There are no normal weeks in the Donald Trump era, just weird weeks and even weirder weeks. Last week was one of the latter. The week before it one of Trump’s most politically effective so far, bringing him closer to completing several key promises and stalling out a Democratic winning streak. So naturally, last week almost immediately went off the rails.
Monday afternoon, President Trump delivered a press conference from an alternative reality, or perhaps a slightly-less-dark timeline. His relationship with Mitch McConnell is great! They have the votes for Obamacare repeal! The hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico is a smashing success! Democrats are to blame for GOP divisions on Capitol Hill! These claims range from the highly dubious to the patently false.
The most eyecatching claims from the press conference, however, were that he calls the family of every servicemember who dies, and that he was far more attentive to the concerns of Gold Star families. Over the course of several days, this was revealed to be false in dramatic fashion.
On Tuesday, pressed by Mike Sacks on why he kept saying, incorrectly, that U.S. tax rates were the highest in the world, Trump confidently, and just as incorrectly, said he meant they were the highest in the developed world.
Then on Thursday, Trump hosted Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló at the White House. Even with barely a fifth of the island electrified and less than two-thirds with running water, Trump rated federal response to hurricanes there a 10 out of 10.
He topped it off on Saturday night by tweeting that “perhaps no Administration has done more in its first 9 months than this Administration.”
The question is not whether these claims are balderdash. The question is whether Trump believes them.
Politico’s Josh Dawsey wrote that the Monday press conference was Trump’s attempt to convince the public things were going well. “Friends say President Donald Trump has grown frustrated that his greatness is not widely understood, that his critics are fierce and on TV every morning, that his poll numbers are both low and ‘fake,’ and that his White House is caricatured as adrift,” Dawsey reported. Does Trump believe things are going beautifully, and that they’re simply misunderstood, as Dawsey’s sources contend? Or is his counterfactual spin part of an attempt to make his greatness real by convincing an obstinate public it does?
The idea that Trump’s problem is not substance but how he communicates it is not new (nor is it peculiar to him—it was also one of Barack Obama’s favorite fallbacks).
On the one hand, there have been repeated stories along these lines. On October 9, for example, The Washington Post reported that he was “frustrated by his Cabinet and angry that he has not received enough credit for his handling of three successive hurricanes.” On August 31, the Post reported that Trump “fumes that he does not get the credit he thinks he deserves from the media or the allegiance from fellow Republican leaders he says he is owed.” In May, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Trump, for his part, largely believes his recent string of mishaps are not substantive but simply errors of branding and public relations, according to people close to him and the White House.”
The president also has a tendency to make factually incorrect statements seemingly off the top of his head, making it hard to know whether he is aware they are false, much like the tax-rate claim. During the health-care debate, he seemed often unaware of the details of the various plans he was supporting, expressing shock at what they did or simply claiming they did something else entirely. Other things are vague unto meaninglessness: What can it mean for Trump to say, “I’ve turned West Virginia around”?
Being misinformed is always a risk for a president. The Oval Office is an information bubble, and staffers have some perverse incentives to keep damaging information from the chief executive. In Trump’s case, both of these tendencies are exaggerated. He has shown himself unable to sort reliable sources of information from dreck, often falling for fake reports. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post reports, aides feed him positive information to help control his moods: “One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments. The White House pushes out news releases overflowing with top officials heaping flattery on Trump.”
Certainly, Trump is unusual in being willing to fight this fight. Other presidents, faced with firestorms of controversy, tend to lie low and hope the moment passes. Trump’s answer is to call a press conference and plead his case, going around his communications staff. The condolence flap shows the risks of that approach.
Yet the idea that Trump believes all, or even most of this stuff, is difficult to credit. Even as he dismisses unflattering polling, he has revealed himself in the past as an assiduous pollwatcher. Nor can he believe that his relationship with McConnell is as good as he claims, having spent months deriding him. It can’t be a coincidence that Trump’s habit of protesting too much seems to coincide closely with low points; the worse things are, the harder he spins. The Dow only comes up in presidential tweets when the other indices of presidential success are down.
Instead, Trump’s PR strategy seems to resemble the way he approached his real-estate business: a mix of bluster, misdirection, and fake-it-’til-you-make-it. The tendency to simply make things up is most evident at Trump’s eponymous tower, which he boasts has 68 stories—when, in fact, it only has 58. But another example came in the recent story of how the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigated, and then decided under murky circumstances not to charge, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for making false representations about the beleaguered Trump Soho development.
The siblings claimed that the tower had sold 31, then 55, then 60 percent of units. As ProPublica and The New Yorker reported, “None of that was true. According to a sworn affidavit by a Trump partner filed with the New York attorney general’s office, by March of 2010, almost two years after the press conference, only 15.8 percent of units had been sold.”
In trying to convince the prosecutor not to charge them, Trumps’ lawyers effectively argued that such statements were an essential part of doing business in real estate:
The defense team acknowledged that the Trumps made some exaggerated statements in order to sell the units. But this was mere “puffery”— harmless exaggeration. Such language, they contended, didn’t amount to criminal conduct. The Trumps weren’t selling useless swampland in Florida. The condos existed. And the buyers’ money was in escrow the entire time.
They’d learned the trade from their father, of course. He has repeatedly shown a willingness to lie about things in the service of trying to make them happen. Why would he change now? As Senator Bob Corker is only the latest to realize, Trump has not changed his character or approach since becoming president.
There is a third possibility, which is that Trump sees no meaningful difference between the two. In The Art of the Deal, he introduced the oxymoronic concept of “truthful hyperbole,” suggesting that one could both be not telling the truth and also, somehow, be trying to convey the truth … even while employing untruths to sway someone’s opinion. Trump discussed a similar idea during a 2007 deposition, in which he explained, “You always want to put the best foot forward.”
“I try and be truthful,” Trump said. “I’m no different from a politician running for office.” Truer words may have never been spoken—at least not by him.