It’s possible, of course, that Trump’s tweet was purely performative—a strategic, unemotional effort to drive the next morning’s news agenda and keep his base revved up. But the consensus among the Trump watchers of Twitter was that the missive indicated anger, restlessness, and maybe even panic.
Trump’s mood had already been top of mind in the wake of the Paul Manafort trial and the Michael Cohen plea deal, with well-sourced reporters offering somewhat conflicting portraits of the president’s emotional state. According to CNN, Trump was, yes, “fuming” over the developments, and calling Cohen a “rat.” In The New York Times, meanwhile, the president was described as unusually “subdued”—musing to his aides, “How did we end up here?”
But what’s notable about these various accounts isn’t the apparent discrepancies. (It’s not all that hard to imagine Trump, volatile as he is, spending a turbulent day of bad press toggling back and forth between rage and despondency.) What’s notable is just how fixated America has become on this kind of presidential temperature taking.
It’s a pattern that began during the 2016 election, when each new apparent crisis on the campaign trail was greeted with an avalanche of news stories describing Trump as “seething” or “ranting” or “venting” behind the scenes. Since then, it has extended into his presidency, with White House reporters dutifully chronicling day-to-day events with inside-the-West Wing “mood stories.”
Outside of Washington, meanwhile, an army of armchair analysts has made a game of speculating about what each tweet and stump speech reveals about Trump’s feelings in that moment—who hurt his ego, what has him worried, why he seems so upset or gleeful or irritated or irate.
And as my conversation Wednesday demonstrated, it’s not just the press or the political junkies on Twitter—Trump’s own advisers now proactively point to his moods as a way of advancing their own messaging agenda.
To a certain extent, this fixation makes sense. More than any other president in modern times, Trump seems to wear his feelings on his sleeve (or his Twitter feed). It’s one of the things that makes him seem “authentic” to voters. The temptation to search his emotional outbursts for clues about affairs of state can be strong. (I’ve certainly indulged in it.)
To those who oppose Trump, there is a certain comfort in the image of a president under siege, stomping around the West Wing in a fury, raging about the latest development in the Russia investigation or a recent taunt from a high-profile critic. It gives the appearance of accountability; it fosters hope that a reckoning is on the horizon. To Trump’s fans, meanwhile, the displays of chest-thumping bravado at his rallies are taken as proof that all is well in the White House—that the “fake news” need not be heeded.