Donald Trump is the oldest president in history. He has the greatest net worth and the largest number of ex-wives, the least prior political experience, and the lowest recorded approval rating upon entering office of any Commander-in-Chief. He is also the first president in 150 years without a pet.
Among all these extremes, the last might seem ancillary. But it’s a narrative the press can’t seem to resist: Since the presidential election, outlets from CNN to the New York Times have run stories on Trump’s petlessness. It’s not hard to see why. The break with presidential tradition at the animal level offers a relatable and furry heuristic for the innumerable differences between the current administration and preceding ones. Add in the fact that the last petless president—Andrew Johnson—was impeached, and the story seems irresistible.
Not only does Trump not own a pet, he also seems to have a vendetta against those who do. The Atlantic recently published a White House advisor’s claim that Trump called the Pence family “low class” for bringing its pets to the Naval Observatory residence, where the vice president lives. Unlike the Trumps, the Pence family is fully capitalizing on a pet’s ability to humanize politicians; their bunny Marlon Bundo (are the Pences unaware of the actor’s bisexuality?) has an Instagram and a soon-to-be-released book.
Trump has spoken about animals, but not through a ghostwriter and a book deal. Despite the canine lacuna in Trump’s White House, pets—namely dogs, the most frequent White House animal—play an outsized role in his speech. After Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury became the Washington buzz, Trump tweeted, “Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!”
While ostracized from the White House and Breitbart, perhaps Bannon can take solace in knowing he’s in good company as a victim of this locution. As Newsweek noted in October 2017, Trump used the exact phrase “fired like a dog” in reference to David Gregory’s canning from Meet the Press, Glenn Beck’s exit from Fox News, and Rick Tyler’s forced resignation as Ted Cruz’ Director of Communications (this last tweet used a mixed-mammal metaphor: “[Cruz] used him as a scape-goat – fired like a dog!”) Marco Rubio was “sweating like a dog” (panting?) at a debate. And as Newsweek also noted, Sally Yates, James Clapper, and Mitt Romney all “choke[d] like dogs,” while George Pataki, John Sununu, and Bob Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher” in their respective states.
You could fold into the mix of strange dog analogies the infamous line from the Access Hollywood video of Trump and Billy Bush. Although “I grabbed her by the pussy” was the most widely publicized quote of the video, “I moved on her like a bitch” was another one of the leaked soundbites that threatened Trump’s electoral chances.
But what exactly is he saying? Emily Nussbaum, TV Critic for The New Yorker, tweeted in December 2017, “I realize this is the world’s smallest issue, but I still don’t understand what ‘I moved on her like a bitch’ means.”
If “bitch” carries a double whammy—its sexist connotations and Trump’s apparent disdain for dogs in general—why is he comparing himself to one? Is it just a slip-up breeding grammatical ambiguity? Or something in between—a strange but perhaps subconscious line that might reveal both Trump’s peculiar psychology around pets and the broader illogic of his presidency?
We might find answers in Trump’s pre-political life. In Raising Trump, released last October, Ivana Trump, the president’s first wife, highlights dogs as a central theme, an animal bedrock among all the human melodrama.
“I can’t imagine a childhood without a pet of some kind. From animals, people get a pure, unconditional love,” she notes in an early chapter. In young adulthood, this love took the form of a poodle named Chappy.
Ivana Trump owned Chappy when she was still known as Ivana Zelníčková, an aspiring model and businesswoman fresh out of communist Czechoslovakia. She later met Donald Trump, then a real-estate developer under the tutelage of Roy Cohn. The book paints their falling in love as rapid, natural, and without obstacles—except for one.
“Donald was not a dog fan,” Ivana Trump notes, adding that Chappy had a strong “dislike of Donald,” too. These interests collided, and she sided with the dog: “When I told [Donald] I was bringing Chappy with me to New York, he said no. ‘It’s me and Chappy or no one!’ I insisted, and that was that.”
Granted, Raising Trump is full of these kinds of my-way-or-the-highway details. But it seems to be no accident that Ivana Trump’s chapter about pets directly precedes the chapter about her husband’s affair with Marla Maples. As Ivana Trump describes her ensuing divorce, it’s easy to sense a juxtaposition of the highly conditional love she shares with her husband and the unconditional affection she reserves for her pets and children. Trump, his ex-wife seems to argue, tolerates pets with the same fleeting commitment usually reserved for his wives.
To the extent that pets have humanized presidents as persons, they have also protected their owners as politicians. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced re-election for a fourth term, for example, Republican opponents claimed he’d sent a Naval Destroyer to the Aleutian Islands merely to return his dog, Fala, to Washington. His “Fala Speech,” delivered to a DC Labor Union and broadcast over radio, codified the limits of political warfare in animal terms. “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons,” he began. “No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks…but Fala does resent them.”
It was a comedic speech, which had the audience “laughing and cheering and calling for more,” according to Doris Kearns Goodwin in her biography of the Roosevelts, No Ordinary Time. But the Fala speech also encapsulated a deep truth about the role of pets in the White House: Dogs are depoliticized symbols, too domestic and innocent for the vicissitudes of partisanry. But this status is what imbues the pet with its political purchase. The four-legged inhabitants of the White House serve as political tools by virtue of their anti-politics, a homo sacer that gains its status from not being human at all.
In 1952, Richard Nixon was embroiled in controversy over illicit campaign funding when he served as Eisenhower’s running mate in the presidential election. At the time, he delivered his “Checkers speech,” saying, “there is one thing that I did get as a gift that I’m not going to give back.” He was speaking of Checkers, the Cocker Spaniel he’d recently given his daughters.
More than fifty years later, in 2008, as opposition to the Iraq War increased, George W. Bush quipped, “I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney,” his Scottish Terrier, “are the only ones supporting me.” His mother, Barbara, meanwhile, filled the role that Karen Pence is now taking, writing a pseudo-autobiography for her and H.W.’s English Springer, Millie. Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush rose to #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list in 1990.
Hillary Clinton was less successful in her turn as First-Pet ghost author. She and Bill adopted a dog, Buddy, in 1997, and already had a cat named Socks. Unfortunately, the interspecies dynamic was fraught, and revelations of Socks and Buddy’s relationship woes arose at the same time as the reveal of the President and First Lady’s. As the Lewinsky affair unfolded, many speculated that the pets served as a political cover. A few weeks before Clinton’s impeachment hearing began, Hillary Clinton released Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, which was perhaps an epistolatory attempt to portray first-familial unity. Of the roughly half a million copies printed for the first release, only 350,000 sold.
Most of all, there appears to be a unique bifurcation in the Trump presidency between the political and the private. His personal life pre-presidency has been more visible than almost any Commander-in-Chief’s, but he worked in the White House alone for six months before Melania and Barron left New York to join him. This December, the White House released its Christmas card, featuring the text “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” above embossed golden signatures from Donald, Melania, and Barron Trump next to a presidential seal. The cold simplicity is in stark contrast to Obama’s message a year prior—“As we gather around this season, may the warmth and joy of the holidays fill your home,” framed by a pop-out model of the White House above and the signature of his family, along with two dog footprints for Sunny and Bo.
Perhaps Trump’s petless White House intentionally reflects the politics of a profit-maximizing CEO draining the swamp of such elitist frivolities. Or it might reflect a machismo-driven, maverick POTUS who avoids shrouding his tenure in the kind of domestic warmth that past presidents have cultivated through the role of the first lady, children, and pets. Or Trump could just hate pets, perhaps irrationally, as evidenced in his strange use of canine analogies, and in Ivana Trump’s memoir.
The Trump presidency, with its blurry division of personal and political motives gives a Janus-faced nature to the question of intentionality. Did Trump tap into a deep realm in the American psyche that wanted a politician defined by what politicians are not, with no baby kissing, pet owning, or bill passing? Is he an unstable megalomaniac who got lucky in a close election, and whose unpredictable personality now dominates? The pet problem does not offer us answers to these questions, but it shows the ways in which Trump’s presidency has transformed the questions we ask.
Trump Administration critics might say: “Who cares about the president’s dog?” Though the focus on Trump’s lack of pets differentiates him from prior presidents, it is potentially distracting from the realities of his actions. And so ironically, the lack of a pet in Trump’s White House might serve the same function as the presence of a pet did for past presidents. For those who feel threatened by Trump’s actions, the media obsession with the paucity of paws in the new administration may feel painfully like the tail wagging the dog.