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Donald Trump’s sycophant problem

Presidents need to hear bad news. Donald Trump can’t handle it.

Donald Trump and Chris Christie embracing during a break in a primary debate. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty

Maybe — despite copious evidence to the contrary — Donald Trump might, as he once promised to do, plug the considerable holes in his knowledge of public policy and world affairs by “hiring the best people.”

But it sure looks like he wouldn’t listen to them.

Before the first presidential debate — according to reports that have trickled out in the past few days — some of Trump’s advisers apparently urged him to hold some traditional debate preparation sessions, instead of just watching cable news and listening to Roger Ailes tell war stories. He refused.

They warned him he’d need to “bring in new voters,” according to CNN’s Gloria Borger, Dana Bash, and Eric Bradner. He shrugged them off.

They even gave him zingers to use against Hillary Clinton on particular topics. “He just didn’t use them,” one adviser told CNN. “Nobody is really sure why.”

Instead, Trump is listening to sycophants: the people in his orbit happy to encourage him to keep doing exactly what he’s done so far and assuring him that he can coast to victory on the support of his base.

He listened to them before Monday’s debate. He lost that debate, according to media consensus (as well as the consensus of legitimate polls). And instead of reconsidering his approach, and listening to the advisers who’ve been saying he needs to do some things differently before the second debate on October 9, he’s yelling at those advisers for voicing their frustrations to the press.

It is not, to say the least, a good look.

Trump is doing everything he can to resist advice

When you are doing the wrong thing, you need people who will put you on course-correct.

This is true if you are a leader of any organization. It is especially true if you are the leader of the world’s only remaining superpower.

If President Donald Trump is supervising a military campaign that is not accomplishing its objectives, he needs military commanders who will tell him this, and he needs to listen to them so he can change course. If the US economy has a rough month, President Donald Trump needs to be able to sit in a briefing, hear — and accept — the weak jobs numbers, and be willing to entertain suggestions for anything that could be done better.

When an executive isn’t willing to hear bad news the first time, good advisers find workarounds.

Good advisers try to get their message to the boss through other channels, hoping he’ll be more receptive if he trusts the messenger more. In Trump’s case, given his obsession with watching campaign news on TV, expressing concerns to campaign reporters might be a good place to start. But it hasn’t worked with him; instead, he’s blamed the advisers themselves for creating the perception that he lost the debate.

Good advisers ignore him and strike out on their own, hoping that they’ll be able to show the boss a better way — like when campaign surrogates resisted getting dragged into Trump’s fight with federal judge Gonzalo Curiel this spring. That didn’t work with Trump either. He held a call all but ordering campaign surrogates to get out there and defend him on Curiel (and criticized a staffer who’d apparently told them to stay quiet).

Or good advisers simply quit, and leave the boss in the hands of sycophants — people who are not concerned with getting the right information to him but simply in telling him what he wants to hear.

Trump can’t handle the truth

Trump appears to be shutting out not only people who want him to change direction but even people who are just telling him, descriptively, that the debate didn’t work out well for him. Presidents need to be able to hear bad news.

Bill Clinton and plenty of politicians before and since were often accused of making decisions based on the polls. But polls are at least a source of external information. When polls don’t tell Donald Trump what he wants to hear, he ignores them. He cites meaningless online surveys instead. Or he’ll make something up — he said he won a CBS post-debate poll, even though there was no CBS post-debate poll.

Trump has said in speeches that the problems ailing America will be fixed the morning he arrives in office. That doesn’t make much sense. But as far as Trump will know — or allow his officials to say publicly — all those problems really will vanish the minute Donald Trump arrives in the Oval Office. Because Donald Trump will simply stick his fingers in his ears when anyone tries to tell him otherwise.

How presidential debates are won and lost

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