The transcript of Donald Trump’s interview yesterday with the New York Times runs over 7,000 words. But you can boil down its essence to two words: I’m better. No matter what the subject, Trump finds someone to compare himself to. And in every comparison, he comes out the winner.
The Times reporters start the interview by asking Trump about health care, where the Senate—by refusing to even vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare—has handed him a major defeat. Trump doesn’t admit any mistakes. He barely mentions the substance of the bill. Instead, he immediately compares himself to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In the fourth sentence of the interview, he declares that, “Hillary Clinton worked eight years in the White House with her husband as president and having majorities and couldn’t get it done.”
Trump never acknowledges that Clinton was trying to pass an entirely different health-care bill. He doesn’t compare the merits of her legislation versus his. The comparison is purely political: She had eight years and couldn’t pass health care. I’ve had only six months. So I’m better.
The Obama comparison is trickier, since Obama actually did pass health-care reform. Again, Trump offers no substantive comparison between the bill Obama passed and the replacement he supports. He latches onto the fact that it took Obama longer. “How long did it take to get Obamacare?” he asks the reporters. Maggie Haberman answers: “Fourteen months.” Satisfied, Trump declares that, “I’m here less than six months.” So Trump has failed to reform health care in less time than it took Obama to succeed. But since the comparison is now not even about success or failure but about who succeeded or failed first, Trump has won again.
A little later, Michael Schmidt of the Times asked, “How’s [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to work with?” Trump again sets up a comparison: “It’s been a tough process for him.” Then he adds that, “This health care is a tough deal. I said it from the beginning.” (Actually, he said it would be “so easy.”)
The implication: Health-care reform’s failure hurts McConnell more than me. I always knew it might not work. I’m more politically savvy.
Then Trump adds: “These guys [presumably Senators] couldn’t believe it, how much I know about it. I know a lot about health care. [garbled] This is a very tough time for him.”
Implication: I know more about health care than McConnell. So I’m better in that way too.
The reporters then turn to Trump’s trip to France. Haberman notes that, “You look like you were enjoying yourself.” Trump immediately turns to another comparison. “So I go to Poland and make a speech. Enemies of mine in the media, enemies of mine are saying it was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president.” That’s almost certainly a lie. But no matter. Trump is now a better orator than all his predecessors.
Haberman asks about Trump’s relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron. Trump’s reply: “He’s a great guy. Smart. Strong. Loves holding my hand.” And then: “People don’t realize he loves holding my hand.” And yet again: “I think he is going to be a terrific president of France. But he does love holding my hand.”
Implication: Macron is great. But he’s desperate to hold my hand. So I’m top dog.
From there, Trump goes on at some length about the wonders of the Bastille Day Parade before veering unprompted into a conversation about German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “She actually called me, and she said, um, ‘You know, I think we get along very well.’ I said we do, we really do. I said, ‘You gotta put more money into NATO,’ No. 1. And No. 2 is like, our trade imbalance is ridiculous.”
Implication: Merkel loves me. But I scolded her about NATO and trade. So I dominate that relationship too.
A while later, Schmidt turns the conversation back to domestic affairs. “The markets,” he notes, “are doing great.” Trump says it’s because he’s cut regulations more than any president in history: “I heard that Harry Truman was first, and then we beat him.”
Eventually, Peter Baker focuses on the Russia scandal. He mentions the email that said Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer “is part of Russia and its government’s support of Mr. Trump” and asks “what do you interpret that to mean?”
Trump responds with another comparison to Hillary Clinton: “Hillary did the reset. Somebody was saying today, and then I read, where Hillary Clinton was dying to get back with Russia. Her husband made a speech, got half a million bucks while she was secretary of state. She did the uranium deal, which is a horrible thing, while she was secretary of state, and got a lot of money.”
Implication: No matter what happened between my campaign and Russia, what Hillary did was worse.
Trump goes on to say that “She was opposed to sanctions, strongly opposed to sanctions on Russia.” Trying to understand what Trump is referring to, Haberman asks, “This is post-Crimea, I’m assuming?” Which reminds Trump of another comparison: “Don’t forget, Crimea was given away during Obama. Not during Trump.”
Trump forgets that the question was about Russia. He’s thinking about Obama: “He didn’t talk tough to North Korea. You know, we have a big problem with North Korea. Big. Big, big. You look at all of the things, you look at the line in the sand. The red line in the sand in Syria. He didn’t do the shot. I did the shot.”
Implication: I bombed when Obama would not. I’m tougher.
Baker goes back to the Russia email. “How did you … interpret it?”
Trump mentions that the email concerned misbehavior by the Democrats. And he’s off to the races again: “It was an illegal act done by the DNC, or the Democrats … some pretty horrific things came out of that.”
Implication: Whatever our campaign did, the Democrats did worse.
Schmidt then asks about the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump blames Mueller’s appointment on Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have—which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself?”
The person who actually triggered Mueller’s appointment was Trump himself. When he told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had fired FBI Director James Comey because was frustrated by the Russia investigation—thus virtually admitting to obstruction of justice—he essentially forced Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel. But Trump exonerates himself by way of comparison. Who was most responsible for Mueller’s appointment? Sessions, by recusing himself and putting the decision in Rosenstein’s hands.
Near the end of the interview, the Times reporters make one last effort to get Trump to address the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. Baker notes that just after the meeting, Trump said he would give a speech about Clinton’s corrupt dealings with Russia. And Trump responds with one last comparison: “She deleted and bleached … 33,000 emails. I talked about the back of the plane, I talked about the uranium deal, I talked about the speech that Russia gave Clinton—$500,000 while she was secretary of state.”
Implication, yet again: Whatever we did, Clinton was worse.
Why the endless comparisons? First, they allow Trump to continually shift the definition of success. Did his effort at health-care reform fail? Not if the metric is speed; Clinton and Obama took longer. Did his top campaign officials do something wrong in welcoming Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton? Not compared to Clinton, who deleted 33,000 emails and gave Russia America’s uranium.
Second, by endlessly comparing himself to other people, Trump turns the conversation away from policy. What matters about health-care reform isn’t its impact on ordinary Americans. It’s what it says about which president is more successful. From the Russia scandal to the Syrian military strike to holding hands with Emmanuel Macron, Trump turns almost everything into a parable about who is superior to who.
Remember Trump’s technique during the primaries. He was more honest than Ted Cruz (“lying Ted”), more vigorous than Jeb Bush (“low energy”) and taller—yes, taller—than Marco Rubio (“little Marco”). The significance of the comparison is always secondary. What matters is that Trump comes out on top.