President Trump was elected because he proved himself a fighter who would never let a foe attack him without suffering a counterattack.
His counterpunching was one of his greatest assets in the Republican primaries. He would make rivals look bad by catching them off-guard with seemingly irrelevant attacks. This tendency made some of his opponents unwilling to attack him, terrified of what crazy retaliation he would bring down on their heads.
In the general election, Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton emboldened and encouraged all those, both in and out of the Republican base, who distrusted or disliked her. He also fired rhetorical shots at companies such as Carrier which threatened to send jobs overseas, or at foreign countries that threatened America economically or militarily.
So the White House has some truth to support its defense of Trump's recent Twitter battles with MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. "Look, the American people elected a fighter, they didn't elect somebody to sit back and do nothing."
It's true that elections are a sort of disinfectant. If voters elect someone knowing full well who he is, he is to some extent innoculated against complaints when he continues to be himself in office. But there's a nuance here. When voters watched Trump fighting back against Jeb Bush's or Hillary Clinton's attacks, many of them valued this not as good in itself, but as an indication of what he would do for them. They wanted a fighter in the White House who would push back against America's enemies or against the special interests ripping off the regular guy. This would deter China or predatory corporations, or militant left-wingers from messing with the interests of ordinary citizens.
Instead, however, many of Trump's counterpunches are about punishing those who criticize him personally. He's using the office of the presidency to leverage it against those who attack him not for his policies but for his demeanor, etc. — in other words, personally.
Here, too, Trump is not without any plausible defense. "The FAKE NEWS media," Trump wrote in February, "is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!" Trump elaborated the next day, saying, "much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests."
Trump has a point. Many of the same people who go after him personally are those who oppose his policies. Many in the news media, and the organizations they work for, reject Trump's policies, both the conservative ones and the unconservative populist ones. When liberal Trump critics say Trump is a normal Republican, and that Mike Pence is worse, they give away the game.
So Trump may have some reasons for counterpunching in his own defense. But the fact that he has some reasons does not mean it is a good idea. In fact, it is a very bad one.
His tweets, mocking Brzezinski as "low IQ" for bleeding after a facelift, and Scarborough as "Psycho Joe," were not inconsistent with past Trump missives, but they were lower, petty to a degree nobody imagined a president would ever be. For simple moral reasons, Trump shouldn't stoop nearly so far to conquer.
But also, it's counterproductive. It helps his enemies while hurting his friends. Brzezinski and Scarborough will benefit from this publicity, as other journalists have seen their profiles raised by incurring Trump attacks.
And Republicans struggling to advance Trump's agenda and their own suffered. Consider what went on Capitol Hill Thursday morning, hours after Trump's tweets. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly appeared with congressional Republicans to extol the passage of two immigration measures, including Kate's Law, aimed at protecting the public from violent criminal illegal immigrants. This is a winning issue for Republicans and was a central part of Trump's campaign. Republicans in Congress and the administration worked for weeks to make sure their passage of the law got maximum impact, thus exerting pressure on the Senate.
But, from a publicity point of view, it was all for naught. Trump vs. Mika dominated the news all day and night. ABC News and CBS didn't mention the bills at all.
America wanted a fighter for president and they elected one. But the people who put Trump in office would benefit more if the fighter would fight in ways that advance his agenda to improve American governance, rather than in ways that make him grate again.