Over the decades, Presidents who are trailing in the polls going into an election have resorted to many different tactics, such as whistle-stop tours, fresh policy initiatives, and military adventurism. Confined to the White House for the past few days as he has been recovering from the coronavirus, Donald Trump has adopted a less taxing campaign tactic. Beginning with a telephone call with Maria Bartiromo, of the Fox Business Network, on Thursday morning, he’s conducted a series of lengthy interviews with sympathetic media outlets, including an on-camera interview about his illness with “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the top-rated Fox News Channel show, on Friday, in which he said he’d been retested for the virus but was vague about the result. (“I’m either at the bottom of the scale, or free,” he said.)
The other interviews between the President and his conservative interlocutors have ranged across a broad expanse of well-trodden Trump terrain, from the iniquities of the Russian probe to the perfidy of the news media, the extremism of the Democratic policy agenda, and the mental health of his opponent, Joe Biden. At times, Trump has added some new variations to his familiar laments. Rather than simply accusing the Obama Administration of spying on him during the 2016 campaign, which he’s done many times before, he suggested to Bartiromo that the Justice Department should indict the former President and Vice-President. “This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country, and that includes Obama and it includes Biden,” he said. During a two-hour appearance on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show on Friday afternoon, he supplemented his normal sabre-rattling toward Iran with an F-bomb. “They’ve been put on notice,” he said. “If you fuck around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before.”
It’s been widely suggested that dexamethasone, the powerful steroid Trump has been taking, may have contributed to his verbal tirades. (Tommy Vietor, a former Obama staffer who co-hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast, commented on Twitter that Trump seemed “High as a giraffe’s ass” during an interview with Sean Hannity.) For what it’s worth, which might not be much, Trump told Limbaugh that he’s no longer taking drugs for his illness. In his subsequent appearance on Carlson’s show, he said the same thing to Dr. Marc Siegel, a Fox News medical contributor, who interviewed him. “I feel really, really strong,” Trump said. For the first time, he indicated that the chest scans he received at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center indicated “congestion” in his lungs, but he also said, “with each day it got better.” Once again, he attributed his rapid rebound to the infusion he received of Regeneron, an experimental cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies, which, to the horror of the medical profession, he has described as a miracle cure for COVID-19.
Whether or not dexamethasone played some role in Trump’s bizarre statements over the past few days, he long ago mastered the art of engaging in marathon rants that are rife with falsehoods, incitements, and defamatory statements. In fact, the most surprising thing about his latest round of interviews has been their pathos rather than their bluster. Far from pursuing a particular political strategy, such as trying to refocus the campaign narrative on the economy, or unveiling a new critique of Biden’s policy platform, he has seemed to be most intent on evoking sympathy for his own political predicament, which, in his telling, is absolutely no fault of his own.
Limbaugh, a veteran superspreader of right-wing conspiracy theories, to whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this year, told his audience of retirees and right-wing “ditto-heads” that he wanted them to get to know the Trump he knows privately—a loyal, unwavering person who cares deeply about everybody. (No, I’m not making this up.) Trump immediately blamed the communication problem on the media. “No matter what you do, they try and find fault,” he complained. “Not only fault. Vicious. They are vicious people.” Limbaugh agreed with his guest, and things went on in this vein for a bit. Then, Limbaugh asked Trump why he decided, in 2015, to cast aside his opulent private life and run for office. Rather than answering the question, Trump went into a long digression about the “Russia hoax” and how the Democrats impeached him for a “perfect phone call” with the President of Ukraine. Finally, he offered that he would do it all again, but added, “I never knew it would be so unpleasant.”
Unpleasant? In his interview with Bartiromo, Trump called Kamala Harris “a Communist.” On the Hannity show, he criticized Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan who was the object of an alleged kidnapping plot by right-wing extremists, and he claimed that Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, endorses the execution of babies. In his interview with Limbaugh, he described Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, as “a nutjob,” and he strongly implied that Biden is suffering from dementia. (“He’s in a daze.?.?.?. There’s something wrong.”) In that interview, and in a subsequent one on Friday afternoon, with Mark Levin, another right-wing talk-radio host, he suggested that Pelosi had a hidden motive for backing the creation of a congressionally appointed commission that would determine whether a President is capable of performing his duties. “I think they want to use it so that Kamala can take over for Biden,” Trump said. “Because Biden’s not there, everybody knows that. He’s batting at fifty per cent if he’s lucky.”
Trump is truly addled, of course. In his mind, no matter what he says or does, he’s always the victim—the person who is wronged, belittled, and underappreciated. He extends this twisted world view well beyond the orbit of liberal journalists and elected Democrats, whom he regards as part of the same rival team. Over the past few days, indeed, he has seemed even more agitated about actual and potential traitors on his own side: lily-livered Republicans; Fox News journalists and executives that fail to follow a sufficiently slavish pro-Trump line; even some members of his Cabinet.
In several of his interviews, he accused Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, of repeatedly rescuing Biden during last week’s Presidential debate. When talking to Limbaugh, he also suggested that the presence of Paul Ryan, the former Speaker of the House, on the board of Fox’s parent company, News Corporation, might be influencing the network’s coverage of him. (Only Trump could complain that a network which has just allowed him to speak to its audience practically unfiltered and at length three times in two days wasn’t sufficiently supportive of him.) But Trump reserved his greatest scorn for his current Republican colleagues, and for his own Attorney General, William Barr. When Limbaugh asked him about a report from Axios that Barr has informed senior Republicans that the Justice Department’s review of the origins of the Russia probe won’t be published before the election, Trump seemed stunned. “If Bill Barr made that statement, I would be very disappointed in him,” he replied. The real problem was that Republicans “don’t play the tough game,” he said. “If this were the other side, you would have had twenty-five people in jail for the rest of their lives.”
The implication was clear. If Trump had his way, the Justice Department would have had no compunction about indicting James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, and Andrew McCabe, Comey’s former deputy—or Biden and Obama, for that matter—regardless of the evidence or the law. In Trump’s view, that’s how the “game” should be played, especially in the late innings. But not even Barr, who has repeatedly flouted Justice Department precedent on his behalf, understands this necessity. To Trump, that makes Barr, whom many critics regard as the ultimate Presidential lackey, another failure and disappointment.
On Saturday, the embattled President is intending to address a group of supporters from the White House balcony—the same balcony where, on Monday evening, he took off his mask and preened after returning from Walter Reed. Since then, his antic behavior and all-pervading self-pity have been redolent of other strongmen who felt history closing in on them. As November 3rd gets closer, there is every reason to expect that he will get even more unhinged. It’s going to be a crazy three and a half weeks.
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