In an interview with the Associated Press this weekend, President Trump returned, again and again, to what might be called the mood music of his world, and his ability to call the tune.
Why are we spending so much time trying to match what Donald J. Trump says to reality? Is it because he is the President of the United States, and could start a war with words? Or because we place some sort of value on the truth, or on the meaning of words? Whatever the source of our folly, it is, from the President’s perspective, just that: a big waste of time. Reality will contort itself to match his imagination—his Presidentialness—all on its own. He doesn’t even need to sign laws, let alone accurately describe what he wants to do. He is in the White House; the world and time bend.
That, at any rate, is among the secondary conclusions that one can draw from Trump’s interview, over the weekend, with Julie Pace, the White House correspondent for the Associated Press. (The primary one is familiar: the country is in unsteady hands.) To take one example, Pace asked Trump about his assertions, during the campaign, that he would designate China as a currency manipulator (a label that has consequences under U.S. trade law) for suppressing the value of its currency in order to prop up its exports. China had once done so, but since about 2014, it has basically been engaged in the reverse practice: propping up its currency to stop capital flight. But that is not a timeline that Trump recognizes. According to the A.P.’s transcript (which includes, at a number of points, the note “unintelligible”), after he explained that, “No. 1,” his not calling China the names that he had called it during the campaign gave him the “flexibility” to demand that it now do something about North Korea, the President and his interviewer had this exchange:
TRUMP: No. 2, from the time I took office till now, you know, it’s a very exact thing. It’s not like generalities. Do you want a Coke or anything?
A.P.: I’m O.K., thank you. No.
TRUMP: But President Xi, from the time I took office, he has not, they have not been currency manipulators. Because there’s a certain respect because he knew I would do something or whatever.
Trump speaks as though the time since he took office, as brief as it is, contains the events of years. Or perhaps he just thinks that, before his arrival, the international economy, and God knows what else—soft-drink availability?—operated only in the realm of “generalities.”
But “since my time,” he said again, China had changed its ways: “They have—they’ve actually—their currency’s gone up. So it’s a very, very specific formula.” In case Pace had missed the point about the transformative power of Trumpness, he set the scene, describing how he had closely questioned an unspecified “they” about the machinations of the Chinese: “And I said, ‘How badly have they been’ . . . they said, ‘Since you got to office, they have not manipulated their currency.’ That’s No. 1.” (It had been No. 2, but only if you’re hung up on numbers as well as words.)
If any of this is hard to follow, it’s probably the media’s fault. “Some of them get it, in all fairness,” Trump said. “But, you know, some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.” Or maybe they failed to realize that similar comments that Trump made a few weeks ago, about the miraculous post-Inauguration transformation of NATO, were not an aberration but a part of a very, very specific formula. Trump had called the alliance “obsolete” during the campaign. But, on April 12th, at a joint press conference at the White House with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, he told reporters, “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete.” Why not? Because Trump had told the member states that they ought to fight terrorism: “I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism.”
You might think that NATO had noticed terrorism before Trump brought it up—especially since, according to the President, terrorism is one of the few things that gets the sort of television ratings that he does. In the A.P. interview, alongside complaints about CNN and MSNBC, and praise for the superiority of Fox News (“It’s not that Fox treats me well; it’s that Fox is the most accurate”), he included a boast about his appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” which, he said, drew more than five million viewers: “It’s the highest for ‘Face the Nation,’ or, as I call it, ‘Deface the Nation.’ It’s the highest for ‘Deface the Nation’ since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down. It’s a tremendous advantage.”
It is surely not an advantage for the cause of respecting the people who died in New York on September 11th. Instead, the memory of mass terror seems to exist for Trump only as a measure of his own presence. In case anyone didn’t think that the attacks were a way to keep score on the Trump scale, he added, in the A.P. interview, that “MSNBC, I heard, went crazy” when he had said “about the thing, you know, when I said it’s a terrorism,” before all the details were in. (It was not clear which “thing” he was talking about.) “By the way, I’m 10–0 for that,” Trump said. “I’ve called every one of them. Every time, they said I called it way too early, and then it turns out I’m—whatever.” Whatever are you saying you are, Mr. President? Prescient, informed, the most accurate, the most able to see beyond the waves, and into men’s minds? “Whatever,” Trump continued. “In the meantime, I’m here and they’re not.”
This week, indeed, he will have been here for a hundred days. During that time, he has delivered a plodding address to a joint session of Congress (“A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber”); ordered the firing of fifty-nine Tomahawks at Syria (“I’m saying to myself, ‘You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,’ because people could have been killed”); and met with world leaders like Angela Merkel (“one of the best chemistries I had . . . unbelievable chemistry.”) He also had a Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, confirmed. “Don’t forget, he could be there for forty years,” Trump said. Since Gorsuch is only forty-nine, that comment falls into the narrow category of Trump statements that are true. Presidents do get to shape the country, if not in the Trumpian manner of conjuring up facts.
During the A.P. interview, as Trump talked about the greatness of his first hundred days, he returned, again and again, to vaguer paradigms—to what might be called the mood music of Trump’s world, and his ability to call the tune. One of his accomplishments, he said, was that “our military is so proud. They were not proud at all. They had their heads down. Now they have their heads up.” His spirits had also improved since he stopped watching certain cable-news shows, such as “Morning Joe,” which, he said, had inexplicably turned against him.
“I never thought I had the ability to not watch what is unpleasant, if it’s about me,” Trump said, in a jarring acknowledgment of a narcissist’s needs. “Or pleasant. But when I see it’s such false reporting and such bad reporting and false reporting that I’ve developed an ability that I never thought I had. I don’t watch things that are unpleasant. I just don’t watch them.”
“And do you feel like that’s, that’s because of the office that you now occupy—that you’ve made that change?” Pace asked.
“No,” Trump said, interrupting her, as if hastening to correct the idea that a space as small as the White House could bring about a change in his character, or even his habits. “I don’t know why it is, but I’ve developed that ability, and it’s happened over the last, over the last year.” Trump’s powers are mysterious even to Trump; the Presidency is just a detail.