For a president prone to distraction, Donald Trump was unusually disciplined — for a time.
In the hours following the shooting of a Republican congressman and three other people in a Virginia park, Trump behaved as most presidents do to reassure the nation in a moment of crisis: He called for unity in a scripted and sober television appearance from the White House, steered clear of attacking political opposition and put the focus on the pain of the victims and heroism of law enforcement.
Then, at the end of the day on Wednesday, as Trump sat down for dinner with his family to celebrate his 71st birthday, news broke that the special prosecutor looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was taking steps toward investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice.
For hours, Trump again showed restraint as he and First Lady Melania Trump delivered white flowers to the hospital for Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the congressional leader wounded in the gunfire.
“Just left hospital. Rep. Steve Scalise, one of the truly great people, is in very tough shape - but he is a real fighter. Pray for Steve!” Trump wrote on Twitter just before 10 p.m. EDT.
Just left hospital. Rep. Steve Scalise, one of the truly great people, is in very tough shape - but he is a real fighter. Pray for Steve!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2017
Trump’s restraint lasted another nine hours.
By early Thursday morning, Trump slipped back into his Twitter persona — the one that lashes out at enemies in all-capital letters and impugns the motives of investigators — returning to the muddy fracas that aides have been trying to get him to avoid. Trump refused to let his highly paid outside counsel do the talking for him.
“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice,” Trump tweeted before 7 a.m., a time when he is usually watching television news in his upstairs White House residence and getting ready for the day.
“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people!” he added an hour later.
They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2017
For decades, Trump has made a habit of unapologetically hammering critics, a tactic that electrified supporters during his campaign.
The habit remains a tough one to kick. The lure of speaking to 32 million followers on Twitter and fighting back against allegations Trump sees as fundamentally unfair may be too much to resist, even as advisors and Republican strategists warn that his provocative comments may be perpetuating the cycle of leaks and accusations that launched the investigation in the first place.
“He’s described himself as a counterpuncher. That muscle memory, that he has that reflex to react when something like this comes up, obviously it’s very strong,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based consultant for three Republican presidential campaigns.
Trump “interrupted the window where you saw a great deal of unity” in Washington, and hampered his own political interest, Merrill said.
“Its safe to say that oftentimes the president can be his own worst enemy,” he said. “Certainly, weighing in on the investigation so quickly after the shooting yesterday kind of undermines the message of unity.”
Even after 146 days in the White House, Trump continues to seesaw back and forth between brief moments when his administration seems in control of the agenda and longer periods when outbursts from the president create overwhelming distractions.
By the middle of the day Thursday, Trump had returned to a more measured tone. He praised the two Capitol Police special agents who ran toward the gunman in Wednesday’s shooting and returned fire, saving lives, and he described his visit to Scalise’s hospital room the night before, saying “he’s in some trouble” after a bullet tore through his hip.
After multiple surgeries on Wednesday, Scalise’s doctors said the congressman had suffered from internal bleeding and organ damage and was still in critical condition.
Lawmakers from both parties planned to honor Scalise by wearing purple-and-gold Louisiana State University hats during the annual congressional baseball game at Nationals Park on Thursday night.
“And Steve, in his own way, may have brought some unity to our long-divided country. We’ve had a very, very divided country for many years. And I have a feeling that Steve has made a great sacrifice, but there could be some unity being brought to our country. Let’s hope so,” Trump said.
“In these difficult hours, it’s more important than ever to help each other, care for each other and remind each other that we are all united by our love of our great and beautiful country,” Trump said.
The White House seemed to acknowledge the dual nature of Trump’s give-and-take, but, at least officially, insisted that the two were not at cross purposes.
Asked why Trump took to Twitter to call investigators “very bad and conflicted people,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president was responding to allegations.
“I think there’s been quite a bit of attacking against the president. I think he was responding to those specific accusations. But I think, as a whole, our country certainly could bring the temperature down a little bit.”
“I think that was the goal that the president laid out yesterday, and hopefully we can all see moving forward,” Sanders said.
After Sanders spoke, Trump visited the Supreme Court to attend the investiture of Justice Neil Gorsuch, whose nomination many conservatives point to as the single most important accomplishment of Trump’s five months in office.
But here wasn’t much time to ponder Gorsuch. Before 4 pm, Trump had his mind on an old adversary from the presidential election. Trump tapped out a Tweet about Hillary Clinton, insisting she should have been investigated for mishandling her State Department emails.
Trump wrote: “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?”
Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2017
Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, 'bleached' emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2017