An Angry Letter Reveals the Fiction of the Two Trumps

The president’s allies have long asked the public to distinguish between the president’s tweets and his official acts.

Andrew Harnik / AP

For most of the impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump has passed on opportunities to mount a formal defense of his conduct. Initially, the White House complained that House Democrats were not affording him chances to defend himself. Once they did, he eschewed them, declining to participate in House Judiciary hearings, and refusing to allow testimony from witnesses who (his allies claimed) might vindicate him.

Trump hasn’t been silent, of course—he’s railed against the inquiry publicly, and complained loudly in his somehow ever more prolific tweets. Today, however, on the eve of a vote that’s almost certain to impeach him, the president directly involved himself in a way he hasn’t since early October—when his White House counsel vowed that the administration would not cooperate—in the form of a remarkable letter.

The six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a wild ride. The president veers among incoherent semantic lament (“You have cheapened the importance of the very ugly word, impeachment!”), bald-faced lies (about former Vice President Joe Biden’s actions in Ukraine), self-righteous whining (“You did not recant. You did not ask to be forgiven. You showed no remorse, no capacity for self-reflection”), and atrocious misrepresentation of history (“More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials”).

In other words: It’s more of the same. Much more. (At least his letter to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was brief.)

For the most part, the letter is a farrago of common complaints the president has issued in rallies and on his Twitter feed. The president may be most comfortable at 280 characters, but he can expand to six pages given the opportunity. But even though the substance is recycled, the letter is notable because it’s an official communication, on White House letterhead.

Throughout the Trump presidency, his reluctant allies have asked the public to imagine that there are effectively two Trumps. Let’s call them Mr. Trump and President Trump. Mr. Trump says unhinged and unwise things at his rallies and tweets wildly. President Trump, meanwhile, is a dignified and relatively normal commander in chief. When Mr. Trump tweets something wacky, Republicans say they deal only with President Trump. Adopting a tactic popularized by former Speaker Paul Ryan, members of Congress will often insist that they don’t read Twitter.

When Mr. Trump heads off on self-destructive flights of fancy, Republican apologists try to redirect attention to President Trump’s actions—judicial appointments, regulatory rollbacks, and so on—and plead with people to ignore the rallies and social-media missives.

The White House has embraced this distinction, too. Sure, Mr. Trump loudly trumpeted his plans to ban Muslims from entering the United States, but government lawyers asked courts to ignore those statements and instead consider only the official paper trail of documentation that the administration created to support a ban after President Trump took office.

During the impeachment inquiry, Republicans have asked the public to accept President Trump’s assurances that his shadow foreign policy in Ukraine was simply a result of his executing the duties of his office, and to ignore the many statements from Mr. Trump that make clear he was seeking personal political advantage.

The idea of two Trumps has always been a thin fiction, and the letter to Pelosi rips through it like tissue. It’s Mr. Trump in his voice, while sitting at President Trump’s desk in the Oval Office and using his official stationery. The abandonment of any pretense of separation comes, as Trump correctly notes, at a historic moment. There can hardly be a more somber moment than the impeachment of a president, and this is how he responds to the moment. With apologies to Attorney General William Barr, this is the real unitary executive: There’s only ever been one Trump.