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Donald Trump is a tough guy — just ask him. The word “tough” appears 25 times in “The Art of the Deal,” and he even wrote a book before the 2012 election called “Time to Get Tough.” He has mused publicly about beating up protesters at his rallies and about cops roughing up suspects in custody. His signature catchphrase on television was a curt, poker-faced dismissal; no president in memory has exhibited such a range and intensity of hostile facial expressions and gestures.
He is the first president since James K. Polk who doesn’t have a White House pet.
But in some ways Donald Trump is also a softy — a side of him that gets a lot less attention, but was on display Thursday morning in the back-and-forth with Democratic leaders in Congress over a deal, or an agreement, or an understanding, on extending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections for undocumented young people who have grown up in America. Whatever one calls it, and whether it ends up as a bill Trump signs, it’s clear that the president who campaigned on ending DACA on “day one” has taken a closer look at what it would mean to deport “800,000 young people, brought here, no fault of their own.”
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” asked Trump, who once advocated doing exactly that — when he didn’t hold the reins of power.
Donald Trump, softy.
This is the Donald Trump who was moved almost to poetry by the tragic death of Harambe, the silverback gorilla who was shot by keepers to protect the life of a child who had fallen into his enclosure. “I think it’s a very tough call,” he mused afterward. “It’s amazing because there were moments with the gorilla, the way he held that child, it was almost like a mother holding a baby. It looked so beautiful and calm.”
This is the Trump who has admitted that he actually doesn’t like to fire people, an observation confirmed by no less an authority on the president’s psychology than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, his friend and ally, who told CNN: “I think Donald Trump doesn’t like to fire people, period.” Trump’s preferred method of dealing with recalcitrant or inept subordinates is to humiliate them on Twitter and hope they take the hint, avoiding an awkward confrontation — a tactic that notably failed in the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
And though he seems not to care that much for animals, Trump loves babies, as he announced at a rally in Virginia last year when an infant began crying in the middle of his speech. “I love babies. I hear that baby crying, I like it. What a baby, what a beautiful baby. Don’t worry,” he reassured the mother from the rostrum. Admittedly, he changed his mind a few minutes later when the child interrupted him a second time — “Actually, I was only kidding; you can get the baby out of here” — but surely he deserves credit for the original impulse. Can anyone imagine what would happen to a baby who started wailing in the middle of a speech by Kim Jong Un?
It was Trump’s love for babies that helped propel him to bomb a Syrian airbase as punishment for a chemical-weapons attack on civilians, in which, as he said in his address to the nation, “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.’”
The available records suggest that for a billionaire, Trump hasn’t been especially generous with his own money, although it’s impossible to know for sure because he hasn’t released his tax returns. During the campaign, conservative media frequently reported on incidents of generosity in Trump’s past. Some — such as sending $10,000 to reward a bus driver who stopped a suicide — appeared to be genuine, spontaneous acts of charity. Others — such as comping a hotel suite for actress Jennifer Hudson after she suffered a family tragedy — seemed to fall more in the category of a publicity stunt.
Some had elements of both, as when Trump sent a check to help pay for a disabled girl’s medical care — while the youngster was appearing on Maury Povich’s talk show. At least one incident that was widely reported — involving Trump’s paying off the mortgage of a passing motorist who stopped to help change a tire on his limousine — appears to have been an urban legend that has been told over the years about various millionaires, including Henry Ford and Bill Gates.
These episodes tend to have one thing in common: They involve discrete actions on behalf of a specific individual. A cynic might point out that in terms of publicity garnered per dollar spent, that’s by far the most cost-efficient way to disburse charity. You could give $10,000 to every hero bus driver in the country — a small fraction of what it would cost to, say, underwrite a serious national effort to combat suicide.
But to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, he may well have been genuinely moved by these individual tales of heroism or woe. He is, after all, a star of reality TV, a genre that deals in personal struggles and triumphs, not abstract issues and causes. He is notoriously impatient with position papers and complex problems.
Which comes to mind now, in the wake of his willingness to reconsider ending DACA. After taking no action all year on his campaign promises to end it, the White House recently set a six-month deadline to wind down the program — but also invited Congress to pass a version of it that Trump implied he would sign. Notably, he sent Sessions out to make the announcement, while he reassured current enrollees (via Twitter) that they have “nothing to worry about.”
Was this just Trump bowing to the political reality that ending DACA is broadly unpopular, even among Republicans — although an article of faith with his core supporters and some of his key advisers, including the now departed but reportedly still influential Steve Bannon? Or could it, just possibly, reflect a changed emotional calculus, in which a faceless mob of “aliens” have taken on individual identities as what are sometimes called “DREAMers” — real people whose lives would be devastatingly upended by being thrown out of the country they grew up in? Is the tough guy tough enough to stand up to his own base? Is there the bleeding heart of a liberal inside the chest Donald Trump so loves to thump?
Donald Trump, softy. The world waits and wonders.
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