mainstream news media had lied about what he’d really said. He pointed out he had condemned by name the white supremacists, Klansmen and neo-Nazis who ran the hate-filled march — although he didn't admit that he'd done so a couple of days too late to avoid the torrent of abuse that came his way.
Too soon, it turned out, were Mr. Trump's generals — White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — credited with finally having tamed the lion. He was back assailing the traveling reporters as perpetrators of fake news who are committed to doing him in. Indeed, Mr. Trump declared war on the entire institution of the American free press.
Mr. Trump used the occasion to insist he was right all along about the Charlottesville fiasco. What happened there, he said now, “struck at the core of America. And tonight, this entire arena stands united in forceful condemnation of the thugs who perpetrated hatred and violence.”
But then he was soon castigating “the very dishonest media, those people up there with all the cameras. ... I mean totally dishonest people in the media and the fake media. ... They make up stories. They have no sources in many cases. They say ‘a source says,’ (when) there is no source there. ... But they don't report the facts. Just like they didn't want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry and violence and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the KKK.”
On and on he went, a flashback to the 2016 campaign, when Mr. Trump mostly offered the trappings of the grand political show, replete with his singular pledge "to make America great again," plus endless hokum about his own outsized devotion to the "forgotten Americans." It was right out of Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry or Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes.
At precisely a time Mr. Trump finds himself and his young presidency faced with perilous threats from North Korea, a Republican Congressn in stalemate and internal political chaos in the White House itself, he has transparently resumed his road show, as if to convince himself all is well.
The wild and thoroughly disjointed Phoenix rant, delivered as a kind of stream-of-consciousness retreat down memory lane, confirmed Mr. Trump's uncommon fixation on the mainstream news media as a “truly dishonest” adversary. It endlessly challenges what he says, often with telling fact-checking that he brushes off as “fake news.”
In Phoenix, he mocked the reporters in the speech as self-important “elites,” telling his audience that he and his supporters were the real "elites" but focusing on himself. He declared not only that he went to "better schools" but also lived in a better apartment in New York, not to mention the White House. For a man with such indisputable material wealth, his egomaniacal neediness remains remarkably desperate.
Mr. Trump’s transparent insecurities fan growing speculation that this outsider president not only is out of his league in the pressure cooker of the office he holds, but also lacks the personal stability required to cope with the immense challenges of the job.
Another retired general, former CIA Director James Clapper, has openly expressed concern about Mr. Trump's mental state and fitness to be the sole guardian of America's nuclear arsenal. More Republicans in Congress like Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins and Jeff Flake are echoing this or other worries.
General Kelly works diligently to impose more order within the White House, but Mr. Trump's own free-lance behavior fuels more and more public concern that he lacks the personal or the mental stability to survive the rigors and challenges of the high office he holds.
As special counsel Robert Mueller presses on with his investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and related misconduct, the threat of impeachment is real. Yet Trump stumbles along in what surely is the most unnerving American presidency ever.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.