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OPED: World listens to a dangerous president

Jonathan Bernstein
Tribune News Service

Remember when Donald Trump said that "being presidential" would be easy for him, what with him being (supposedly) so smart and all?

Turns out: not so much. And just this week we have two examples of its real-world consequences. Not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Item One: Libyan media and Libyan authorities seized on Trump's tweets denouncing CNN as "fake news" to undermine CNN reporting about slave auctions in that nation. Presumably protection of human rights is still part of U.S. foreign policy, but Trump's attacks on a free press at home make it difficult to protect a free press abroad.

More:OPED: Trump undercuts Tillerson with every tweet

Item Two: Trump on Wednesday morning retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a British bigot, sparking condemnation from Prime Minister Theresa May and from members of Parliament on Twitter. In other words — leaving aside the appalling ethical disaster of spreading ultra-nationalist propaganda — he has also picked a fight with the U.S.'s closest ally. The Netherlands got in on the act, too, pointing out that (at least) one of the videos was phony.

Trump seemed to believe during the campaign that "being presidential" was a question of demeanor and facial expression, and that it was all just symbolic nonsense anyway. But that's simply not true. Whatever comes out of the president's mouth, especially in public, has an importance that things said by practically anyone else in the nation don't.

Everyone in politics, at home and abroad, listens to what presidents say and do. It counts. It sets policy. It establishes the president's professional reputation, which is always being carefully evaluated by those who have to deal with the president, from bureaucrats to members of Congress to foreign politicians. And it creates a kind of truth in the world, even if the truth consists, as it often does with Trump, of falsehoods.

More:Trump stokes anti-Muslim sentiment; censured here and abroad

And so by Wednesday afternoon the White House was backing up the tweets with further anti-Muslim language, and later Trump escalated his spat with May. After all, the words count. Which means the president has to either back them up (a problem if what he said was foolish or harmful in the first place) or back down (de-escalating the situation but undermining a different part of the president's reputation). There are no simple takebacks.

Perhaps the best illustration of the importance of a president's words was the 1993 movie "Dave," a fun political yarn starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The premise of the movie is that Dave is an ordinary schmo who happens to be a dead ringer for the president. He's recruited by the White House to act as a body double for the president — distracting the media so the real president can sneak away — but then, when the real president falls into a coma, Dave is recruited by Frank Langella's evil White House chief of staff to continue playing the president while the chief of staff does the real work of the job.

But the scheme eventually backfires when Dave realizes that anything he says on camera "counts" as real, including when he eventually fires the chief of staff. While the film's view of how the presidency and politics work has more than a few flaws, that part is exactly correct.

The lesson for real presidents is that what they say really does matter. That's one reason Barack Obama (and all other modern presidents) used teleprompters and read from written speeches, and frequently answered questions with pat, prepared answers even when there was no visible script. Presidents never want to say something by accident.

More:Trump tweets strain U.S.-Britain ‘special relationship’

Get a fact wrong, and the president will find it harder to use facts in the future to persuade. Get the nuance wrong, and the president may offend those he had no intention of offending. Sound like a moolyak, and people are going to treat the president as if he has no idea what he's talking about.

Trump, of course, ignores all of this. He shoots off his mouth (and his Twitter finger) constantly, seemingly oblivious that it has real effects that it never had when he was just a reality-television star. And he, and the nation, are constantly paying the price.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.