Few things are less surprising or more exhausting in this third year of Donald Trump’s presidency than the almost daily need to ask: “Can you believe Trump said that?”
Yes, we believe it. We’ve been watching the same thing, just about every day, since Trump descended that escalator in June 2015. It shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore. We know how frequently he exaggerates, lashes out at critics, repeats unfounded rumors, brags, and so on.
Yes, what a president says should ideally be accurate, temperate, and wise. Yes, a lot of what Trump says — particularly when speaking off-the-cuff — is false, inflammatory, and crude. No, he’s not going to change. He is who he is, and he’s never going to be shamed or pressured into behaving or thinking differently. Freaking out over everything that comes out of his mouth seems like a waste of time and energy at this point. But cataloguing the types of things he says is a useful exercise, insofar as it helps clarify why he says them. It’s easy enough to do, too, since there are about six different types:
1. I am the greatest.
As he said at CPAC, his improvisations are better than most other politicians’ scripted remarks: “You know I’m totally off script right now. And this is how I got elected, by being off script.” In his mind, even his critics secretly like him, and they only criticize him because they’re ordered to do so by powerful, shadowy authorities: “I got great reviews, even from some of the really bad ones out there. Of course, by the following morning, they had to change because the head people called up, ‘What are you doing?’”
2. That good thing that happened was because of me.
Everything good that’s happening in America — the growing economy, pay raises for the military, the lack of nuclear war with North Korea, Ted Cruz’s victory in Texas, low oil prices, the success of the U.S. bid for the 2026 World Cup, GOP gains in the Senate, declining drug prices — is because of him, and mostly because of him.
3. It’s not my fault.
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he says with childlike amazement. The recent North Korean summit didn’t work out because of the Michael Cohen hearing: “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to ‘the walk’” If it weren’t for “the phony Russia Witch Hunt, and with all that we have accomplished in the last almost two years (Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judge’s, Military, Vets, etc.) my approval rating would be at 75 percent rather than the 50 percent just reported by Rasmussen. It’s called Presidential Harassment!”
4. Trust me, my critics are terrible people.
“Trump lashes out at critics” isn’t really news anymore, because Trump lashes out at his critics like other people breathe: reflexively, constantly, unthinkingly.
Back during the 2016 campaign, Trump mused darkly about Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster. “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder,” he said. After he won, he infamously leveled another completely unsupported charge: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
In the years since, he’s found plenty of targets for the same tactic. He has accused Adam Schiff of “illegally leaking to Fake News CNN” and warned that “the Angry Mueller Gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts & they will get relief.” He has called critics of his Syria policy “failed generals.” He has dismissed his former staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “crazed, crying lowlife.” And he’s called Cohen, his former lawyer, a “weak person and not a very smart person.”
5. Here is a version of history that just I made up in my head.
This is perhaps the conversational realm in which Trump is most unpredictable and creative; on the fly, he can offer an alternate history worthy of Harry Turtledove.
“Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” he asked Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. (That was the British, in 1812.)
Then there’s his assertion that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was defensive:
The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally, they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.
And of course there’s his tendency to ascribe sentiments that jibe suspiciously with his own to his (real or imagined) interlocutors. Who can forget his claim that President Obama “told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea,” during their post-election meeting at the White House? How about the moment in the border-wall fight in which he claimed that “this should have been done by all of the Presidents that preceded me. And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it,” even though all four living ex-presidents denied saying any such thing?
6. Look at that woman’s appearance! How can you trust someone so unattractive?
“Now I can go after Horseface.”
“Look at that face. Would anybody vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
(To be fair, Trump’s assessment of the women around him isn’t always negative; during an intelligence briefing, he wondered why the “pretty Korean lady” wasn’t negotiating with North Korea on his administration’s behalf.)
Trump’s lack of impulse control hinders him, his administration, and his party. But it’s not going anywhere, and neither is he, at least not until next year, when the country decides whether the practical particulars of his governance outweigh the grief and aggravation caused by his runaway mouth.