At last we reach the end of week two of the coronavirus-briefing lockdown. The daily press conference of the White House pandemic task force, with its supporting cast of Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, Mike Pence and Steven Mnuchin orbiting the supernova star of the show, had become must-see hate-viewing for much of the country—both for those who despise the president and for those who revere him and relished the display of petulance and showboating sanctimony offered up by many members of his greatest, and perhaps most outgunned, adversary, the White House press corps. Trumpkins eat that stuff up with a spoon.
And then the briefings were over, called off by the president himself in a bitter tweet. He had evidently made a calculation that they were doing him more harm than good. In their place has come a series of public events of a more conventional character—brief Q&A sessions in the Oval Office, statements from the Rose Garden, roundtables with solicitous business owners and fawning legislators, and an occasional pressroom briefing by his new press secretary, gloating about successes real and imagined, as press secretaries are born to do.
But of course nothing that carries the Trump brand can be conventional. There were switchbacks and zigzags, surprises on top of surprises. Having discontinued the briefings by the task force, the president reasoned that the purpose of the task force itself was therefore exhausted—in keeping with a general belief that its primary value wasn’t to gather expertise and manage federal activity but to hold briefings at which the president could appear. No briefing, no task force! On Tuesday he mentioned offhand that the task force would be winding down; on Wednesday he tweeted that the task force would continue its work and probably grow bigger.
He explained himself to reporters a few hours later, in Trumpian fashion, at an event honoring nurses. He had no idea, he said, that the task force was so “popular.” His answer to the first question about his change of heart came in at just shy of 500 words. Another two questions brought the total up to a thousand, with several familiar stops along the way. He managed a nod to the greatest economy in history, to the greatest mobilization since World War 2, to the awful moment when “they” came to him and said, “We’re going to have to close our country,” to the millions of lives saved “by doing what we did,” plus a brief digression about how N95 masks are made.
But why the change of heart?
“I had a meeting yesterday,” he said. “I had a meeting this morning, probably even more importantly. And so we’ll be leaving the task force [alone] indefinitely.” What meeting yesterday? What meeting this morning? The flurry of words whipped on, and the nature of the mysterious meetings was quickly lost to history. “Nobody has ever turned me down to be on that task force,” he added unhelpfully.
One cause (or is it an effect?) of the president’s garrulousness is his need to load the answer to any question with those set pieces he keeps always at hand, those patented references to the disgraceful Russia hoax and the Mueller investigation and the failure of the Chinese to stop the virus, and so on. By my count, there are more than 20 of these word lumps. They vary in size. They line up in the president’s brain like skydivers at the open door of a plane, ready to be shoved out at any moment. He repeats them with undiminished pleasure and insistence, and seldom with any recognition that everyone within earshot has heard them dozens of times before.
This week will be known to Trumpologists of the future for the addition of a new word lump. It centers on the word “transition.”
“We have a transition third quarter,” Trump said at a Fox News town hall last weekend, speaking of the economy. “We’re going to have a very good fourth quarter. We’re going to have a great next year.”
This is the new lump in larval form, without the president’s embellishment.
Two days later, for a group of Native Americans, it sprouted tiny arms and took on some recognizable features: “I think you’re going to have a tremendous transition, which is a third-quarter thing,” he said. “I think you’re going to have a good fourth quarter. I think next year is going to be an incredible year, economically.”
Two days after that, Trump took questions with Governor Greg Abbott of Texas in the Oval Office:
“I think we both feel we’re going to have a transition period in the third quarter, and we’re going to have a very good fourth quarter. I think next year has a chance to be one of our really great years, economically.”
A few minutes later, it suddenly emerged fully formed:
“I’m viewing the third quarter as … a transition. I think you could almost say a ‘transition into greatness’ because I think next year we’re going to have a phenomenal year—a phenomenal year, economically.”
The next day, the lump was mature enough for the president to lie about it. Like so many Trumpian prevarications, it was superfluous, sent aloft merely for excitement and self-pleasuring.
In a meeting with congressional Republicans, he used the phrase “transition to greatness” a couple of times, rolling it on the tongue like a fine swig of Diet Coke. Then he pretended he had just thought it up on the spot, right there and then.
“It’s a great term,” he said. “It just came out, at this meeting. That’s right, it came out by accident. It was a statement, and it came out, and you can’t get a better one. We could go to Madison Avenue and get the best, the greatest geniuses in the world to come up with a slogan, but that’s the slogan we’re going to use: transition to greatness.”
The wellsprings of creativity are mystifying, and the Republicans must have been pleased to be witnesses to history. But not as pleased as the president himself, topping even the greatest geniuses in the world with his inspiration—if he did say so himself. And he did.