Jules Witcover: Trump’s delusions wreak havoc in his own administration
WASHINGTON — When the late Muhammad Ali repeatedly proclaimed himself “the greatest,” referring to his supremacy as a prizefighter, he backed it up with his fists. Over more than a decade, he held the world heavyweight championship three separate times.
But in the field of braggadocio, Donald Trump has made a piker out of Ali. Unlike the boxer, the president does not limit his superlative self-regard to one category of human excellence but rather makes the claim across the board. His latest and most preposterous boast is that he has “one of the greatest memories of all time.”
He was defending himself in his dispute with the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the four soldiers killed in Niger, over what Trump said in the consolation phone call he made that left Ms. Johnson in tears. She told news organizations that Trump said her husband “knew what he was getting into” when he enlisted and then didn’t even mention his name. Trump has denied the latter assertion, citing his colossal memory.
It turns out his claim of having one of history’s greatest memories — is there record book of such achievements? — was made on at least two other occasions. In 2015 he assured NBC News, “It’s one thing everyone agrees on.” In 2016 he avowed it again in a deposition in a suit brought against him by Trump University students.
The one constructive outcome of this imbroglio is that the circumstances of the Niger patrol in which the four men were ambushed and slain is now under Pentagon investigation. Members of Congress are demanding to know why the mission took place in the first place, and why the men died.
The whole matter remains alive in the public eye in large part because of the furor Trump stirred with his own words. It has revived demands from Democrats and some Republicans that Congress update its two authorizations of the use of military force (AUMF) issued in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In 2015, President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass a separate authorization for using force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He indicated then that he also favored repeal of the earlier authorizations, but no action was taken on either one.
Last month, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called for repeal of both earlier authorizations, but the proposal was tabled in the Senate by a vote of 61-36 in the Senate, with most Republicans and some Democrats voting to kill the bill.
Paul noted it was “the first time in 15 years” that Congress had actually debated its role initiating war as the Constitution required. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona (who has just announced he will not seek reelection next year, in part in dismay over Trump’s actions and demeanor) voted against the Paul motion.
Many members of Congress have indicated they were unaware and uninformed that American soldiers were engaged in combat roles in Niger and other African nations. As a result of Trump’s erratic behavior, Congress may insist on being kept better informed of how and why young American service members are being sent into harm’s way in such remote places.
As for Trump’s childish tendency to make every issue about himself, the need for adult monitoring is ever more apparent.
His chief of staff, former Gen. John F. Kelly, and the other grown-up watchdogs at what Sen. Bob Corker has dubbed the White House “adult day care center” continue to have their work cut out for them.
Some superlatives Trump can claim without fear of contradiction are the most vain and the most self-centered occupant of the Oval Office — and the most ill-informed about the workings of the government he struggles to dominate in his erratic fashion.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.