Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump has shown an incessant craving for praise during his first 10 months in office.
He has trawled for credit for a soaring stock market, awarded himself A+ ratings for his handling of hurricanes and tried to convince Americans his administration is the most prolific and successful in history.
In a televised Cabinet meeting in June
, Trump sat and watched while his subordinates showered him with praise and loyalty pledges.
Now his reflexive need to bask in congratulations is manifesting itself in the controversy over his role in the return home of three college basketball players from China where they had been imprisoned after being accused of shoplifting.
Trump’s hunger for credit has become a subplot of his presidency. Even before the basketball players arrived home, Trump was demanding they make a public statement of thanks, saying he was responsible for intervening with Chinese President Xi Jinping on their behalf.
“To the three UCLA basketball players I say: ‘You’re welcome,’ ” Trump tweeted Friday, also urging the players to thank Xi for their freedom.
The players did duly do as he asked. But on Monday, the President was fuming that the outspoken father of one of the freed athletes questioned whether those thanks were really necessary.
“Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” Trump tweeted.
In an interview Monday evening
with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Ball denied being in a feud with the President, saying, “Did he help the boys get out? I don’t know. … If I was going to thank somebody I’d probably thank President Xi (Jinping).”
Little respect for protocol
In normal political times, the sight of a US President threatening to leave Americans in prison — especially in an autocratic nation with little tolerance for human rights — just because they didn’t sufficiently praise him would be stunning.
But in Trump’s case, it doesn’t seem all that surprising, considering the provocative way he has conducted himself as President. Right from his first hours in office, he has shown little respect for the protocol of his position, and in many ways he has lost the power to shock.
Still, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to smooth over the controversy on Monday, saying that Trump’s tweet was simply a rhetorical response to LaVar Ball’s complaint and that he was happy and thankful for the players’ release. Had he wanted them to stay in jail, “he wouldn’t have taken the action that he did.”
It is quite possible that Trump deserves some credit for using his relationship with Xi on their behalf. But it’s still odd for a President to make such an ostentatious play for glory — since intervening on behalf of Americans abroad is within his job description.
In mitigation of Trump’s reaction, LaVar Ball has a history of provocative comments, and might be almost as adept at whipping up a media storm as the President himself.
Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said on CNN’s “New Day” Monday that both Trump and Ball were at fault — suggesting that the basketball player’s father was seeking to “monetize fame” in his clash with the President.
“There is no money in being grateful and there is no political gain for the President in being gracious,” D’Antonio said.
Presidents, however, are often called upon to exemplify a higher standard of leadership and behavior.
“The President would have left American students in a foreign jail because their families didn’t lavish sufficient praise on him. How can someone in such a big office be so small,” wrote California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff on Twitter.
Spectacle of ego
Trump is not the first president to growl at his critics or to feel that he is not getting his due: Presidential memoirs bulge with such score-settling.
But no modern President has made such a spectacle of his ego as Trump has. The President always responds when he’s criticized: For instance he also took a new Twitter swipe at a familiar target, GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who has argued he is unfit for office, on Monday.
In some ways, Trump’s obsessive desire to trumpet his achievements may be a symptom of the bunker mentality of a presidency that has few conventional political wins to tout, despite his self branding image as the ultimate winner.
Trump supporters also feel that he never gets credit for his achievements from the media, which they see as locked in a endless feud with the President.
But his constant desire for recognition also raises the question of whether the President is perhaps less confident and secure in his skin than the tough, bullying persona he has constructed would suggest.
There is also the question whether Trump’s clawing for credit is designed to obscure his political challenges elsewhere — for instance the repeated disclosures over the Russia investigation.
He was extremely sensitive for instance to criticism of his efforts after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, repeatedly demanding praise even when it was clear there were serious problems with the government response.
As he did with the case of the basketball players in China, Trump made the situation all about him, feuding with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
He complained the mayor had initially been “very complimentary” about his efforts, but had then been told by Democratic leaders to be “nasty to Trump.”
Self-promotion as a brand
Still, critics who want Trump to change will be disappointed.
Self-promotion has always been the essence of Trump’s brand as he’s made a career as a New York real estate magnate, television reality show star and celebrity-turned-politician. It is as natural to him as breathing.
But as his administration plays out, Trump may begin to face increasing questions about whether such an approach — indulging a personality that needs constant public praise — could be come a political liability.
It’s already clear Trump sees little distinction between his own personal fortunes and the institution of the presidency itself and even US national interests.
On his recent tour of Asia, Trump repeatedly marveled at the effusiveness of his welcome from foreign leaders, implicitly suggesting that the power of his personality had accrued great honor and advances for the country.
“They say in the history of people coming to China, there’s never been nothing like that and I believe it … China likes me,” Trump said.
But there are times when a President, owing to his constitutional responsibilities, and his role as the leader of the nation, typically recognizes that his own political interests may conflict with the needs of the nation.
Trump is yet to face that moment, but the way he has injected his personality into his own leadership style is giving his critics reason to worry.
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