This week was notable for its lack of coronavirus briefings, which have held us in their grip for more than a month. Once a source of pride, they were exposing President Donald Trump, he discovered finally, as a figure of fun. In their place, the White House arranged a series of well-orchestrated events for him, away from the pressroom. The method suggested a discipline and sobriety unseen from this administration since the pandemic began—since Inauguration Day 2017, for that matter. This week seemed (my fingers tremble to type the word) normal. At least as normal as can be mustered in these troublesome times.
Yet more than once, my mind, what’s left of it, went back to an anecdote involving George S. Kaufman, the great playwright of the 1920s and ’30s. He was talking with friends one evening backstage at a performance of his latest Broadway hit. The show starred the Marx Brothers, who were famous for their endless improvisations. Suddenly, Kaufman hushed his companions. “My God,” Kaufman said in shock, “I think I just heard something I wrote!”
Having long ago served as a speechwriter myself, that story returns during those delirious moments when I imagine the plight of Trump’s speechwriters. Putting words in the mouth of a man whose mouth already overflows with words of his own must make for a life of constant frustration. Consider Wednesday afternoon, when the president met in the White House with business executives to discuss the plan for “opening up America again.”
I imagine the young speechwriters, their newly composed words now printed on the paper the president carries. They listen in remotely, from a speaker in their office across the street.
“Well, thank you very much, everybody,” the president says, by way of introduction. “A lot of progress is being made, as you see. And we’re reopening our country, and it’s very exciting.”
The speechwriters shrug at the modesty of their work. It’s not Churchill, but what the hell?
And then suddenly, without a pause: “And it should never have happened.”
Ten seconds into the prepared remarks and already I can see the startled speechwriters staring at the ceiling, or one another: What should never have happened?
“This plague should never have happened,” the president continues, his tone hardening. “It could have been stopped, but people chose not to stop it. It’s a very sad thing for the world—184 countries, at least.”
The writers glance hopelessly at their original text and drop their copies in the recycling bin, as the president resumes, in a lighter tone: “But it’s a great honor to have you with us, friends of mine.”
The idea that the pandemic should never have happened—and that some people chose not to stop it—was a theme on the presidential mind this week. But there were many themes, as there so often are with the president.
He had ended the week before on a sour note. At the close of his usual Friday coronavirus briefing, on April 24, he turned smartly on his heel and declined to receive any questions from the press. In the previous 24 hours, a torrent of mockery and abuse had rained down on him—how to describe it?—the likes of which the world had never seen before in human history. (Everybody knows it.) The cause of the ridicule, of course, was his musing on the uses to which disinfectant and UV rays might be put in retarding the coronavirus. The musing, you’ll recall, was unorthodox.
The mockery was vicious, even by the standards of the Trump era. But did it, for the first time, sting its target? We cannot know. Away from the pressroom, the president fired up his Twitter account. What poured out was his disgust not only for his mockers in the press but for the very idea of briefings, the venue that had enabled his own unfortunate improvisations.
“What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately,” he wrote. “Not worth the time & effort.”
Among the facts that the press had refused to report was the president’s newly discovered gift for sarcasm. Sarcasm, he insisted, had led him to his odd thoughts on the uses of Lysol and sunlight; it was another sarcastic joke, he said, when in a subsequent tweet he urged journalists who had won the “Noble prize” for their reporting on the “Russian hoax” to return it.
The rarity here was not that the president was lying about what he’d said and why he had said it. Anyone who watched the video of his original comments could see how earnest and hope-filled—how far from sarcasm—he was in pondering the wonders of disinfectant. The rarity was that he felt it necessary to explain himself after the fact. He seemed to be saying: I’m not stupid, and I know how to spell. I just have a sense of humor too sophisticated for the average reporter to grasp. Sarcasm! Sure, that’s the ticket.
Evidently, Trump and the people around him thought that at last it was time for something else. The president avoided the pressroom and surrounded himself throughout the week with CEOs, owners and employees of businesses large and small, and, one by one, friendly and appreciative governors (two of them Democrats!). The changes were immediately apparent. Trump’s demeanor was imperturbable; when he took press questions, he declined the bait of even the most provocative. His remarks, notwithstanding the unavoidable, Marxian improvisations, opened with expressions of mourning and condolence for the country’s loved and lost—expressions he has been weirdly reluctant to make in the past. His final White House event of the week was a moving display of ordinary citizens who have distinguished themselves with acts of charity in the midst of the pandemic.
Most unexpected of all, his newly minted press secretary, a future Fox News host named Kayleigh McEnany, gave what resembled a traditional press briefing—the first one in more than 100 days. She was direct and knowledgeable and friendly. Clouds seemed to part.
Don’t misunderstand. No week of Trump-watching will lack for oddities. The sudden, dark self-interruptions—it should never have happened—were heard in every speech. The man who once declared “we’re doing health” when he hoped to replace the Affordable Care Act continued to speak in signature shorthand: Referring to Sweden, he said, “They’re going herd.” (The Swedes are hoping to achieve herd immunity.) On energy policy: “I’m all for green. But the green can’t power these massive factories.” (Can the orange?) The improvised incoherence, which can be almost charming if you’re in the right mood, still managed to be tone-deaf. His irrepressible egoism turns things upside down, and the optimism and boosterism he strains to convey curdle. “Our death totals,” he said Thursday, “our numbers, per million people, are really very, very strong. We’re very proud of the job we’ve done.” U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
And yet no one should underestimate how unexpected the week was: a series of well-planned public events with dovetailed messages, expressions of empathy for the victims of national calamity, the appearance of an articulate and well-informed press agent to tease a string of rationality from her boss’s rambling, and even a boss who seemed to develop the unwonted skill of forcing himself to stop talking.
Was this all the result of a chastened Trump—a human Trump so bruised and battered by international mockery that he felt it necessary to take stock? An unreflective man moved at last to self-reflection, goaded by interior whispers of doubt in his own unerring instinct and wisdom?
If this is so, can we all of us, not only his speechwriters but civilians too, see a return in this time of crisis to a mode of national leadership that approaches (again the fingers tremble) the normal? Is such a thing possible?