WASHINGTON - Much of America’s capital has entered a state of near-panic. In recent days, U.S. President Donald Trump has been acting more bizarrely than ever, and the question raised in the mind of politicians and civilians alike, though rarely spoken aloud, has been: What can be done with this man? Can the United States really afford to wait for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to wrap up his investigation (on the assumption that he’ll find the president guilty of something)? That could still take quite a while.
The question of timing has become increasingly urgent, given the heightened danger that the U.S. will deliberately or accidentally end up in a war with North Korea. That risk, coupled with Trump’s increasingly peculiar behavior, has made Washington more tense than I’ve ever known it to be, and that includes the dark days of Watergate. To put it bluntly: the worry is that a mentally deranged president might lead the U.S. into a nuclear war.
In just the past week, evidence of Trump’s instability has piled up. During an Oval Office ceremony to honor Native-American heroes of World War II, he offended them by issuing a racist comment. He picked an unprecedented and unnecessary fight with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, supposedly America’s closest ally, by retweeting a British neo-fascist group’s anti-Muslim posts. In an effort to win a Democratic senator’s vote for his pending tax cut bill, he traveled to her state and told lies about her record (though the tax bill was so tilted to the richest 1 percent of Americans that no Democratic senator voted for it). And he continued to bait North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who seems equally unstable.
At the same time, both the Washington Post and The New York Times ran articles containing disturbing stories about the president’s private behavior. Trump, it was reported, told people close to him that he considers the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording of him joking, off-camera, about grabbing women’s genitals to be a fraud, even though he admitted its authenticity and apologized after The Washington Post released it in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.
Trump has also been revisiting his mendacious claim about Barack Obama having not been born in the U.S. — the bogus allegation that launched his political career, which, under pressure from advisers, he’d renounced prior to the election. He said in a tweet that he had turned down Time magazine’s suggestion that it would name him “Person of the Year,” because it wasn’t definite. (Trump sets great store by such appearances on Time’s cover). But a Time official said that no such thing had occurred.
The fact that Trump appears to have some mental disorder, or disorders, has created a dilemma for psychiatrists, politicians, and journalists alike. The American Psychiatric Association has a rule that its members may not offer diagnoses of people they have not examined. But, given what some psychiatrists see as a national emergency, many have broken the rule and spoken or written publicly about their professional assessments of Trump’s mental state.
The most widely accepted view is that he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, which is far more serious than simply being a narcissist. According to the Mayo Clinic, such a disorder “is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” Moreover, “behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
This definition is all too reflective of traits that Trump regularly exhibits. Another view held by a number of medical professionals, based on how Trump spoke in interviews in the late 1980s and how he speaks now — with a far more limited vocabulary and much less fluency — is that the president is suffering from the onset of dementia. According to the highly respected medical reference UpToDate, a subscription-financed service used by professionals, the symptoms of dementia include agitation, aggression, delusions, hallucinations, apathy and disinhibition.
Numerous Republican members of Congress are deeply worried about Trump’s capacity to handle the presidency — an incredibly demanding job. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, rumored to be replaced soon, is said to have called Trump a “moron.”
Trump’s heightened erratic behavior in recent days has been attributed to his growing anxiety about Mueller’s investigation into his and his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in the Kremlin’s effort to tilt the 2016 election in his direction — an investigation that could end in a charge of conspiracy. (Trump appears to be the only significant figure in Washington who won’t accept that Russia interfered.)
And that increasingly bizarre behavior came even before the news broke, on Dec. 1, that Trump’s first national security adviser and close campaign aide, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, had agreed to plead guilty to one count of lying to the FBI in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation.
What made this highly significant was that Flynn is far and away the highest former official whom Mueller has “flipped.” Indeed, the generous plea deal makes it clear that Flynn is prepared to name figures higher than he was in the campaign and the White House.
That’s not very many people. It has already been speculated, with reason, that Flynn will point a finger at Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. But Trump’s several earlier efforts to steer prosecutors away from Flynn were strong signals that Flynn knows something that Trump desperately hopes that prosecutors won’t find out. We may learn what that is fairly soon.
Meanwhile, American and the world nervously await Trump’s reaction to this latest very bad turn of events for him.
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” © Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org