How do Trump’s Twitter taunts affect the presidency?

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump's use of Twitter has often brought praise from supporters for reaching out directly to the American people. But Mr. Trump has also managed to spark controversy in 140 characters, and, today, his tweets prompted some of the harshest criticism yet.

Our John Yang has more.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, Co-Host, "Morning Joe": President Donald Trump.

JOHN YANG: As Mika Brzezinski wrapped up her MSNBC show this morning, President Trump had a few choice words for her and co-host Joe Scarborough.

Mr. Trump said the hosts, whom he called "low I.Q. Crazy Mika and Psycho Joe," were speaking badly of him, even though they insisted on joining him at Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Trump adding that, at the time, Brzezinski was "bleeding badly from a face-lift."

Within minutes, Brzezinski responded, resurrecting the little hands insult that had been directed at him during the 2016 presidential primaries.

Mr. Trump's words ignited a firestorm, even from his Republican allies.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: I thought it was inappropriate, beneath the office, and not helpful.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: I wish, I wish he hadn't made the tweet.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: I don't see that as an appropriate comment. I think, look, what we're trying to do around here is improve tone, the civility of debates. And this obviously doesn't help do that.

QUESTION: Did you see the president's tweets about Mika Brzezinski this morning? Do you have any reaction to that?

SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO, R-W.Va.: Distasteful.

JOHN YANG: And from Democrats.

REP. BRENDA LAWRENCE, D-Mich.: This is not acceptable, Mr. President.

JOHN YANG: Principal Deputy White House Press Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted the president was just defending himself.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Deputy White House Press Secretary: I don't think that it's a surprise to anybody that he fights fire with fire. But he's not going to sit back and be attacked by the liberal media, Hollywood elites, and when they hit him, he's going to hit back.

JOHN YANG: It recalled Mr. Trump's past comments about women, in 2015, talking about journalist Megyn Kelly, then of FOX News, after she moderated the first Republican debate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and, you know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her whatever. But she was — in my opinion, she was off-base.

JOHN YANG: "Rolling Stone" quoted him saying of rival candidate Carly Fiorina: "Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?"

And there was the 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet, kiss, kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Grab them by the (EXPLETIVE DELETED). You can do anything.

JOHN YANG: Name-calling was a staple of Mr. Trump's campaign.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Lyin' Ted Cruz came today.

I watched little Marco.

I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.

JOHN YANG: And it continued today, as the president of the United States taunted two cable television hosts.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more now on the president's comments today and earlier and the implications of what he says publicly, we turn to Matthew Dowd. He's the former chief strategist for President George W. Bush in 2004 and author of "A New Way: Embracing the Paradox as We Lead and Serve." And Beverly Gage, she's professor of American history at Yale University.

And we welcome both of you back to the NewsHour.

Matt Dowd, I'm going to start with you.

We know we have seen politicians get into some tough language over the years. How does what we heard from President Trump today on Twitter fit into all of that?

MATTHEW DOWD, Former Chief Strategist, Bush-Cheney 2004: Well, we have come a long way from when I worked for George W. Bush in 2000, when he pledged to bring honor and dignity back to the Oval Office and won as that as being part of his platform.

Judy, I think this is a bigger problem. First, as you know, in this democracy, in order to have a healthy democracy, we have to get to the common good. But the only way to get to the common good is if we have a common set of facts, which we don't seem to have today, and we have a common level of decency.

And my problem with the president and what happened today and why I think it affects the country as a whole is, first, we bring up our kids better than this. We teach them not to do this. We tell them not to do this, and it is not the right standard of behavior.

But for a president — secondly, but, for a president, he sets the pattern of behavior for the entire country and what we can expect for how we each other act and how we should be in politics.

And, third, just from a practical aspect of it, just totally looking at it pragmatically, his behavior in this, in the midst of what he is trying to do on health care and the votes he is trying to get, is incredibly counterproductive.

So, from all of those avenues, one from a history of our democracy that is dependent on a level of decency that doesn't seem to be apparent here, but, two, just practically, if he wants to get something done, this makes it harder.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about that latter part in a moment.

But, Beverly Gage, how does what this president is saying when these kinds of tweets go out, how does it compare from what we have heard from other presidents over time?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Unfortunately, I don't think that American presidents have always lived up to the standard of decency that we have tended to expect of them, but I think presidents before Trump, when those moments happened, they tended to be the exception, rather than the rule.

So there was a famous moment in 1950 when Harry Truman was president, and a music critic wrote a very critical piece about Truman's daughter, who had just given a singing recital. And Truman fired off this ferocious letter threatening to punch the guy out, and telling him that he was a gutter snipe and an idiot and he was going to kick him in the nuts.

Right? So, it was pretty aggressive language. And there was a big reaction to that at the time, a president kind of attacking a private citizen. Many people thought it wasn't dignified. But nobody would have said that this is Harry Truman's mode of being all the time. It was seen as a kind of authentic moment of outrage, and not a kind of permanent presidential style.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matt Dowd, is there a level of dignity that Americans expect from a president? I mean, is there a defined or undefined line over which presidents shouldn't go?

MATTHEW DOWD: Well, Americans expect our president to be human beings, and as imperfect as all of us are. They expect us to make mistakes and all that.

But one thing the American public likes is, if you make a mistake, you do that, you cross that line that they expect you to behave under, then you apologize or then you correct that behavior and said you have learned, you are going to do better, you are going to achieve better, and you are going to serve a higher purpose than that.

Let's keep in mind that Donald Trump didn't win because of himself. He won in spite of himself. A quarter of his voters voted for Donald Trump believing he wasn't presidential and he didn't have the temperament, but they had hope that he would grow into the office and become more presidential. That doesn't seem to have happened, and I don't think it will happen for a 71-year-old man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Beverly, you know, apropos of what just Matt just said and what you said a moment ago, clearly, there are moments when presidents have grown angry, they have been upset because they have been criticized.

So is there some kind of standard, written or otherwise, for how a president is to speak to the American people?

BEVERLY GAGE: I don't think there is a written standard, but I think up until this moment there have been some sort of accepted norms that the president in particular — on the campaign trail, it's one thing, right?

That is a place where people attack each other when they have differences of opinion or maybe even personal attacks in that venue. It is sort of expected. There, Trump took it to a new level as well, I think.

But when you are the president, the idea that you cannot rise to the office, that you would attack private citizens, I think that that is something that a lot of people find troubling and sort of unworthy of the office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matt Dowd, clearly this was part and parcel of the president lashing out at the news media. He was reacting to, I guess, some of the conversation this morning on that program, on cable news.

But what is it that the president — in any way does this further the agenda of the president? You mentioned a minute ago his health care plan, the fact that he is trying to get this health care plan through the Senate, through the Congress, and this takes all the attention away from that.

MATTHEW DOWD: Well, I think attributing any every time somebody — Donald Trump does this, President Trump does this, people attribute some grand strategy.

I think what the president really has is a lack of impulse control. He has done this throughout, and it has actually hurt him in the process. He won the election, but, as I say, he won it in spite of himself.

Keep in mind, Judy, that there's votes, three key votes that are needed in the health care plan, Shelley Moore Capito, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins. And he attacks a woman basically in a sexist way. You can't argue any otherwise in the midst of this, a woman who serves as an anchor on a television program.

None of that is going to be helpful in getting those votes. So, I think it is counterproductive. But anybody that goes to Donald Trump, first of all, nobody seems like they go to Trump to correct his behavior.

But anyone that goes to Donald Trump would have to make the argument, this doesn't help you. I don't think Donald Trump cares.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beverly Gage, does history shows that Americans are forgiving of a president when they, I don't know, go off the rails or however you want to describe this?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think Americans have often warmed to a kind of pugilistic style. So Trump is not the first president to kind of marshal this hyper-masculinity, right?

You think of someone like Theodore Roosevelt bringing wrestlers into the White House, et cetera, or even a figure like Ronald Reagan, who we tend to have a much more benign view of now, but actually could be quite aggressive in his rhetoric.

I think what is different for Trump is that he is specifically demeaning women, and he's demeaning particular women. It's hard to see how that is going to be a benefit to him.

On the other hand I do think the record is that often this has worked as a kind of form of entertainment. Certainly, it is one of the things that people liked about Teddy Roosevelt, this kind of man who wasn't going to take it from anyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

BEVERLY GAGE: So, unfortunately, I don't think it's clear that this is going to be something that there is a lot of incentive to stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matt, what does this mean for the president and his allies in the Republican Party?

MATTHEW DOWD: Well, I'm just going to — one response is, is, yes, the president — yes, the American public loves a fighter, but they want a fighter that is fighting on their behalf, not on their own behalf.

So, he has not connected the dots. And these tweets are no connection, as we talked about. It is going to actually make it worse for him to achieve any legislative platform, as opposed to better. There is no connection in fighting on Americans' behalf.

I think you saw today, and as your piece laid out, is Republicans are upset about this, they have grown weary of this, they know it has made it more difficult on them. And I think, as his numbers, as his approval numbers continue to drop — they're at the lowest level of any president in his first term or any — in any term at this point without a scandal involved — I think it makes it much harder and it sets up a problem for the midterm elections in 2018.

And I think all of that, Republicans are nervous about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But quickly, Matt, they are still sticking with him for the most part, aren't they?

MATTHEW DOWD: For the most part.

And I think that is one of the frustrations by many of us. I think you can say, oh, just discount his words and all that. At some point, they are going to have to hold Donald Trump's feet to the fire. And they can do that.

Senators can do that and House members can do it. They can basically say, we are not going to pass an appointment, we are not going to pass legislation until you correct your behavior. There is no way right now we know, or there is no evidence that we have that they're willing to do that. But that is in the end what they have control over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're right. We have not seen that yet.

Matthew Dowd, Beverly Gage, we thank you both.

Recently in Politics