“Now Donald Trump has finally done it” is a sentence many people have said or written, but which has never yet proven true. As Trump gained momentum during the campaign season, errors that on their own would have stopped or badly damaged previous candidates bounced right off.
These ranged from mocking John McCain as a loser (because “I like people who weren’t captured”), to being stumped by the term “nuclear triad” (the weapons of mass destruction that he as U.S. president now controls), to “when you’re a star ... you can grab ‘em by the pussy” (my onetime employer Jimmy Carter had to spend days in the 1976 campaign explaining away his admission to Playboy that he had sometimes felt “lust in the heart”), to being labelled by an in-party opponent a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” and “a narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen” (the words of his now-supporter Ted Cruz). I kept my list of 152 such moments in the Time Capsule series as the campaign went on.
In office, Trump has of course continued his pattern of blasting through past norms, and his electoral and congressional supporters have continued their pattern of ignoring, misinterpreting, condoning, or outright embracing whatever he says or does. According to a poll this week, fewer than half of Trump supporters believe that Donald Trump Jr. even met with Russian representatives during the campaign, although Trump Jr. himself released the emails confirming that he did.
Thus we’ll probably know only in retrospect when Donald Trump has finally gone too far. But we can note in real time when he goes further than he has before—and he did that again yesterday.
* * *
The vehicle was Trump’s astonishing on-the-record interview with Peter Baker, Michael Schmidt, and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times. The 7,500-word transcript is here. The Times says these passages are mere “excerpts,” but they are plenty, and are completely worth reading end-to-end.
First, an obvious point that is newly relevant after this interview: For all of Trump’s denunciation of the “failing” and “fake news” mainstream press, he clearly craves attention and approval from the most mainstream-y of the established media. Barack Obama seemed to do interviews with major newspapers and networks because he had to—and then sessions on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars and Zack Galifinakis’s Between Two Ferns and Marc Maron’s WTF because he liked to.
By contrast Trump, for all his anti-press tweeting and rally-ranting, seems to lap up attention from what he thinks of as the big media powers of his rising years in New York, starting with Time magazine and the Times. Think of how he displayed a fake Time cover in his golf-course club houses and has inflated the total of his actual cover appearances, a Time cover being the mark of having made it for someone who grew up when he did. Two months ago, Trump called Time’s editor, Nancy Gibbs, and two colleagues in for a rambling tour of the private quarters of the White House—and you get the feeling from their account that Trump would have been happy to sit and talk all night. (“Mr. President, we don’t want to hold you,” you can almost hear them saying.)
In the case of the new NYT interview, Trump comes across as enjoying the chatting and camaraderie of the reporters. For instance, on the difficulty of rolling back health benefits once they’ve been extended:
Trump: Nothing changes. Nothing changes. Once you get something for pre-existing conditions, etc., etc. Once you get something, it’s awfully tough to take it away.
Haberman: That’s been the thing for four years. When you win an entitlement, you can’t take it back.
Trump: But what it does, Maggie, it means it gets tougher and tougher. As they get something, it gets tougher.
Through the course of the transcript, you can sense Trump shifting from an opening tone that is not very wary at all—“Hi fellas, how you doing!” are his first words—to a comfortable intimate-schmoozing performance before what he assumes will be a sympathetic audience. All credit to the Times reporters for drawing him out this way. It’s the journalistic counterpart of the strategy leaders from Xi Jinping to Emmanuel Macron have figured out: You get more from Trump with honey than with vinegar.
And what makes this exposure to Trump’s mind and mood different from what we’ve seen over his past two years in political life and his previous decades in the public eye? For me it’s the accumulation of these elements:
A rare degree of deluded self-regard
Consider what Trump says about his speech in Poland two weeks ago:
I have had the best reviews on foreign land. 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.
Now, there are people who liked that speech better than I did. (I didn’t like it, for reasons I explained at the time.) But even those who would most heartily endorse the speech’s content, from Steve Bannon on down, could not with a straight face pretend that it was other than mediocre-workmanlike in its rhetoric and euphony. For instance:
A strong Poland is a blessing to the nations of Europe, and they know that. A strong Europe is a blessing to the West and to the world. (Applause.) One hundred years after the entry of American forces into World War I, the transatlantic bond between the United States and Europe is as strong as ever and maybe, in many ways, even stronger.
This continent no longer confronts the specter of communism. But today we're in the West, and we have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life. You see what's happening out there. They are threats. We will confront them. We will win. But they are threats.
Mystic chords of memory. Better angels of our nature. Cross of gold. Only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. Ask not what your country can do for you. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. To the ranks of American presidential phrase-making we now add You see what’s happening out there.
Moreover, it’s preposterous for Trump to claim that even critics are calling this “the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president,” because everyone except him knows that such a claim is absurd. John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin ein Berliner” was a justly renowned short, sparely elegant speech. Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this” wall in Berlin and “boys of Pointe du Hoc” in Normandy were among his strongest rhetorical performances. Barack Obama’s speeches in Berlin in 2008, when running for president, and in 2016, at the end of his term, were eloquent statements of his world view; and his address in Norway accepting the (improbably and weirdly given) Nobel Peace Prize was a logically tight exploration of the paradox of his receiving the Peace Prize while commanding troops at war, and of what the concepts of “just war” and “rules of war” meant in this age. Whether you agree or not with Obama’s approach to Islamic nations, his speech on the future of the Islamic world in Cairo in 2009 was historic. And these are only speeches that Trump should remember himself, from his own conscious lifetime.
It is alarming that Trump thinks people said this about his own so-so speech. It is more alarming that he thinks it could be true.
The unselfconscious display of gaping, consequential holes in his general knowledge
The transcript is full of illustrations, but here are three I would note:
- The “Cornhusker Kickback.” Right at the start of the interview, Trump explains why it’s so hard to get health-care bills passed, using an example from the original passage of Obamacare:
Trump: It was good. We are very close. It’s a tough—you know, health care. Look, Hillary Clinton worked eight years in the White House with her husband as president and having majorities and couldn’t get it done. Smart people, tough people—couldn’t get it done. Obama worked so hard. They had 60 in the Senate. They had big majorities and had the White House. 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?
What Trump appears to be talking about is something known by its critics as the Cornhusker Kickback. In order to get the vote of the very conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, the Obamacare architects agreed on a special favor that spared the state of Nebraska, uniquely, some of the costs of expanding Medicaid. This was legislative deal-making in its classic form, and the conservative press roundly criticized it (and it became so controversial that it was ultimately bounced from the final deal).
But does it sound as if Trump has any idea what the deal actually involved? “They owned the state of Nebraska.” What? “Gave it away.” Huh? “Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics”—well, that is sort of right, as concerns Ben Nelson getting favors for his state (until the kickback was revoked), but it seems to reflect Trump’s habit of classifying everything as a good or bad deal with no regard for its substance.
- What insurance is. This is Trump’s description of the challenge of figuring out coverage for pre-existing medical conditions:
Trump: So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.
The most charitable explanation for what he is trying to say is that Trump has confused the way medical insurance works, including the preexisting conditions question, with the way life insurance works, especially when people buy so-called “whole life” policies. His description—low initial payments, “you’ve got a nice plan” by retirement age—would make sense if talking about whole-life plans, which indeed were more popular when he was a young man. It has no apparent relationship to the subject on which he’s trying to oversee a congressional deal. No other president of my lifetime could have made a comparable error, on a comparably important topic, while in office. Gerald Ford, for all his stumblebum image, was a Yale Law School graduate and veteran of legislative details. George W. Bush, often so ineloquent in public, worked hard as governor of Texas and afterward to master legislative arguments and complications.
- Oh, that Napoleon. This error doesn’t matter. But it probably did to the man Trump thought he was doing so much to impress, President Macron of France:
Trump: Well, Napoleon finished a little bit bad. But I asked that. So I asked the president [Macron], so what about Napoleon? He said: “No, no, no. What he did was incredible. He designed Paris.” [garbled] The street grid, the way they work, you know, the spokes. He did so many things even beyond. And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather? [garbled]
Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.
Forget the wartime talk and “finished a little bit bad” and the rest of this shorthand version of history. What Trump obviously didn’t know (even now), as Macron probably realized as he was talking to him in Paris, is that there were two different Napoleons—the one who conquered Europe and “finished a little bit bad,” and the other one, his nephew Louis-Napoleon, who as president and then emperor of France in the mid-1800s commissioned the redesign by Haussmann that gave Paris its grand current look.
You could say this is niche knowledge, and there’s no reason Trump should be expected to be aware of it. (Except, well, that he’s just been to Paris and now has met a few times with the president of France—who would have certainly pointed out the difference when he was describing the Napoleons’ roles in Paris. And if you know anything about European history, you might guess that the original Napoleon was off the stage long before the mid-century reconstruction of Paris. But still...)
The significance is his blithe disregard for the terrains of his personal unknowns. It would be as if Macron himself came back from a visit to the United States and said, in an interview with Le Monde, “That George Bush, what he did is incredible. Served as a young fighter pilot in World War II, and was ambassador to the United Nations and vice president under Reagan—and then he led the country after the 9/11 attacks! He did so many things even beyond.” And his aides would look nervously around and wonder who would be the first to say, “Actually, sir, there were two of them...”
The meaning of the Constitution
This has been the most remarked-upon part of Trump’s interview, so I will merely refer you to David Graham’s analysis just now. “President Trump’s comments Wednesday about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, delivered in an interview with The New York Times, still take one’s breath away,” David begins. Other presidents, even Richard Nixon in extremis, were careful to give lip service to at least the ideas of accountability, checks and balances, and boundaries on a president’s personal power. The more Donald Trump says about his view of loyalty and limits, the more he sounds not like a character from John Adams or Lincoln but instead from The Sopranos.
Trump’s description of his dealings with James Comey could also come from Sopranos dialogue. I’ll let you read them for yourself, but here is the way he talks about “the dossier”—the much-controverted report that Putin’s agents had compromising film of him in sexual situations in Russia:
Trump: Look what they did to me with Russia, and it was totally phony stuff.
Haberman: Which, which one?
Schmidt: The dossier.
Trump: The dossier.
Haberman: The dossier. Oh, yes.
Trump: Now, that was totally made-up stuff, and in fact, that guy’s being sued by somebody … And he’s dying with the lawsuit. I know a lot about those guys, they’re phony guys. They make up whatever they want. Just not my thing—plus, I have witnesses, because I went there with a group of people …
Keith [Schiller, his security chief] was there. He said, “What kind of crap is this?” I went there for one day for the Miss Universe contest, I turned around, I went back. It was so disgraceful. It was so disgraceful.
Through the election year, Trump and his associates (notably Mike Pence) said repeatedly that they had absolutely no contact with Russians or Russian interests during the campaign. (The New York Times has created an impressive video compilation of Trump-team claims to that effect, here.) Given the recent news of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner with a handful of Russian representatives, those denials look increasingly bad.
During this interview, Trump made a set of similarly absolute claims about his freedom from Russian financial entanglements. For instance:
Trump: I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make—from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years [crosstalk] …
But I have no income from Russia. I don’t do business with Russia.
Absolute claims invite specific refutation. In Trump’s previous life, he was free from systematic checks-and-balances accountability—no shareholders or independent corporate board, no one except family members or loyalists around him—and through the campaign he has been able to get away with one provable falsehood after another. We’ll see whether his experience with the congressional committees, and Robert Mueller, justifies his apparent faith that if a claim sounds true to him at the time, he should go with it.
* * *
Last week I argued that nothing about Donald Trump’s own performance in office should be considered surprising, since he’s behaving now just the way he did during the campaign. But this interview is at least an increase in degree in the self-delusion, the consequential ignorance, the expressed disregard for constitutional functioning, and the absolute nature of his claims of innocence.
Will this difference in degree amount to a shift in the nature of his dealings with the main body capable of holding him to account: the Republican-controlled Congress? I’m not holding my breath. As McKay Coppins reported yesterday, most GOP senators and representatives claim they are “doing their best” and “doing everything they can” to apply normal constitutional standards to this president. Ever since contending two years ago that Donald Trump couldn’t win, I’ve avoided making any prediction involving him. But I think history will take a very dim view of the elected Republicans now letting down their party and their country.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.