Listening Closely to the Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief

Yuri Gripas / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The big hard-news takeaways of President Trump's interview with The New York Times this week were his trashing of his attorney general for being insufficiently corrupt, and the threats he made in the direction of the special counsel investigating him and his circle.

But I'm more interested in examining his mental tics, parsing how he thinks out loud, lying and fantasizing. In September I'm publishing Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History—which concludes with an explanation of how Trump is the ultimate embodiment of several deep strains in America’s national character. So my reading of his conversation with the Times reporters focuses on his specifically Fantasyland traits—the insistence on blamelessness and imaginary conspiracies, the insecurity and braggadocio and narcissism, the ignorance and incoherence, how he's bedazzled by spectacle and show.

The core of his elaborate excuse for failing to pass health-care legislation, for instance, was that it had been impossible for the Clintons a quarter-century ago and hard for Obama in 2010. "Hillary Clinton was in there eight years and they never got Hillarycare, whatever they called it at the time. I am not in here six months, and they’ll say, 'Trump hasn’t fulfilled his agenda.'" In fact, the Clinton administration gave up on health care after a year and a half. "I say to myself, wait a minute, I’m only here a very short period of time compared to Obama. How long did it take to get Obamacare?" Fourteen months, he was informed. "So he was there for more than a year."

Embedded in the health-care apologia was a perfectly incoherent Trumpian digression: "Obama worked so hard," he said. "I mean, ended up giving away the state of Nebraska. They owned the state of Nebraska. Right. Gave it away. Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics. What happened to him?" Apparently somebody informed the president that in 2009, Nebraska's Democratic Senator Ben Nelson made a pork-barrel deal to vote yes on an Obamacare procedural vote. But Trump's retelling of the story is both entirely incoherent and wrong: In no sense have Democrats "owned" Nebraska, Nelson's deal was rescinded, and he had scant influence or seniority and decided left the Senate three years later.

Again and again in the conversation Trump defaulted to conspiracy theories. When he was asked about Donald Trump Jr.'s email exchange setting up the June 2016 meeting with the four or five well-connected Russians, Trump replied with a tale that Fox News had sluiced into the right-wing media stream just the day before. "Well, 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. She was opposing sanctions. She was totally opposed to any sanctions for Russia … I just saw it. I just saw it. She was opposed to sanctions, strongly opposed to sanctions on Russia."

After the takeover of Crimea in 2014, Clinton supported and the Obama administration enacted sanctions on Russia. "This is post-Crimea?" one of the reporters asked. In reply, Trump simply babbled.

"I don’t really know. … But in that time. And don’t forget, Crimea was given away during Obama. Not during Trump. In fact, I was on one of the shows, I said they’re exactly right, they didn’t have it as it exactly. But he was—this—Crimea was gone during the Obama administration."

When one of the interviewers returned to Trump Jr.’s email exchange about Russian election help, the president alluded to a different conspiracy theory.

"Well, I thought originally it might have had to do something with the payment by Russia of the D.N.C. Somewhere I heard that. Like, it was an illegal act done by the D.N.C., or the Democrats. That’s what I had heard. Now, I don’t know where I heard it, but I had heard that it had to do something with illegal acts with respect to the D.N.C. Now, you know, when you look at the kind of stuff that came out, that was, that was some pretty horrific things came out of that. But that’s what I had heard. But I don’t know what it means."

And right after that, when he brought up the intelligence "dossier" about Trump and Russia, the president introduced yet another paranoid theory, this time about why the FBI director briefed him about the dossier before it became public. "I think he shared it so that I would—because the other three people left, and he showed it to me … in my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there." As leverage? "Yeah, I think so."

Concerning James Comey he also illustrated how his astounding narcissism untethers him from the simplest empirical realities.

"You know," Trump said, out of the blue, "when he wrote me the letter, he said, 'You have every right to fire me,' blah blah blah. Right? … I said, that’s a very strange—you know, over the years, I’ve hired a lot of people, I’ve fired a lot of people. Nobody has ever written me a letter back that you have every right to fire me."

In fact, the letter, in which Comey wrote that he'd "long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason," was his exit memo to FBI colleagues.

When the Times reporters softly corrected the president, he resisted—"I thought it was to me, right?"—and never fully accepted the reality: "It might have been [to his staff]—It might have been. It was just a very strange letter to say that. What was the purpose in repeating that? Do you understand what I mean? Why would somebody say, 'He has every right to fire me,' bah bah bah. Why wouldn’t you just say, “Hey, I’ve retired …” In other words: Why would he refer to some principle that cut against his self-interest? And why wouldn't he just lie?

In Fantasyland I write about how America invented and dominated show business and mixed it into everything else, including presidential politics—even before we elected a president who was a WWE character and played himself for 15 years on reality TV. His minute-long reverie to the Times about this year's Bastille Day parade in Paris was telling in this regard.

"[I]t was one of the most beautiful parades I have ever seen … the Bastille Day parade was—now that was a super-duper—O.K. I mean, that was very much more than normal. They must have had 200 planes over our heads. Normally you have the planes and that’s it, like the Super Bowl parade. And everyone goes crazy, and that’s it. That happened for—and you know what else that was nice? It was limited. You know, it was two hours, and the parade ended. It didn’t go a whole day. They didn’t go crazy. You don’t want to leave, but you have to. Or you want to leave, really. These things are going on all day. It was a two-hour parade. They had so many different zones. Maybe 100,000 different uniforms, different divisions, different bands … The whole thing, it was an incredible thing. And you are looking at the Arc. So we are standing in the most beautiful buildings, and we are looking down the road, and like three miles in, and then you had the Arc. And then you have these soldiers … Honestly, it was a beautiful thing."

The U.S., he said, should have some comparably spectacular militarized patriotic parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. And, being Trump, the desperately insecure star of the show, he couldn't leave it there. "I’ve always thought of that."

"Really?" one of the reporters asked.

"I’ve always thought of that," he insisted. "I’ve thought of it long before."