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Most presidents have temper tantrums. Why Trump is different.

Presidents face a near-total lack of control over events even as everyone blames them for everything that goes wrong. 
Image: Then-President Donald J. Trump talk to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on  Jan 12, 2021.
Then-President Donald J. Trump talk to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan 12, 2021.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Most presidents have had temper tantrums.

The presidency is a brutal job. The hours are long. The issues, complicated. A president is expected to know about everything from the nuclear triad to Section 8 housing. They are expected to be perfectly groomed — every hair in place, no gravy on the tie. If they stumble or fall off a bike, the world notices and comments, almost certainly disapprovingly. Their every word is captured; unlike the rest of us, they aren’t allowed to mispronounce names or mix up countries.

But the real source of stress for every president is the near-total lack of control over events coupled with the fact that everyone still blames them for everything that goes wrong. 

So it’s not surprising that presidents lose their temper. George Washington, the father of our country, was known to have a violent temper, which he expressed with the foulest of language. At one point in the Revolutionary War, he let his anger get the better of him and started whipping his own officers because they wouldn’t fight the oncoming British troops. Only the action of an aide who grabbed his horse’s bridle and led him away saved Washington from the enemy.

Someone who walked in on President Warren G. Harding caught him strangling a government official named Charles Forbes with his bare hands. (Forbes was accused of stealing government money, as were many others in the Harding administration.)

Richard Nixon, also famous for his temper, was caught on tape shoving his much-abused young press secretary Ron Ziegler toward the press on an airport tarmac.

Mostly, however, presidents refrain from physically attacking others and are content with tongue lashings — so the walls of the White House have heard some pretty intense cussing over the years. As someone who worked in the Clinton White House for almost five years, I can attest that President Bill Clinton’s temper tantrums were like thunderclouds: sudden but quickly over and forgotten. President Joe Biden has been described as a man with a “short fuse” who has been known to cut off conversations or hang up on people.

Distinct among presidents, President Barack Obama worked so hard to control his temper and offer the public a cool and calm exterior that some thought he had an “anger deficit.” In response, the comedian Keegan-Michael Key played a character called Luther, the anger translator, who acted out the angry man inside Obama’s head.

And so we come to Trump.

According to former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony before the Jan. 6 committee Tuesday, Trump was violently angry at not being allowed to accompany the mob to the Capitol during the counting of the 2020 Electoral College vote. In fact, Trump was allegedly so angry, she said, that he lunged at a Secret Service agent in his car and tried to grab the steering wheel. Hutchinson also testified that Trump’s fury over his attorney general’s statement that the election was legitimate was so intense that he threw his lunch at a wall, breaking the dish and splattering ketchup — one of several incidents in which he broke plates in rage.

So, since many of our presidents have had bad tempers, is Trump really unique? The answer is yes.

Trump and two Secret Service witnesses in his car dispute, through unnamed sources, that he was physically violent on Jan. 6, 2021, in the way Hutchison described, which she herself acknowledged was secondhand information. Trump himself has also rejected her allegations about the car ride, as well as her account of him throwing his lunch. But what distinguishes Trump’s tantrums more than whether they were or weren’t violent is the reason behind them.

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Having exhausted all legitimate modes of review, from recounts to court cases, Trump had litigated the 2020 election more thoroughly than any election in modern history — and still lost. What the Jan. 6 hearings have shown is that important and not-so-important White House aides such as Hutchinson (not to mention the majority of the country) understood that. Trump’s maniacal insistence on pursuing what others saw as a lost cause led some in his Cabinet, according to revelations at an earlier hearing, to have serious discussions about invoking the 25th Amendment.

Trump simply could not accept his loss and was doing anything he could to avoid that reality. The Justice Department will have to decide whether Trump and those who followed him down the insurrection path are guilty of crimes such as seditious conspiracy. But in the meantime, we already know that a new low has been reached. Lots of presidents have been involved in sex scandals, still others presided over financial corruption. But only Trump has taken on the peaceful transition of power — which means he should never be given power again.