President Donald Trump typically mocks the idea of acting too presidential — equating it with being boring.
He performs a theatrical riff about the concept at campaign rallies, where he’ll dangle the idea of acting more like a traditional politician as many people outside his orbit have encouraged him to do. Before a giant crowd, Trump contorts his face into a sour, serious expression, straightens his posture, buttons his blazer and then delivers a stiff wave from the podium before saying in a mock monotone: “It is a great honor to be with you this evening.”
It’s a shtick repeated over and over, including recently at a mid-October rally in Dallas just weeks after Democrats formally announced their impeachment inquiry. “I can be more presidential than any president in history except for Honest Abe Lincoln when he is wearing that hat. That is a tough one to beat,” Trump told the Texas crowd. “It is much easier being presidential. All you have to do is act like a stiff.”
Acting like a stiff is exactly what Trump appears to be attempting this week during the first public impeachment hearings.
From a University of Alabama football game to the New York Veterans Day parade to a major economic speech to meetings with the president of Turkey, aides have sought to cast Trump as presidential, busily focused on his policy work and above the fray of the impeachment proceedings.
“I haven’t watched. I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the president, which is much more important, as far as I’m concerned,” Trump said at a joint news conference with Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday when asked for his reaction to two diplomats’ testimony kicking off the public impeachment hearings.
“I’d much rather focus on peace in the Middle East,” he later added.
It would be an easier sell if one did not read his prolific, impeachment-obsessed Twitter feed.
“In theory, it is an effective strategy,” said Joe Lockhart, a White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton. “The one thing the president and president alone has is the Oval Office, the Rose Garden, the trappings of the presidency and Air Force One. Those things can be used effectively to show that, while everyone focuses on politics, he is focused on the country. The problem is the president keeps tweeting, so it is not working.”
But even on Twitter this week, Trump has been leaning more than usual into the retweet button — letting others fight his fights.
The White House has been making a concerted effort to schedule presidential work and meetings on Syria, opioid abuse and the trade talks with China in an effort to demonstrate the contrast “between who he is and what he is focusing on versus the partisan impeachment underway in the House,” a senior administration official said.
The Clinton administration tried a similar move in the late 1990s, walling off the president from the impeachment inquiry by day even as, by night, he dialed up friends to privately seethe about what he viewed as persecution.
Clinton also took home some major policy victories that helped him survive politically, such as a budget deal and an effort to broker a peace settlement in the Middle East.
“The image could not be more powerful — while the Republicans focused on scandal, the president was sticking to his day job, winning a budget fight and making peace around the world,” journalist Peter Baker wrote in his book, “The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton.”
Instead, Trump is talking about auto tariffs from the Oval Office, regulations and judicial appointments at the Economic Club of New York and the strength of the stock market and the military before his Marine One departure to Alabama on Saturday.
He is no longer bullying senators on Twitter, instead frequently hosting House and Senate members at the White House. And he’s acting solicitous of supporters and audiences, speaking in a tone one could dare to call respectful and presidential.
“I have to say, I have great respect for what you all have done. I know so many of you. And I want to keep it going that way,” he told members at the Economic Club of New York on Tuesday. “Our country is strong. Our country is great. Our economy is probably the best it’s ever been, and we want to keep it that way.”
It’s an open question whether behaving in a more traditional mode can deliver Trump major policy victories over the next few months, as it did with Clinton.
Congress must sign a temporary spending bill before the Christmas holidays to keep the government funded. Trump economic officials want to sign a small trade deal with China to stave off additional tariffs going into effect in mid-December.
White House officials and Vice President Mike Pence hope to pass through the House the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal, though there are very few legislative days left on the calendar in 2019. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday called a potential deal on the trade agreement “imminent.” If that proves true, it could hand the Trump White House a major talking point — proving it can cut policy deals while battling impeachment. Democrats would benefit from that perception, too.
But can Trump maintain the aura of presidential behavior when he so clearly came to power by bucking establishment politics, airing longstanding grievances and building campaign platforms around harsh trade and immigration policies?
He acknowledged this fact — and how much the appearance of authenticity fueled his political rise — that night in Dallas. If he did act presidential for too long, he told the crowd, “everybody would be out of here so fast. You would not have come in in the first place.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine