The pioneering political scientist Richard Neustadt is best remembered for his insight that the unilateral powers of the presidency are much more limited than the expectations hung on the office by the American public and the ambitions of the people who occupy it, requiring presidents to engage in productive collaboration with other political elites—members of Congress and the bureaucracy, interest groups, foreign leaders, even the president's own direct subordinates—in order to achieve success. Neustadt believed that the maintenance of a positive personal reputation was necessary to convince these other actors to cooperate with the president; the power of the presidency, he argued, was largely "the power to persuade."
The developments of the past week have confirmed that Donald Trump is the ultimate anti-Neustadtian president. Trump's personal reputation among other elites, both at home and abroad, has always been low, but it took an even bigger dive this week when the ongoing Ukraine affair—already the focus of an impeachment inquiry in the House—was compounded by an abrupt policy change in Syria touched off by Trump's approval of an incursion by Turkey in a Sunday phone call with the Turkish president. Trump's withdrawal of American military defense from the Kurdish population in northern Syria received bipartisan disapproval in Congress and strong criticism across the ideological spectrum of foreign policy experts.
Several journalists have pointed out that it seems risky for Trump to alienate his fellow Republicans in the midst of an impeachment push, since (assuming that the House impeaches him) he'll depend on their votes in the Senate to avoid removal from office. That's true, but the Syria situation is unlikely to directly affect how Republican senators respond to an impeachment vote that may be months in the future.
The bigger danger for Trump is that impeachment, like any political process, will play out in a larger environment where his interests will be advanced or damaged by the choices made by other elites. At various points along the way, certain potential witnesses will be weighing whether to comply with congressional subpoenas, and whether to share or omit pertinent information. Accomplished attorneys will be weighing whether to accept offers to take Trump's case. High-ranking judges will be weighing whether to give deference to legal arguments made by White House representatives. Partisan officials will be weighing how passionately they should attack or defend the president. Political candidates will be weighing whether to run in the 2020 election. Journalists and other opinion leaders will be weighing whether to publicly endorse impeachment or removal from office.
All of these choices will be influenced to some degree by high-status decision-makers' evaluation of the president's personal attributes and behavior. And yet Trump's comportment has become even more idiosyncratic over the past week. Rather than reassuring attentive observers, he seems only to be unsettling them.
Trump habitually struggles to read people. Perhaps this difficulty reflects an adult lifetime during which his interactions with other human beings have been structured by corporate hierarchy and pop-culture celebrity, and during which he has taken in most of his information about the world around him via the distorted lens of television. Perhaps it's more foundational, more characterological in its source. Regardless, it sets him apart in the realm of politics, where most successful practitioners are experts at human relations and accustomed to grasping the perspectives and incentives of others.
Uniquely in American history, Trump was able to harness national fame to move directly from private life into the presidency without working his way up via an elective or military career where success tends to be dependent upon making a good personal impression on knowledgeable peers and superiors. But he has been repeatedly unable to recognize past mistakes in this area, as in many others, and thus to avoid repeating them. If anything, the push toward impeachment has provoked a perceptible deterioriation in judgment.
Jonathan Bernstein points out one dramatic example from this week's events: Trump not only sent Turkish president Erdogan a blustery letter on the Syrian issue, but also believed that releasing it publicly would bolster his standing in the eyes of other political leaders. Yesterday's meeting with congressional leaders at the White House was similarly disastrous; at least one Republican participant agreed with Democratic descriptions of a Trump "meltdown" that unnerved assembled officials in both parties. And what other than an unusual lack of emotional intelligence can explain his attempts to engineer a surprise reconciliation between the grieving parents of a British accident victim and the American diplomat's wife whose vehicle fatally struck him, as a live made-for-TV stunt with the White House as a backdrop for assembled cameras?
A central operating assumption of the Trump White House is that the Washington community is dominated by sworn enemies worthy only of being ignored or sneered at. And, indeed, it's only fair to acknowledge that Trump managed to achieve the presidency without the support or respect of many of its denizens. But failing, or not even trying, to build a positive reputation among influential insiders has costs and risks of its own. Just like anyone else, elites occasionally do have their uses.