President Donald Trump began his week with a staggering admission. Seemingly off the cuff, he announced that he was taking the drug hydroxychloroquine.
What followed was a public debate strange even by present standards. Was the president telling the truth, or was he lying, in a sly provocation, to annoy reporters who have fetishized his recurring promotion of the drug?
The evidence that the president was lying was strong. His lips were moving, for one thing. For another, he was vague and even self-contradictory about how long he’d been taking the drug and why. A statement issued later by his doctor was meant to serve as a confirmation, but never explicitly asserted that he had prescribed the drug for the president. And Trump is famously squeamish about ingesting foreign substances. A man who says he’s never allowed an intoxicant to pass his lips doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would submit his body as a test tube in a one-off nonclinical trial of a controversial drug.
A strong case for the skeptics!
And yet I have come to take the president at his word. Trump has a jumbo-size tolerance for risk. As a businessman, he was a high-wire act, swinging from one bankruptcy and defaulted loan to the next with scarcely a glance at the abyss yawning below him. His diet of taco bowls and Quarter Pounders and gobbets of ketchup washed away in rivers of Diet Coke is what you’d expect from an orphan boy with a bit of pocket money. He refuses any exercise more salubrious than stepping into and out of a golf cart. Maskless in the White House, he inhales unfiltered the vapors of the yes-men who surround him. With unsettling regularity, the man tempts fate—his own and ours.
Perhaps the most decisive evidence that he told the truth lies in the circumstances under which the president made his admission. He showed no trace of premeditation. He had finished a chummy meeting with restaurant owners in the White House. As is his wont, he opened the floor to questions from the press pool. If he had been planning to drop the hydroxy bomb on the assembled reporters, the subject would probably have been top of mind, leading him to raise it first thing.
But for President Trump, “top of mind” is a penthouse with a rapid and never-ending turnover in tenants. Any question can lead to any answer. At the restaurant meeting, the first question he was asked concerned Attorney General William Barr’s unwillingness to open a criminal investigation into Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Several questions followed, about Trump’s aide Peter Navarro, the World Health Organization, the secretary of state, Saudi Arabia’s arms deals, the possible economic recovery, and the role of inspectors general in the federal government.
Then he was asked about one of his recent tweets: that the “whole whistleblower racket” needed to be “looked at.” His answer led him, led us all, to an unexpected place.
“Sure,” the president replied. “I had a fake whistleblower originally.”
The originally was mysterious. Did he mean that, at the beginning, his whistleblower was fake, but then he got a subsequent whistleblower who was genuine, or that the whistleblower began as a fake but grew more authentic over time? The following sentences offered no clue.
“Because when he looked at my—he wrote down a conversation that was totally different from the conversation I actually had with the president of Ukraine. It was a fake whistleblower.”
Then came a “by the way.” In Trump soliloquies, by the way serves as a kind of turn signal, alerting his audience to a sharp change in direction, 90 degrees or more. “By the way, everybody knows who he is. He’s a political operative.” Then he drew back to offer an overview: “It was a phony, disgraceful period of time.”
From here, the president turned his focus—no, that’s not the word I want—his attention to the inspector general who brought the original fake whistleblower’s report to Congress. Unless you closely followed the details of impeachment (and, more miraculously, managed to remember them), you wouldn’t have the slightest idea what the president was going on about. His own mention of impeachment led him to dwell on the unanimous support he received from congressional Republicans. “Other than a half vote from Romney—and Romney is a, you know, loser.”
He returned to the fake whistleblower, which drew him inexorably, undeniably, to a discussion of Adam Schiff—“Shifty Schiff.” Again, someone unfamiliar with Schiff’s Inspector Javert–like pursuit of the president wouldn’t know what Trump was talking about. “Shifty Schiff went up before Congress … So he made a statement that was totally different from what I said. You know that. Eight times ‘quid pro quo.’ There were no quid pro quos. Nothing. Zero. Eight times—over and over again.”
At last, three minutes into his answer, after insisting that Schiff should have been thrown in jail, the president assumed an air of c’est-la-vie resignation.
“So, you know, that’s the way it goes. So you had a phony whistleblower.”
And then suddenly—no turn signals this time, just a screech of tires, the smell of rubber, another hard right turn, crossing multiple lanes of onrushing traffic: “And this other guy with the hydroxychloroquine—okay?—well, he—he went out and he’s the one that approved the hydroxychloroquine … The very important form, he signed it. Now, if he doesn’t believe in it, why would he sign it?”
Working journalists and proficient telepaths knew that by he, the president was referring to Rick Bright, a public-health official who was giving testimony to Congress about the emergency approval of hydroxychloroquine, an approval Bright himself had signed.
The president went on. “And a lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy. A lot of good things have come out. You’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the frontline workers …”
A slight pause. “I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.”
Say what you want about members of the White House press corps. It is a sign of utmost professionalism that none of them, upon hearing the president say this, reeled backward in the manner of Ralph Kramden, exclaiming, “Homina, homina, homina …”
As for the president, the exchange revealed a quality of his that is too seldom remarked upon: his insouciance. When he becomes entranced by the sound of his own voice, lulled by the meanderings of his line of thought, his insouciance often leads him into saying things that are true—candid admissions that he then desperately tries to justify.
“The frontline workers,” he said, “many, many are taking it.”
And: “Frontline workers take it.”
And: “A lot of frontline workers are taking hydroxychloroquine.”
And: “Many frontline workers take it.”
Eventually he gave up and pretended that he’d meant to say it all along. “I would’ve told you that three, four days ago,” he told reporters, “but we never had a chance, because you never asked me the question.”
Of course, they hadn’t asked the question at that moment either. He had been asked about a tweet attacking whistleblowers, and we ended up in a place far, far away.
The next day, the newsletter writers at The New York Times were unimpressed. “Trump claims to be taking an unproven medication,” was their sly phrasing. The president’s press secretary appeared to take offense. “The president said himself he’s taking it,” she said. “The president should be taken at his word.”
In making my case for the president’s authenticity in that moment, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not conclusive. But arguing that Trump was telling the truth provides such a pleasant change of pace.