This week began with angry Trump, but, don’t worry, it ended with the president as a happy man.
There he was Monday evening, jaw set in the familiar simian rictus, marching from the White House across Lafayette Square, with a cloud of flunkies and Secret Service agents trailing him. His path had just been cleared of inconvenient citizens by phalanxes of cops using tear gas in hopes of making the president’s walk in the park as pleasant and uneventful as a walk in the park. Still he scowled. Having crossed the square, he drew to a stop in front of the boarded-up parish house of St. John’s Church. The parish house was boarded up because someone had set fire to its basement during protests the night before. Maybe that’s why Trump was scowling. You can never tell. In any case, a Bible appeared and the president turned toward the cameras, hoisting it upside down. He pointed at it with his free hand. “A Bible,” he explained. Then he went home.
His critics quickly dismissed this episode as a mere “photo op.” The term was a favorite of the Episcopal bishop, who seemed angrier at Trump for using her church as a “prop” than at the arsonists who tried to burn it to cinders. Photo op, like talking point, is a generic, off-the-shelf insult, easily turned around and seldom effective. Photo ops are one of the primary means by which every president since Theodore Roosevelt has tried to impress the public. What made Trump’s photo op bizarre was that nobody could make out what it was supposed to mean.
His beleaguered but always game press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, gave it a try in a briefing Wednesday. She wasn’t much help. The president’s stroll was a “leadership moment,” she said. (Just as photo op is a boneless insult, leadership is a boneless compliment.) “Look,” she said, “the President wanted to send a very powerful message that we will not be overcome by looting, by rioting, by burning.”
And indeed we won’t be, so long as each of us is surrounded by armed guards and has our path cleared by hundreds of policemen in riot gear. McEnany compared the president’s photo op to other leadership moments, such as “Jimmy Carter putting on a sweater to encourage energy savings.” A photo op is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s no good.
A certain kind of person, if he makes a mistake, thinks he can convince people it wasn’t a mistake by quickly repeating it with confidence and élan. Musicians do this all the time when they’re improvising, and some are hailed for their genius. That trick is riskier for politicians. The day after he was widely denounced for symbolically saving St. John’s Church from arson, Trump corralled his wife and drove up to another religious site, this one run by Catholics, compounding his errors of taste and tactic and lending them an ecumenical flair. The president and first lady clenched hands and grinned—well, the president grinned; the first lady looked as if she wished she’d never left Slovenia—outside the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in northeast Washington. Then they went home.
Again, the reasoning behind the president’s trip was unclear. And again, the designated prelate unloaded on him.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible,” the archbishop of the diocese of Washington said in a written statement, “that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree.”
The archbishop was giving the president too much credit—a mistake Trump critics often make. No one could say that the president’s purpose was inappropriately political for the simple reason that nobody could say what his purpose was. He uttered not a word. He scarcely opened his mouth. Later in the day, staff at the shrine explained that the trip had originally been marked on the White House calendar as the occasion for the president to sign an executive order about religious freedom around the world. As executive orders go, this is about as salutary and unobjectionable a cause as anyone could ask for. Yet it went completely unpublicized.
As it happened, the president signed the order when he got back to the White House, in private, without public comment. Perhaps he just wanted to go for a drive. We’re all getting cabin fever.
And then Trump went to ground. His official schedule was light, and the few events that appeared on it—“1:15: The President has lunch with the Secretary of State”—would have been interesting to only the most passionate Trump obsessives. At last the president emerged in the Rose Garden Friday morning, under a blazing sun in high humidity, with a flight of financial advisers arrayed behind him. He arrived in the wake of genuinely good news, the first good news in weeks, it seemed—months, for that matter, maybe years. Rather than the expected further decline in employment, the economy somehow added a couple million jobs last month, and the unemployment rate dropped from 14.7 to 13.3 percent when “economists’ expectations” were that it would rise to 19 or even 20 percent. Had we at last touched bottom? The president was determined that it should be so.
The effect was disorienting. The president came to the Rose Garden to sign the latest pandemic-relief bill. Spending public money—he often speaks of it as his own—always lifts his spirits, but the combination of good news, sunshine, and three days of public silence unleashed an effusion of words and good feeling we’ve rarely seen before, certainly in the past months. The dam broke. Trump spoke for nearly 40 minutes without pause, a rapturous soliloquy of almost 6,000 words. He barely spoke of George Floyd or the protests—although he called it “a great day for him”—but he did queue up his greatest hits in a playlist that never ends. “We Had the Greatest Economy in the History of the World,” and “We Stopped People Coming From China (Very Early On).” “The Greatest Economy [Part Two].” “We May Have Some Embers—But We Will Put Them Out.” “What Happened Should Never Have Happened.” “The Cupboards Were Empty.” “The Greatest Economy [Remastered].” Also, a new, unexpected release: “Thank You Very Much to the Democrats.”
He had a text in front of him, prepared remarks that he would occasionally read verbatim and then provide commentary on. He glanced at the text. “It is time for us,” he read, “to work together as we rebuild, renew, and recover the great promise of America.” A brief pause, a look around. “And that’s true!” he improvised, as if taken by surprise with an odd sensation. It was a measure of the president’s delight with the good news that many of his other hits—dirges really—went completely unsung: The moodiness of “No Collusion,” for example, or the dark, driving “Greatest Scandal in the History of Our Country.” Behind him, the yes-men sweltered under the punishing sun, swaying slightly like a stand of poplars, and I thought of Alec Guinness and his fellow officers in The Bridge on the River Kwai, struggling to stay upright in the Japanese prison yard.
But there was more. The president signed the legislation and then invited others to come to the podium to share the good cheer and offer praise. They obliged, he accepted.
“I’ll be brief as I can,” said Lawrence Kudlow, the president’s economic adviser (he played one on TV). “I know it’s pretty darn hot.”
The president looked around again. “I haven’t noticed it,” he said. Nothing could defeat his happiness. “Is it hot?” He shrugged, and beamed.