Trump’s Unending Ability to Astonish

The most disorienting thing about the president isn’t that he lies so often but that he so often tells the truth.

Evan Vucci / AP

“We never had a more beautiful set than this, did we?” said Donald Trump Sunday night, looking very pleased. He was sitting, implausibly, at the feet of Abraham Lincoln—or rather, at the feet of Lincoln’s statue in the Lincoln Memorial—to take questions for a Fox News virtual town hall. The vast marble chamber was spookily lit to highlight Lincoln’s angled, impassive visage and our current president’s sumptuous corona, if you’ll pardon the expression, of tangerine hair.

The first question came from one of the two Fox anchors, Bret Baier, who wondered what the president would say to the opposing sides of the country’s many cultural fault lines: those who think it’s too early and unsafe to go back to work, and those who think the business shutdowns have gone on too long.

Trump’s capacity to astonish even his most jaded viewers is bottomless. Politicians love to accuse their rivals of “trying to have it both ways,” as if it were a capital offense against logic and leadership. A politician who really does want to have it both ways (and they all do) will scold his rivals for creating a “false choice.” (Barack Obama used the phrase so often, he could make it the name of his fishing boat.) But no politician in his right mind, under any circumstances, would ever dare to—

“I think you can have it both ways,” Trump said. At these moments his insouciance glows about him as brightly as his corona. Then, as a way to explain how that could actually happen, he answered by simply rephrasing the original question at much greater length and ending in midair, dropping to Earth with an authoritative “So I understand that very well.”

Another, less pressing question that went unanswered in Sunday night’s town hall was why, precisely, the hell these people were sitting in the Lincoln Memorial. Baier, understandably protective of his reputation as one of Fox’s bona fide journalists, wanted it understood that holding “this virtual town hall” in “this hallowed place” was the president’s idea. For his part, the president made clear that his aesthetic appreciation of the memorial runs deep.

“Aside from the fact that this was a great man [meaning Lincoln], this is a great work of art,” the president said. “That’s one of the greatest sculptures, one of the greatest statues, to me, anywhere in the world. And you can go to Italy, you can go anywhere. [Just not right now.] That’s, to me, one of the greats.” In a word: fabulous.

But as the town hall progressed, it became clear why President Trump wanted to sit with President Lincoln: They are brothers in arms against an unforgiving press corps. One sympathetic questioner, appearing by video, combined a plea with a question: Why does he “not directly answer the questions asked by the press but instead speak of past successes and generally ramble”?

“Look,” Trump said, “I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen. The closest would be that gentleman right up there. They always said Lincoln—nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”

Then he mentioned a parade of boats that went up the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida that afternoon shouting his name, which led him to mention his rebuilding of the military, which led him to his reform of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which led to a mysterious reference to “civil service in the unions,” followed by the Space Force, Qassem Soleimani, and the vanquishing of the ISIS caliphate, all by way of answering his questioner’s request that he stop rambling. I believe his answer was “no.”

The hostile press is never far from the president’s mind. The mutual contempt between Trump and most of the reporters who cover him has been offered as an explanation for his decision to discontinue his haunting and compelling coronavirus briefings. This misimpression was corrected by the president in an interview Monday with the New York Post. He told his interviewers that the briefings would resume, but with less frequency and in an altered form. This was before he announced that he might disband the coronavirus task force itself, as a natural adjustment to the evolving nature of the crisis. The task force had provided him with a rotating cast of supporting characters, a half-dozen Ethels to his own redheaded Lucy.

Why continue a spectacle for the press that many journalists themselves said wasn’t worthy of television? Simple. “We set every record with those press conferences,” he told the Post. “Six million people all the time. You know, we had tremendous numbers.” He said the “combative attitude” between himself and the press contributed to the ratings success: “I would say from the standpoint of watching it and wanting to watch, that would be more interesting than having boring questions asked.”

The most disorienting thing about the Trump presidency isn’t that he lies so often but that he so often tells the truth. The Post interview, with its bald admission of whoring after viewers, offered fresh evidence, and there’s been much more in the past 36 hours.

The great story of this month is the reopening of American businesses, now or later, here and there, and Trump, unlike many of his critics, has faced the fact that the reopening, whenever it happens, will exact dreadful costs.

In Phoenix yesterday, he gave an interview to David Muir of ABC. Muir asked him, “Do you believe that’s the reality we’re facing—that lives will be lost to reopen the country?”

Trump nodded. “It’s possible there will be some,” he said. He’d said as much to Bret Baier at the Lincoln Memorial. “There’s no win here,” he said. “Just so we all understand, there is no win. This is not a situation where there’s a win.”

In other words: We cannot, in fact, have it both ways.