Reporter's Notebook

Trump Nation
Show Description +

An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show None Newer Notes

Two Questions About a Surreal Oval Office Exchange

Canary (left), and cat. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Please read my colleagues Russell Berman, Elaina Plott, and Amanda Mull on the spectacle that took  place this afternoon in the Oval Office.

Like all but a handful of people, I saw this exchange first online, then in TV replays. Here are two body-language questions I wish I’d had the opportunity to judge up close and in person:

  1. Did Donald Trump register that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his “When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble” line?

    I gasped when I saw that the first time. I’m conscious of having seen presidents from John F. Kennedy onward perform on TV, but never before have I seen one of them directly ridiculed by another senior governmental official. (To spell it out, the ridicule was Trump’s boasting about big Senate wins, based on unseating two endangered Democrats in very Republican states. Trump wasn’t talking about the results in West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, etc., nor of course about the House.) The closest comparison might be the labored humor of White House Correspondents Association dinners, in which the featured comedian would give the president—seated a few feet away—a celebrity-roast experience.  But that was ritualized joshing, sometimes more pointed and sometimes less. What Schumer did was impromptu and meant to convey, “Can you believe this guy?”

    That Schumer would dare make this taunt was surprising—though I suppose he could have thought to himself, “We’re two New Yorkers, we’ve known each other for decades, this is give and take.” The more surprising aspect was that Trump, hyper-alert to slights of any sort, didn’t seem to register what had happened at all. He came back with a bland, “Well we did win! We did win North Dakota, and Indiana”—as if Schumer had been challenging him on that factual point. It’s as if the response to “Ooooh, you won a participation award! You must be so proud!” had not been “Shut up!” but “Yes, I did win that.” You can see the back-and-forth starting around time 11:45 of this video.

    Did the president of the United States recognize that the minority leader of the Senate intentionally mocked him, and even turned to the press pool while doing so? From a distance, it appears that Trump did not catch this in real time. I would love to have been there to see for myself.

  2. Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of this extraordinary exchange?

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un
Just two weeks ago, this was the headline news. KCNA via Reuters

It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?

Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.

Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.

His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.

This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:

I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.

Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.

At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.

Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment
Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment Kevin Fogarty / Reuters

In response to this item yesterday, “There’s No Understanding Donald Trump,” other readers weigh in.

As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.

1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:

I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.

You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported.  Absolutely a reality show.

All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.

The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member.  These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about.  But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.

Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.


2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:

Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."

I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.

Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.

For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?

I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.

And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.