The president of the United States is prone to insults like multi-celled organisms are prone to breathing oxygen. Abuse is his weapon of choice in every duel, his first impulse when challenged, his last refuge when cornered. He belittles races, creeds, and nations of origin; he taunts war heroes, former confidants, and perfect strangers; he has called Bette Midler “ugly” more times than he has children.
“There are times when the only choice is confrontation,” a ghostwriter once said on President Donald Trump’s behalf. “When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard.”
Americans were once again reminded of Trump’s “general attitude” on Monday, when NBC News reported that the president went into a rage the day after firing James Comey as director of the FBI, calling the bureau’s acting director Andrew McCabe to demand to know why Comey was allowed to take a government plane home from Los Angeles.
After McCabe told Trump that he hadn’t known about the flight, but would have approved it if he had, NBC News reported, “the president was silent for a moment and then turned on McCabe, suggesting he ask his wife how it feels to be a loser.” (The White House has denied that account).
The alleged remark, apparently in reference to Jill McCabe’s failed bid for a seat in the Virginia state legislature in 2015, would only be the latest in a long series of incivilities Trump has directed at the loved ones of his foe-of-the-moment. Rules that spouses were off-limits, once observed, have no place in Trump’s gangland politics. If you cross Trump, he won’t just come for you—he’ll come for your wife, your children, your dog.
And then, odds are, he’ll call your wife a dog.
Before Jill McCabe, there was Mika Brzezinski, Morning Joe co-host and significant other of Joe Scarborough. Insulted by the once-friendly pair’s on-air criticism of his administration—and by the impending implosion of his Obamacare-repeal efforts—the president went on a now-infamous Twitter tirade, berating each half of the couple as ugly, incompetent, stupid, and crazy. If Scarborough and Brzezinski thought so poorly of him, Trump mused, “then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”
Before Brzezinski, there was Heidi Cruz, wife of Texas senator and on-again-off-again Trump nemesis Ted Cruz. After a super-PAC unaffiliated with Cruz’s presidential campaign mocked Melania Trump for posing nude in British GQ, Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife on Twitter, before approvingly retweeted a supporter’s message juxtaposing the two candidates’ spouses. Accompanying the images—one an unflattering shot of Heidi Cruz, the other a photograph of Melania Trump so airbrushed that it put Gay Instagram to blushing shame—was a message: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Before Cruz, there was Ghazala Khan, mother to a fallen soldier and wife of Khizr Khan, who had the temerity to suggest that Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration was un-American. “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” Khan asked Trump during a speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016. “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing, and no one!”
Trump, whose purported bone spurs kept him out of Vietnam, couldn’t very well allow a grieving family’s criticism to go unanswered. Responding to the speech, Trump criticized Ghazala Khan’s silence during her husband’s impassioned address. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” Trump said. “She had nothing to say... Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Writing in The Washington Post, Ghazala Khan said in response that for years, even being in the same room as her son’s photograph was too much to bear. “Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could?”
Before Ghazala Khan was Huma Abedin. Before Huma Abedin was Bill Clinton. Before Bill Clinton was Columba Bush. Before Columba Bush, we can be sure, was another senseless attack on another innocent spouse who made the poor decision to love someone who crossed President Trump.
Even Trump’s own—reportedly long-suffering—spouse has grudgingly accepted his inability to withhold an insult.
“When you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder,” Melania Trump once told a crowd. “No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”