Don’t Believe the New Trump
He’s still the same old, uninformed, easily manipulated, egomaniac — surrounded by second-raters, lickspittles, and extremists.
Donald Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday night was the first truly presidential speech he has ever given and therefore the best — far superior to his egomaniacal “I alone can fix it” Republican National Convention acceptance speech or his dark and divisive “American carnage” inaugural address. His tribute to fallen Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, delivered while his widow sobbed in the balcony, was a genuinely moving moment, even if earlier in the day he refused to accept any personal responsibility for ordering the raid in which Owens died. For once he did not vilify the media or his opponents.
But remember that even during last year’s campaign, Trump had a few moments of normalcy. None of them lasted long. Will this moment be any different? Put another way: Will this speech be an inflection point in the nearly 6-week-old presidency, representing Trump’s pivot to become a more mainstream, effective, and uplifting president? Or will this speech quickly be forgotten as the president returns to his same old routine of making outrageous, offensive statements, fostering chaos and confusion, and engaging in the very “petty fights” that he denounced?
No one can know the answer to those questions, but there is good cause to doubt that we are seeing a genuinely new Trump. The substance of his message, after all, has not changed. Even though his congressional address was delivered in a more uplifting tone, it included little in the way of specifics about his policies, and it contained plenty of the same old anti-trade and anti-foreigner rhetoric buttressed by “alternative facts.” The president wrongly blamed the “vast majority” of America’s terrorism problem on “individuals” who “came here from outside of our country” (in fact, 76 percent of the terrorism suspects arrested by the FBI in the last two years were native-born U.S. citizens) and falsely suggested that undocumented immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime (in fact, immigrants in general commit fewer crimes than the native-born). There was no hint in the speech of any support for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants — something that Trump had suggested earlier in the day, at an off-the-record briefing with television anchors.
Soon, Trump will release a revised immigration decree that, unlike his first version, will not affect green card holders and those who already have visas but which will maintain the counterproductive ban on all visitors from certain Muslim-majority nations. Iraq apparently has now been dropped from the list of banned countries. Yet why are the six other nations still on the list? This is an initiative that has nothing to do with U.S. security (Americans have not suffered lethal attacks at home from any of the target countries) and everything to do with appealing to anti-Muslim bigotry.
It is doubtful that Trump’s well-regarded appointees, such as John Kelly at Homeland Security, Rex Tillerson at State, James Mattis at Defense, or now H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council, told him to do this. Nor did they advise him to include a vitriolic condemnation of “radical Islamic terrorism” in his address. Indeed, if news accounts are accurate, McMaster advised Trump to take out those incendiary words that play into the terrorist narrative that the United States is waging a war on Islam. But Trump disregarded McMaster’s wise counsel, choosing instead to heed the advice of zealots such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka who believe that we are in a civilizational struggle with Islam itself.
This is a reminder that he is still the same old Trump and he still returns to the same old White House — one where he is surrounded by far too many second-raters, lickspittles, and extremists. Politico, for example, reports that those with “walk-in privileges” to the Oval Office include former Celebrity Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault, who has boasted that Trump is compiling an “enemies list”; Bannon, the White House ideologue whose rallying cry is “economic nationalism,” an agenda last implemented in the 1930s; Stephen Miller, the callow, young, anti-immigration hard-liner who became notorious for declaring that the president’s powers “will not be questioned” and claiming that there was a (wholly imaginary) influx of Massachusetts residents voting in New Hampshire; Kellyanne Conway, whose lies have become so legion that she has been barred from MSNBC’s Morning Joe and whose standards of veracity will never be confused with those of a court of law; and Jared Kushner, a youthful real estate developer whose only qualification for being in the White House is that he married the president’s daughter.
All of these insiders have no experience in government yet exercise a powerful, Svengali-like influence over a president who is all too easily manipulated by those around him — and one, moreover, who does not read books or even long background papers. The compilers of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the top-secret summary of intelligence that is delivered every morning, have been told to make their briefings much shorter than they were under President Barack Obama and to excise any information that contradicts the top-line conclusions while including plenty of pictures and maps.
Where, aside from this dumbed-down PDB, does Trump’s information come from? According to another Politico article, he relies on “New York friends he talks to late at night on the phone, people he meets at parties and events, television segments he consumes every night, blogs that are printed out and given to him, videos he is shown on his computer, and aides and advisers, who compete for his ear. He is not interested in lengthy briefings or long meetings where issue experts pass along information about the world’s problems.”
Trump’s shallow and erratic methods of information gathering produce a grab bag of factoids, most of them either wholly or partially inaccurate and all of them tailored to support his preconceived views. After viewing a Fox News segment, he suggested in a speech that Sweden was besieged by Islamic terrorists and immigrant criminals — a claim that flabbergasted Swedes. Instead of correcting himself, however, Trump doubled down, sparking a crisis with a country that a shrewder president would be cajoling to join NATO because its bases are badly needed to defend the Baltic states from Russia.
This is sadly typical of a president who stubbornly defends false claims about the size of his inaugural crowds, about whether millions of people voted illegally, and other matters long after they have been discredited — and long after a more rational chief executive would have realized that his boasts are turning him into a laughingstock and distracting from his agenda.
Trump lies with a fluency and frequency that makes Richard Nixon seem like a pillar of rectitude by comparison. The Washington Post finds that during his first 41 days in office, he made 187 false or misleading claims, an average of four lies a day. And when Trump is caught out, he displays a brazen disregard for the truth. Take his frequently repeated boast that he won the biggest Electoral College majority since Ronald Reagan. In reality, his margin was smaller than Obama’s in 2008 and 2012, Bill Clinton’s in 1996 and 1992, and George H.W. Bush’s in 1988. When a reporter called him out, Trump insouciantly replied: “I was given that information.” As if he’s not responsible for what comes out of his own mouth.
Many of his lies exhibit a conspiratorial mindset — for example, his claim, made in an interview Tuesday, that former President Obama is responsible for the leaks and protests that he loathes. This is of a piece with the man who suggested that Obama forged his birth certificate, that vaccines cause autism, and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A prime source of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering is Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars who claims that 9/11 was an “inside job” and that the Sandy Hook massacre was “completely fake.” When Trump calls the news media the “enemy of the American People,” or when he says the press is covering up Islam-inspired terrorist attacks, or that “there is no drought” in California, he is channeling this deranged talk show host.
This, ultimately, is why — despite his foray into respectability with one speech before Congress — there is good cause for skepticism as to whether Trump can govern in a more responsible fashion. He may not drink alcohol, but he is addicted to misinformation. His brain is filled with questionable premises — trade deficits are bad, Vladimir Putin is “strong,” allies are freeloaders, foreigners are taking advantage of us — that form the core of his worldview and therefore of his presidency. He did not repudiate any of these misbegotten notions in his speech to Congress. His attitude toward the truth remains as adversarial as his attitude toward the press.
To substantially and permanently improve his performance as president, Trump will have to fire the loonies on his staff, accede entirely to his more sober and rational appointees, and submit his most cherished beliefs to factual examination and correction. It will take a lot more, in other words, than smoothly reading a ghostwritten speech off a teleprompter.
Correction: An earlier version of this article noted the “I alone can fix it” speech was given on election night. It was instead in Trump’s nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
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