No one is working harder for the impeachment of Donald Trump than Donald Trump. If we have learned anything about this president, it is that he has a compulsion to be the center of attention. He can’t bear being out of the limelight and will say almost anything — no matter how offensive, outrageous or dishonest it strikes millions of Americans — to keep the public fixated on him. The more he does this, the more he risks impeachment.
Just whether John F. Kelly, the retired U.S. Marine general who is Trump’s new chief of staff, can restrain his boss is unclear. This certainly is a central question hovering over the White House, and it won’t be easy.
For months, Trump’s behavior has posed a riddle. Why is he so self-destructive? His constant tweets deepen the country’s divisions, which he promised to heal. The customary explanation is that Trump is playing to his “base,” but recently, this has seemed less convincing. Opinion polls suggest his support has slipped even among loyal backers. (The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll has Trump’s approval rating dropping from 42 percent in April to 36 percent in early July.)
In fact, we’ve been asking the wrong question. It’s been widely assumed that Trump’s behavior must reflect some political logic. He is, after all, the nation’s most important politician. His every move must aim to bolster his popularity and agenda. Although this sounds reasonable, it doesn’t fit the facts. Trump’s nonstop outbursts alienate, usually needlessly, countless voters: precisely the people he needs to broaden his support.
But the mystery vanishes once we realize that Trump’s motives, rather than advancing some grand political strategy, are deeply personal. He can’t control himself. In his mind, silence means obscurity, which is unbearable, especially when ending it is only a tweet or two away. It doesn’t matter what he says — whether it is true or false, relevant or irrelevant to the issues — as long as he stirs passions and dominates public discussion.
It is personality more than politics that impels Trump to be Trump. With hindsight, his rhetorical escapades can be described as political maneuvers, but this is mostly damage control. See Trump and Russia.
Superficially, the odds of Trump being impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted — ousted from office — by the Senate are long. Impeachment (which resembles an indictment) requires a majority vote in the House. Conviction in the Senate mandates a two-thirds vote. Even if all Democrats voted against Trump, many Republicans would have to join them for Trump to be removed. To convict in the Senate would require 19 Republican votes, if all senators were present, says political scientist Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution. As yet, an anti-Trump coalition doesn’t exist.
Still, nothing can be entirely discounted. That’s the reality Kelly faces as chief of staff. Trump is an extreme exhibitionist in a calling — politics — where exhibitionism is normal. His addiction to incendiary tweets will be hard, though not impossible, to break. It may defy political or legal logic — indeed, it places him at further risk, because he may get himself in legal trouble or say something hugely unpopular. But it satisfies his need to “own” the news cycle.
In this sense, Trump can be seen as the strongest and most determined advocate of impeachment. If he must flirt with impeachment to retain his command of the media, so be it. As a practical matter, he might see impeachment (though not conviction) as acceptable. He would be automatically in the spotlight every day for months. He would have a new arena in which to fight and “win.”
Perhaps subconsciously, this is his goal: Impeach me, please!
Robert J. Samuelson writes about business and economic issues for The Washington Post. © 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group