Yesterday, U.S. women’s soccer team star Megan Rapinoe repeated that she would not go to the White House if invited but said that she would accept an invitation to meet with others: “So yes to AOC, yes to Pelosi, yes to a bipartisan Congress, yes to Chuck Schumer, yes to anyone else that wants to invite us and have a real substantive conversation and that believes in the same things we believe in.”
Trump fans will object to her stance, and perhaps Rapinoe’s political views are so strong that she would refuse to attend any White House event hosted by a Republican president. But keep in mind, in Trump’s presidency, traditionally nonpartisan events have turned politically charged or partisan really fast. Since becoming president, Trump has veered off onto partisan rants about his political foes in the most unexpected and inappropriate places. On the first full day of his presidency, Trump appeared in front of the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters and complained about “dishonest media,” bragged about the number of times he had been on the cover of Time, boasted about the “good reviews” for his Inauguration Day speech, and went on his usual “I would have kept the oil” rant about the Middle East.
In front of the Boy Scouts, Trump threatened to fire HHS Secretary Tom Price if he couldn’t get enough votes for a reform bill in the Senate, criticized President Obama for never attending a jamboree, boasted about his 2016 win, and called the event “an unbelievable tribute to you and all of the other millions and millions of people that came out and voted for Make America Great Again.” (Most of the audience was under age 18.) The Boy Scouts later issued an apology for “the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.”
On a Thanksgiving 2018 phone call with the troops, Trump complained, “It’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border. It’s a disgrace” and lamented, “we’ve been taken advantage of for many, many years by bad trade deals.”
Earlier this year, speaking at the Pentagon, Trump went off script again:
While many Democrats in the House and Senate would like to make a deal, Speaker Pelosi will not let them negotiate. The party has been hijacked by the open borders fringe within the party — the radical left becoming the radical Democrats. Hopefully Democrat lawmakers will step forward to do what is right for our country.
In France for the D-Day anniversary event, against the backdrop of a cemetery where nearly 10,000 American war dead are buried, Trump called Nancy Pelosi “a nasty, vindictive, horrible person” in a televised interview with Laura Ingraham.
In a joint press conference with Angela Merkel in Osaka, Japan, Trump decided to suddenly weigh in on the Democratic debate: “They had the first debate last night. Perhaps you saw it. It wasn’t very exciting, I can tell you that. And they have another one going on today. They definitely have plenty of candidates, that’s about it. So I look forward to spending time with you rather than watching the debate.”
Trump doesn’t always do this. His State of the Union addresses have generally avoided these moments, as did his recent Fourth of July speech on the national mall. But Trump’s ability to navigate the traditionally nonpartisan, feel-good presidential duties is entirely dependent upon his mood and what’s on his mind that day. And Trump seems consistently oblivious to the fact that some audiences, like members of the military, the CIA, the Boy Scouts, or foreign heads of state want to avoid getting dragged into a partisan debate.
With the odds better than ever that Trump will go off script and go on a partisan rant at any moment in any situation, anyone invited to his events — like the U.S. women’s soccer team — risks getting caught in a political controversy. You go in expecting feel-good talk about great American achievements, and you get stuck standing in awkward silence and looking at your shoes as Trump suddenly starts explaining, at length, that the preeminent flaw of Pete Buttigieg is that he looks like Alfred E. Neuman.
Trump is free to be the kind of president he wants to be. But venting his spleen about his political foes or complaining about bad press in venues like this mean certain people just won’t want to attend them. And if his reelection team is wondering why he seems to have such a hard ceiling of poll support, part of it might be his inability to pull off those apolitical feel-good presidential moments.