Advisers and allies say the president’s repeated acts of self-destruction have significantly damaged his re-election prospects, and yet he appears mostly unable, or unwilling, to curtail them.
In a recent meeting with his top political advisers, President Trump was impatient as they warned him that he was on a path to defeat in November if he continued his incendiary behavior in public and on Twitter.
Days earlier, Mr. Trump had sparked alarm by responding to protests over police brutality with a threat that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Mr. Trump pushed back against his aides. “I have to be myself,” he replied, according to three people familiar with the meeting. A few hours later, he posted on Twitter a letter from his former personal lawyer describing some of the protesters as “terrorists.”
In those moments, and in repeated ones since then, the president’s customary defiance has been suffused with a heightened sense of agitation as he confronts a series of external crises he has failed to contain, or has exacerbated, according to people close to him. They say his repeated acts of political self-sabotage — a widely denounced photo-op at a church for which peaceful protesters were forcibly removed, a threat to use the American military to quell protests — have significantly damaged his re-election prospects, and yet he appears mostly unable, or unwilling, to curtail them.
But for now, they said, the president is acting trapped and defensive, and his self-destructive behavior has been so out of step for an incumbent in an election year that many advisers wonder if he is truly interested in serving a second term.
Rather than focus on plans and goals for another four years in office, Mr. Trump has been wallowing in self-pity about news coverage of him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, people who have spoken with him said. He has told advisers that no matter what he does, he cannot get “good” stories from the press, which has often been his primary interest. “These people,” Mr. Trump has growled to advisers about reporters, throwing an expletive between the two words.
The New York Times interviewed more than a dozen people who speak or interact with the president frequently, including current and former White House aides, campaign advisers, friends and associates. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal White House affairs, and to avoid retribution. They would like to see him win again, but say they’re struck by how his demeanor has shifted during this latest dire threat to his presidency.