It could have been worse. Responding to the death of George H. W. Bush, with whom he had a slow-simmering feud, President Donald Trump avoided taking a swipe, and instead paid his respects to his Republican predecessor.
Still, the president’s remarks to reporters in Argentina, where he was traveling for the G20 summit, were peculiar. “He was a very fine man. I met him on a number of occasions,” Trump said. “He was a terrific guy and he’ll be missed. He lived a full life and an exemplary life.”
The idea that Trump having “met him on a number of occasions” was germane exemplifies the president’s strange approach to condolences. Despite these encounters, Trump couldn’t come up with anything beyond vague generalities to say about Bush. This reflects Trump’s disinterest in politics before his own entry, his strained relationship with the political establishment, his absorption and lack of interest in other people, and his apparent unease with death and the role of comforting in general.
The suggestion that having met Trump was a notable characteristic of Bush recalls the president’s reaction upon the death of Aretha Franklin:
I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well. She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific—Aretha Franklin—on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come. She was given a great gift from God, her voice, and she used to well. People loved Aretha. She was a special woman. So just want to pass on my warmest best wishes and sympathies to her family.
The second sentence raised hackles. Trump had hired Franklin to perform at his casinos, it turned out, but foregrounding the fact that she had “worked for” him seemed to both subjugate her and downplay her work. (Barack Obama, by contrast, praised Franklin’s presence as “a glimpse of the divine.”)