— -- The worst mass shooting in U.S. history. A humanitarian crisis impacting millions of Americans. A stand-off with a rogue nuclear power. A vanishing legislative agenda.
A president who is drawn to confrontation and thrives on the perception of crises no longer has to seek them out. President Donald Trump now finds himself tested on multiple fronts, with world and domestic events converging to put his leadership on the line in several directions at once.
In typical Trump fashion, the president is responding to each challenge like a poker player who realizes no opponent or run of cards is identical -- relying on gut instinct more than discernible long-term strategy.
Trump spent much of the weekend fuming on Twitter at the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, decrying her “poor leadership ability” and saying she and other local officials “want everything to be done for them” in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
He undercut his own secretary of state during tense talks involving North Korea, tweeting that Rex Tillerson “is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He saved time to blast “fake news” for minimizing his accomplishments and to reiterate his demand that NFL players stand during the national anthem.
Then came Monday, when the president woke up to unspeakable horror in Las Vegas. He was almost a different person, quoting Scripture in his first public comments about the mass shooting.
“My fellow Americans, we are joined together today in sadness, shock, and grief,” Trump said. “We call upon the bonds that unite us -- our faith, our family, and our shared values.”
Later in the day, he led the nation in a moment of silence, alongside first lady Melania Trump. Speaking to reporters, Trump said, “This is a sad day.”
These are challenging days for the president, who made it through much of his first eight months in office without national tragedies or international incidents crashing in. He comes to this moment at something of a low point in terms of his influence -- his approval rating lagging, and his lack of legislative accomplishments a drag on his powers of persuasion.
The challenges from here will be immense. His critics are accusing him of racism in his criticism of pro athletes and in his response to Puerto Rico, particularly when compared to his involvement in helping Texas and Florida residents after they suffered massive storms.
After Las Vegas, it’s fair to expect renewed interest in a gun-control debate, something the White House has no interest in engaging in.
“It would be premature for us to discuss policy,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday, brushing aside questions about why the president was been more than willing to discuss policy after events occur that seem to fit his worldview.
Yet Trump is a master of making his own media image and realities. Those close to him have long said he’s most at ease when there’s much in the air. With his trip to Puerto Rico Tuesday, followed by Las Vegas Wednesday, he has a chance to show himself in control -- pursuing unity, rather than divisions.