Donald Trump has launched his presidency with an unrelenting barrage at what he calls “my many enemies and those who have fought me.” Given his famously pugnacious manner, that is neither surprising nor unprecedented for him. What is remarkable is that many of his targets have been low-level, behind-the-scenes, or little-known persons who never before have so publicly felt the sting of a presidential broadside.
The latest with a Trump bull’s-eye on his back was an unnamed Texas state senator on Tuesday. All it took for the president to pounce was to have a visiting Texas sheriff complain that this state legislator was trying to reform asset-forfeiture rules to require that people be convicted of a crime before their property is seized. “Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” said the president.
The Texas lawmaker, at least, was spared a presidential tweet attack, the usual platform for Trump to assault the reputations and careers of those who have crossed him. During the 72-day transition between the election and the Inauguration, Trump fired off at least 50 attack tweets. His favored targets included “fake news” and the “dishonest” news media. They also included celebrities—Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Arnold Schwarzenegger— as well as “head clown” Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN, whom he labeled “just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist.”
Since the Inauguration, he has maintained the pace, sending out 47 attack tweets in the first 20 days of his administration. “Fake news” and the “failing” New York Times and Washington Post were attacked 14 times; courts and judges, seven times; the Obama White House, six times; Senate Democrats, five times; Mexico, four times; and Sen. John McCain three times.
One reason the postelection barbs are not surprising is that the campaign featured searing attacks from Trump on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, for being “disgusting” and gaining a “massive amount of weight;” on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, for being “Mexican” and “a total disgrace;” and on Gold Star family Khizr and Ghazala Khan, for “viciously” criticizing him.
Since Trump won, the broadside that may have been the most surprising came on Dec. 7, when he lashed out at a local union official who had accused him of fudging numbers in taking credit for rescuing jobs he said had been headed to Mexico. Trump responded that Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, had “done a terrible job representing workers.” He urged Jones to “spend more time working—less time talking.”
Immediately, Jones received threats both on the phone and online. “’You better keep your eye on your kids, we’re coming for you, we know what car you drive’—things like that,” he told MSNBC.
In a neighboring state, another target had his job taken away by Trump and his allies. Matt Borges had been regarded as the most successful Republican chairman ever in Ohio, having presided over GOP blowouts in 2014 and 2016 that left more Republicans in elective office than at any time in state history. But Borges had criticized Trump when the Access Hollywood tape came out during the campaign.
Trump did not forget Borges’ infidelity to him as the party’s nominee. Immediately after the election, he threw himself into the effort to oust Borges as party chairman, even though Borges had last been elected unanimously. In early January, Trump took time away from assembling his government to personally lobby the state party’s central committee. Borges and his allies—including Gov. John Kasich—did not see it coming. After Trump personally called several members and sent letters to all the members, Borges went from a comfortable reelection to deadlock and the tough decision to step aside.
“It became clear to me that enough members of the committee—not a majority, but enough members—simply didn’t want to pick a fight with the new president, and I fully understand that,” Borges told National Journal this week, declining to get deeper into the fight. John Weaver, who ran Kasich’s campaign for president, said Trump was the difference in flipping probably eight votes. “If you’re a central committeeman from rural Ohio and you pick up the phone and the president of the United States is on the other end, that is probably pretty shocking,” Weaver said. “He called between 12 and 20 committee members. I’ve never known a president to have that kind of time, must less get involved at that level.”
That a president would do so says a lot about Trump, Weaver suggested: “This guy doesn’t have an enemies list. He just has a long memory. What he said about the state senator from Texas was shocking even by Trump standards. Some say he is trying to silence critics to make people afraid to speak out. I’m not sure of that. I think when he lashes out, it is just in anger.”
He added, “If somebody displeases him, as in the case of Matt Borges, then he’s going to carry out some form of retribution against them. Look at Nordstrom this week: a retailer being attacked publicly by the president for not putting money in his daughter’s purse. I’ve never heard of that by a county commissioner, much less a president.”
Sarah Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, said Thursday that people were overreacting to the president’s comment on the state senator. “He was making a joke. He was definitely not threatening the state senator,” Sanders said. She disputed that he tries to bully anyone. “I don’t think he picks on people. But he doesn’t back down. He’s very direct, and I think that is one of the reasons people like him.”
But Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist who worked in the Pentagon in the George W. Bush administration and was a “never-Trumper” last year, contends that Trump violates “the general rule in politics that you shouldn’t punch down.” Wilson called it “particularly rare” for a president to single out individuals, corporations, and even television shows that he doesn’t like. “This is a fairly unique space for us as far as where our politics have gone, in that we have a president whose pettiness is something we have never seen before.”
He said Republicans particularly noted Trump’s assault on Borges and his post-convention threat to form a super PAC to go against primary foes Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz. “They make note of every single attack that he does, especially on the home team. And they are terrified of it. They are terrified at the way, when Trump goes after someone, his troll army follows and that person’s life becomes a living hell.”
Republicans in Washington privately “are terrified,” Wilson said. “They live in horror of being called out by Donald Trump any day.”