Twice in his Senate testimony on Thursday, former FBI Director Jim Comey said President Donald Trump’s behavior made him feel “uneasy.”
Specifically, Trump seemed to have no regard for the FBI’s independence from the executive branch. “The reason that Congress created a 10-year term is so that the director is not feeling as if they're serving at, with political loyalty owed to any particular person,” Comey said. “…That's why I was uneasy.”
That a president, in 2017, would cross such a well-established line between US institutions would be shocking under any circumstances.
But this is Trump. And Trump is a serial boundary violator — as a president, as a businessman, and as a man who interacts with women.
The details of Trump’s behavior we heard from Comey’s Senate testimony on Russia’s meddling in US politics are just the latest evidence of a deeply engrained pattern of ignoring fundamental boundaries, boundaries that are there to protect people and institutions. It’s a pattern that’s both helped Trump win in business and in elections.
But it’s most definitely now a liability for a presidency in crisis.
Trump built a business and presidential campaign by “knowing no boundaries”
The boundaries Trump crossed with Comey were many, according to the testimony. The president repeatedly called Comey, invited him to dinner, and asked him over and over for his loyalty and for favors, with veiled threats to his job. There was no sense of the protocol or “how things are done.” Trump stomped all over the norms. (Trump’s lawyers deny many of Comey’s claims, including that Trump ever demanded loyalty of the former FBI boss.)
The president’s actions, Comey said, “confused me and increasingly concerned me.” They creeped Comey out, so much so that he documented them in detailed memos as soon as he’d hang up the phone or leave a dinner with Trump.
They also left him feeling slightly ashamed that he wasn’t able to push back against Trump in the moment. “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” he said. “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.” (A sentiment, the New York Times pointed out, shared by women who experience sexual harassment.)
But this is entirely characteristic of the president, who has routinely broken rules and ignored precedents. Trump campaigned as a Washington outsider who would take an axe to the capital’s political norms. And many of his supporters loved him for it.
"He has repeatedly throughout his career tried to intervene with law enforcement, regulators and take matters into his own hands that he knew other people didn't do,” Timothy O'Brien, a longtime biographer, told Politico. "The difference between now and then is that he wasn't president then. He has never been subjected to this broad of a variety of legal and ethical norms."
Another longtime acquaintance of Trump, George Arzt, echoed the sentiment, also in Politico: "I've known him for a long time, and he's no different in his job than when I knew him. He never knew boundaries. He was tutored by Roy Cohn, the famous New York lawyer, who never knew boundaries."
In perhaps the most brazen of a series of scandals on the 2016 campaign trail, the infamous leaked Access Hollywood tape documented another version of Trump’s grotesque lack of boundaries. Being a famous man meant, Trump said, “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”
The list goes on: There was the time Trump cruelly mocked a disabled reporter. The time he implied Megyn Kelly’s harsh questioning of him was due to menstruation. The times he refused to pay his workers and contractors for their services. This is a person who, as a presidential candidate, once said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
He clearly doesn’t think the rules apply to him. Each week that he’s been president, there are new examples: Trump can’t be taught to follow protocol. Like when he undermined his own legal team in a string of tweets about the travel ban. He had his lawyers trying to make the case that the executive order was not a “ban,” which is tough when your boss tweets this:
That's right, we need a TRAVEL BAN for certain DANGEROUS countries, not some politically correct term that won't help us protect our people!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
There’s no reining in Trump on social media, as he declared himself:
The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media. They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Trump is not likely to change
Personality is a stubborn thing. And research finds that being in a position of power is only likely to magnify the negative characteristics in a man like Trump. “Power,” psychologist Michael Kraus has written, “simply brings our true nature out into the open.”
In that light, analyzing Trump’s “true nature” — how he interacts with women and around employees, how he responds to failure, how he lies about contributions to charity, how he lies, seemingly compulsively, and on and on — matters. It helps us understand his future actions. (Less important, and harder to suss out: Whether this pattern of behavior amounts to something pathological, or is the result of age related cognitive decline.)
What’s more, personality science also finds that as we age, we tend to decrease in our openness to new experiences and ideas. At 70, it’s unlikely Trump’s pattern of behavior will change. But now the stakes and the consequences are much, much higher.