Washington (CNN)Donald Trump won’t allow himself to catch a break.
Twice this month, the presumptive Republican nominee has seemed to act against his own political interests after tumultuous events — the Orlando terror attack and the U.K.’s Brexit vote — that should have offered him political openings.
Trump’s inconsistent and often self-congratulatory response to such crises misses opportunities to portray himself and his insurgent, populist campaign as delivering the right message for testing times. It’s also luring Trump into a trap set by his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who says he lacks the temperament and knowledge needed of a commander-in-chief. And it’s left Trump behind — sometimes badly — in the polls.
Furthermore, Trump’s off-the-cuff performance, on display during a whirlwind visit to Scotland this weekend, suggests the clear, targeted message he delivered in an anti-Clinton speech last week remains an exception in an unscripted campaign that still appears prone to stepping on political land mines.
Trump’s free flowing style and unconventional political persona played a key role in his success in dispatching what had been billed as the most talented crop of Republican primary candidates in a generation. But it is less clear those skills translate to a general election audience, especially with the focus increasingly on the personal and leadership qualities of candidates vying to be the most powerful politician in the world.
Clinton delivered a disdainful review Sunday of Trump’s performance in Scotland during her first public comments on Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union, lumping him in with U.S. foe and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We need leaders … who understand how to work with other leaders to manage risks, who understand that bombastic comments in turbulent times can actually cause more turbulence and who put the interests of the American people ahead of their personal business interests,” Clinton said in Indianapolis. “We have got to be clear about this: No one should be confused about America’s commitment to Europe — not an autocrat in the Kremlin, not a presidential candidate on a Scottish golf course.”
The real estate mogul blamed the press Monday for getting his point wrong and ignoring the calls he got right.
“The media is unrelenting. They will only go with and report a story in a negative light. I called Brexit (Hillary was wrong), watch November,” Trump tweeted.
Chance for gravitas
Trump’s trip had loomed as a chance for him to show some gravitas on the global stage. His visit to Trump-branded golf resorts in Turnberry and Aberdeen unfolded on Friday just hours after Britain voted to quit the E.U. after more than four decades.
Flying into Europe’s worst political storm of the post-war era, Trump could have demonstrated presidential-level cool, the depth of a tycoon steeped in global business and avoided inflaming the political wounds of his hosts.
But his message that U.K. voters had chosen to take their country back just like Americans can do in November was diluted by his own subsequent comments.
Trump broke the convention that politics stops at the water’s edge, blaming President Barack Obama for splitting Europe after he campaigned against Brexit and mocking Clinton for coming down on the losing side.
“I felt that what happened was going to happen,” Trump told reporters in Aberdeen on Saturday.
“We have a President and we have somebody running for president, Hillary Clinton, honestly look at their record, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Given that many referendum themes — a grassroots revolt against elites, anxiety over immigration, and a backlash among working people bypassed by globalization — were similar to those driving his own campaign, Trump could have also staked out a leadership position in an insurgent wave sweeping the Western world and democratic legitimacy for his causes.
Instead, he barged into sensitive feelings between pro-EU Scotland and anti-E.U. England. He seemed as concerned with an on-course sprinkler system as with the geopolitical cataclysm unfolding around him and suggested currency contagion unleashed by the vote could actually be a good thing for his business.
“If the pound goes down, they’re going to do more business. When the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly,” Trump said on Friday in remarks that have already been turned into a Clinton attack ad.
Trump hardly projected presidential savvy — and he didn’t seem to care, unlike presidential nominees in previous campaigns who have been desperate to showcase top-level leadership skills on their own foreign trips.
For instance, Trump led reporters traveling with him on a bizarre rolling news conference conducted on the tees of his picturesque links that weaves through towering coastal dunes north of Aberdeen. And he seemed keen to dance on the metaphorical grave of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had just resigned after losing the referendum vote.
The billionaire’s Scottish diversion was not the first time he had appeared to detract from his own message.
It was the same story after the rampage by a U.S.-born Muslim at an Orlando gay nightclub two weeks ago, when Trump’s swift, inflammatory and self-congratulatory response robbed him of a chance to dent the anti-terror policy advocated by Clinton and the Democratic Obama administration.
The former secretary of state has put Trump’s temperament and response to crises at the center of her campaign, arguing he lacks the experience, knowledge and decorum demanded of a commander-in-chief.
“Every time there is a significant national or global event, Donald Trump proves again that he is temperamentally unfit for the job,” said Clinton’s senior advisor Jake Sullivan on a conference call with reporters on Friday.
“At this point, there is an emerging Donald Trump playbook in reaction to crisis,” said Sullivan, accusing Trump of indulging in “pathological self-congratulation,” ignoring advisors, making up facts, and talking about what’s good for himself, and not the nation.
Clinton’s campaign amplified its message this weekend with web videos and ads lampooning Trump’s visit to his golf courses in Scotland, designed to convince voters he sorely lacks the mental capacity to be President.
Trump was thrown on the defensive by Clinton’s attacks and took to his Twitter account to hit back.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton, who called BREXIT 100% wrong (along with Obama), is now spending Wall Street money on an ad on my correct call,” Trump wrote.
In another Tweet, Trump added: “Clinton is trying to wash away her bad judgement call on BREXIT with big dollar ads. Disgraceful!”
Getting an assist
Trump also got an assist from Bob Corker, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has previously expressed frustration with the tone and the substance of the Trump campaign, but said the former reality star did well in Scotland.
“I thought it was one of his best events. I’m sorry — I know I’m an outlier,” Corker told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He knew reporters were going to ask him about ‘Brexit’ — I thought it was one of his best events.”
Still, Trump’s challenging few weeks have left him trailing in the polls — an unusual position for a candidate who dominated the Republican primary for more than a year.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll published Sunday put Trump down 12 points. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, however, put the gap at only five points.
The Post poll suggested that Clinton’s gambit against Trump is drawing blood because 64% said he was not qualified to serve as President. Seventy percent of those asked said that the idea of Trump made them anxious.
That leaves Trump work to do with only four-and-a-half months until Election Day — and refining the clarity of his attacks on Clinton and presenting his own candidacy in a more appealing light will test his revamped campaign team.
“Putting forth your message cleanly and sharply is the key right now,” Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump supporter and CNN contributor said Sunday.
“Coming-out of Brexit, Donald Trump really has an opportunity to say my message of bringing jobs home and my message of not letting ISIS terrorists come within our borders is something that has resonated across the world,” she said. “Here is an opportunity now to drive home that message and he needs to do so forcefully in order to change these numbers.”