In a recent meeting with his top political advisers, President Trump was impatient as they warned him that he was on a path to defeat in November if he continued his incendiary behavior in public and on Twitter.
Days earlier, Mr. Trump had sparked alarm by responding to protests over police brutality with a threat that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Mr. Trump pushed back against his aides. “I have to be myself,” he replied, according to three people familiar with the meeting. A few hours later, he posted on Twitter a letter from his former personal lawyer describing some of the protesters as “terrorists.”
In those moments, and in repeated ones since then, the president’s customary defiance has been suffused with a heightened sense of agitation as he confronts a series of external crises he has failed to contain, or has exacerbated, according to people close to him. They say his repeated acts of political self-sabotage — a widely denounced photo-op at a church for which peaceful protesters were forcibly removed, a threat to use the American military to quell protests — have significantly damaged his re-election prospects, and yet he appears mostly unable, or unwilling, to curtail them.
Mr. Trump doesn’t want to be seen as a “loser,” a label he detests, in the campaign against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. And some advisers believe Mr. Trump’s taste for battle will return in the fall, when the general election fight is more engaged.
But for now, they said, the president is acting trapped and defensive, and his self-destructive behavior has been so out of step for an incumbent in an election year that many advisers wonder if he is truly interested in serving a second term.
Rather than focus on plans and goals for another four years in office, Mr. Trump has been wallowing in self-pity about news coverage of him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, people who have spoken with him said. He has told advisers that no matter what he does, he cannot get “good” stories from the press, which has often been his primary interest. “These people,” Mr. Trump has growled to advisers about reporters, throwing an expletive between the two words.
He has complained that nothing he does is good enough, bristling at criticism that he hasn’t sufficiently addressed the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by the police in Minneapolis. The remarks he made about Mr. Floyd when he attended the launch of the SpaceX spacecraft should have been enough, the president told aides.
Mr. Trump has also become consumed, once again, with leaks from the White House, demanding that officials find and prosecute those responsible for information getting out about his trip to the bunker beneath the White House during unruly protests. And while he has shown enthusiasm for resuming his trademark rallies, he has not seemed excited about the possibility of governing for four more years, people close to him said. He has set up villains to blame if he loses — China’s mishandling of the coronavirus, the shutdown of the economy, and Democrats who he has told advisers will “steal” the election from him.
Aides acknowledged that he has always had difficulty controlling his behavior, which goes far beyond the bounds of traditional presidential conduct. His penchant for using racist language — such as the tweet about shooting looters — is something that has long defined and undercut his presidency. But his recent behavior and remarks, and his inability to move beyond them, strike advisers as different from his usual aberrations.
The New York Times interviewed more than a dozen people who speak or interact with the president frequently, including current and former White House aides, campaign advisers, friends and associates. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal White House affairs, and to avoid retribution. They would like to see him win again, but say they’re struck by how his demeanor has shifted during this latest dire threat to his presidency.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said the serious challenges facing the country had thrust Mr. Trump into uncharted territory. “This is not something he’s used to,” Mr. King said in an interview.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times
“Mueller, in a way, was easy,’’ Mr. King added, referring to Mr. Trump’s forceful pushback to the Russia inquiry conducted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. “It was a variation of what he’s had to deal with his whole career. He’s always fighting, and there’s always at least 40 or 50 percent of people who start out on your side.”
But right now, Mr. King said, “this is different.”
In a statement, a White House spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, said, “The president is fully committed to serving a second term and building on and adding to his first-term accomplishments for the American people.”
One official, who would speak only about the administration’s planning, claimed policy staff members were told just this week to come up with initiatives for 2021 and beyond.
With the Russia investigation and impeachment, White House officials and others said, Mr. Trump was eager to fight, and did so fairly effectively. Now, they see his behavior as self-defeating, and his bursts of both anger and self-praise as futile against an invisible enemy like the virus and a protest movement he’s shown little sympathy for.
“He is the modern L.B.J., where everything has gone wrong and none of his skill sets are effective at what’s gone wrong,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served as the White House communications director for one of the briefest periods on record — 11 days. Though he has since publicly denounced the president, Mr. Scaramucci has known Mr. Trump personally for years and remains friendly with some White House officials.
Nothing Mr. Trump has tried so far, Mr. Scaramucci said, has changed the narrative about his presidency, or shoved broader concerns about racism and the spread of the virus aside in news coverage.
“That’s why I know he doesn’t like the job,” Mr. Scaramucci said.
With less than five months until Election Day, Mr. Trump has seemed mostly unable, and unwilling, to make the modifications to his behavior that he was periodically able to make at key moments in 2016: agreeing to pick Mike Pence, a demure and religious conservative he had no previous relationship with, as his running mate, and quieting his Twitter feed in the immediate run-up to Election Day.
This past weekend, Mr. Trump eventually made what allies called a wise political move in abruptly announcing he would change the date of a rally his aides had planned for him in Tulsa, Okla., on Juneteenth, a holiday honoring the end of slavery in the United States. Even that was done in an ad-hoc fashion as Mr. Trump failed to tell aides about the change before tweeting it.
Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said Mr. Trump’s campaign compared favorably to a previous Republican incumbent who lost a re-election effort, President George H.W. Bush.
“I saw a lot more lethargy in the 1992 Bush campaign than I see in this one,” Mr. Cole said.
Still, the president has made public statements suggesting his mind is on life outside the White House.
Speaking at a recent Rose Garden event about an improvement in hiring, Mr. Trump mentioned a boom in the construction of recreational vehicles, then paused before sounding a wistful note, saying: “I may have to buy one of those things, drive around town. Maybe I’ll drive back to New York with our first lady in a trailer.”
It was only in April that the seriousness of the twin health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus fully set in with Mr. Trump, several current and former aides said, adding that they were no longer confident he was enthused about presiding over the difficult task of pulling the country out of a recession, with few moments of glory.
For Mr. Trump, the high of winning the presidency has rarely been matched by the duties that come with the position, current and former advisers said.
Most presidents have no sense of what the job is actually like until they’re in it. But for Mr. Trump, who never served in government and spent years as a television entertainer, the gaps in his knowledge are vast.
“In private, Trump was interested in winning the presidency,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked on Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2015 and was an adviser to him before it. “Over a three-year period between 2012 until 2014, he was focused on the details and even the minutiae of the primary and the general election process. It was always clear that Trump wanted to be elected president. But the reality of being president was never discussed.”
In 2016, Mr. Trump repeatedly offered policy suggestions in speeches. He has yet to lay out what he would do with a second term.
Inside the White House, some staff members described the president as lonely, with few people he enjoys talking to, and several staff members said morale was at its lowest point since the early weeks of the administration.
The West Wing in which Mr. Trump has been in virtual lockdown since March lacks a clear sense of urgency or purpose, recent visitors say. Mark Meadows, the fourth White House chief of staff, has complained that he had no idea how fractious and unwieldy the climate was until he got there, according to multiple people familiar with his conversations.
Mr. Trump seems to like his newest fighter, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, but officials said she spends most of her time with the president and little time with the staff. On days when she gives briefings for reporters, she spends hours preparing, frustrating some colleagues. She has also moved several people out of their jobs in the press and communications shop, while hiring her husband’s cousin, Chad Gilmartin, for the office.
Republicans in Washington have concluded that Mr. Trump cannot win re-election from behind the Resolute Desk, and they hope that restarting the president’s rallies — beginning on Saturday in Tulsa — will offer a distraction.
Mr. King said the last time he spoke with Mr. Trump, just before the killing of Mr. Floyd, the president sounded positive about his re-election prospects. “We were talking about something else, and he said, ‘How’s it going out there, how am I doing?’” Mr. King recalled. “It was very upbeat. The tone of his voice was, he expected me to tell him he was doing well.”
Mr. Trump seems cognizant that his political fortunes have shifted, although he has not assumed responsibility for the change. In an interview with Fox News last week, he made the rare acknowledgment of a reality he hasn’t willed away.
“If I don’t win, I don’t win,” Mr. Trump said. “I mean, you know, go on and do other things.”
He added, “I think it would be a very sad thing for our country.”