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Trump now says he 'should have left' Americans in Chinese jail

A year after his election, Donald Trump still doesn't understand the basics of public service.
Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
epa06257124 US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks to members of the news media while hosting former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (not pictured)...

As a rule, when two people are trying to generate more attention for themselves, I'm inclined to look the other way, but I think there's something notable about Donald Trump's latest attempt at starting a public feud.

President Donald Trump on Sunday fired off a Twitter tirade against the outspoken father of one of the UCLA basketball players arrested on suspicion of shoplifting while touring in China.Trump called the young man "ungrateful" for his favor and said he should have left the players in jail."Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!" Trump said on Twitter Sunday morning.

The president added yesterday, "Shoplifting is a very big deal in China, as it should be (5-10 years in jail), but not to father LaVar. Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!"

If you haven't been following this mess, three UCLA basketball players, in China for a recent tournament, were arrested for shoplifting, which became something of an international incident. As part of his Asia-Pacific tour, Donald Trump reportedly brought up the incident to Chinese President Xi Jinping, asked for the matter to be resolved, and soon after, the young men returned to the United States.

Because Trump is dignity-averse, he publicly called on the athletes to thank him. They did, and the president tweeted his satisfaction with their gratitude.

But when one of the athlete's fathers criticized the president, Trump changed his mind, and said he should have left the young Americans in a Chinese jail.

And while I don't much care about every instance in which the president puts his pettiness on display, Trump is telling the public something important with his latest tantrum.

To be sure, this is a story with multiple angles. We talked the other day, for example, about Trump's creepy preoccupation with being publicly thanked. We could also emphasize the pattern of the president lashing out publicly at black athletes -- which continued again this morning.

There's also the president's apparent belief that a 5-to-10-year prison sentence is an appropriate punishment for shoplifters.

But as Trump's whining continued over the weekend, the point that nagged at me was the president's profound confusion about the point of public service.

Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist and former aide to Mitt Romney, responded to this story by explaining, "This is on emotional spectrum of a troubled child. Elected officials don't help the taxpayers they work for because they expect praise. They do it because it's their job."

I realize that this president often struggles to understand the nuances of his responsibilities, but this isn't especially complicated: for generations, U.S. officials have worked on behalf of Americans, not for glory or public displays of gratitude, but out of a desire to serve.

Trump did something worthwhile by taking steps to free those three Americans from a Chinese jail -- in other words, the president did his job -- but now he regrets it because the father of one of those Americans hurt his feelings.

Yes, this makes Trump appear alarmingly small. And yes, this reminds us that the president has the temperament of a spoiled child. But this incident also makes clear that in Trump's mind, public service is a vanity exercise. He's willing to do the right thing, but only if he's rewarded with gratitude and praise.

Without them, Trump is inclined to ignore Americans' needs. Indeed, in his mind, the president's work is inherently transactional: he'll protect our interests, and in exchange, we'll acknowledge his greatness and satisfy his ego. Those who fail to live up to their end of the bargain, evidently, are unworthy of his efforts.

There is nothing like this in the American tradition.