Only 24 hours after he read a serious speech off a teleprompter committing to send more young men and women to fight in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump reverted to form, delivering a rambling, rage-filled, 77-minute harangue that was alternately defensive, angry, accusatory and just plain weird. Like a trapped animal, he lashed out in every direction, trying unsuccessfully to draw blood.
The opening 15 minutes or so were devoted to relitigating – and lying about – his response to the Charlottesville incident. He omitted his words a few days after the death of Heather Heyer in which he claimed that there were “fine people” on both sides and that there was blame on “many sides.” But once again, he dwelled on himself, not on the death of a young woman or the flare-up of anti-Semitic, racist groups. He railed at the media, claiming that they did not cover the crowd (they did, revealing a modest gathering) and that there were not many protesters outside (there were thousands). The sight of the president, eight months into office, still lying about crowd size and whining about the media was stunning but not surprising.
He insisted that he was all about unifying the country, and then launched into a diatribe against his perceived enemies, painting himself as simultaneously the most successful president (repeating the lie that he has signed more legislation than anyone) and the victim of Democrats, the filibuster (which he wrongly blamed his loss on health-care legislation that could not garner even 50 votes) and always, always the “sick” media (whom he accused of not liking America).
After his press secretary vowed he would not raise the topic of Joe Arpaio, he promised that the former Arizona sheriff would be “just fine,” although he wouldn’t announce something at that moment. In doing so, he linked arms with a man convicted of both racial profiling and contempt of court, one more show of solidarity with the alt-right to whom Arpaio is a hero. He castigated Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., although not by name, calling him “weak on borders, weak on crime.” Without naming Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., he pointedly told the crowd he was one vote away from getting health care passed. And he railed about illegal immigrants, vowing to shut down the government if Congress did not commit taxpayer money to pay for the wall he once vowed Mexico would fund. He predicted he would fail to renegotiate NAFTA and instead withdraw.
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All in all, he appeared desperate, out of control and emotionally needy. If Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., expressed concern last week that Trump was not demonstrating fitness to lead, one can only imagine what he and other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with whom he is feuding must think now. He barely mentioned Republicans’ top agenda item, tax reform, and demonstrated once again that all that matters to Trump is Trump. He’s willing to defeat a sitting GOP senator, perhaps handing the seat to Democrats, because he is peeved by Flake’s book and criticism. No sober-minded Republican could have watched that performance and concluded his or her own career, not to mention the party and the country, were well-served by a president so obviously unable to control his emotions and impulses.
Once again, we saw that regardless of how diligently chief of staff John F. Kelly tries to erect procedures and processes to keep Trump on track, he cannot possibly make Trump fit to lead – or even keep his obvious unfitness under wraps. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster may be preventing greater damage to the country by staying, but what is the justification for other members of his Cabinet? They are now mere props, allowing him to stumble from disaster to disaster and helping to deceive Americans about Trump’s defective character, psyche and intellect.
Once again, we saw why so many Americans have reason to doubt his judgment on matters of war and peace. If he still cannot tell the truth about his own remarks or the size of a crowd, Americans have every reason to doubt virtually everything that comes out of his mouth. He’s either stubbornly ignorant (as when he claims the Paris agreement is doing great harm to the country) or deliberately misleading. Mostly, however, he is vengeful and irrational, a horrid combination for the commander in chief.
Once again, we saw what Republicans wrought by enabling, defending and rationalizing the president’s conduct and rhetoric. Pretending that this is normal behavior or encouraging him to lie about his own words (as Vice President Mike Pence does when he gaslights the country, insisting that Trump didn’t say what we heard him say) has brought us to this scary point where we cannot be certain our president is mentally well.
And once again, we saw that Trump is incapable of uniting the country. He gives a shout-out to Jeffrey Lord, who was fired by CNN for tweeting a Nazi salute. He accuses the media of trying to take away the crowd’s “heritage” (he means white Southerners who venerate the Confederacy). He embraces a notorious bigot and racial profiler – Arpaio – and smears immigrants. When he speaks from his heart, we see a hollow man whose bile, dog whistles (calling those local officials who would take down offensive Confederate monuments “weak, weak”), ignorance and narcissism prevent him from governing on behalf of all Americans. All he knows is how to beat the drum of white grievance, rile up an angry crowd and spread discord. His hate is consuming him, bringing his presidency crashing down before a horrified public.
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