“Only what we have not accomplished and what we could not accomplish matters to us, so that what remains of a whole life is only what it will not have been,” wrote the dour Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran in Anathemas and Admirations, one of his later works. Trump’s fifth week in office gave Cioran’s quote new meaning. Trump did very little of note, at least compared to the flurry of activity and error that defined his first month in office. And yet that—for both Republicans and (especially) for pundits—was the real accomplishment.
After Trump’s rally on Saturday—a shameless and psychologically troubling exercise in validation after a series of scandals—pundits across the vast and diverse landscape that is the Sunday shows declared that Trump needed a reset. Trump’s fifth week is already being branded a success because the president rarely took to Twitter to rant at perceived slights (presumably because he was forcibly prevented from accessing his phone between the hours of 4:20 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.); only cited one fictional terrorist attack (provoking only one minor diplomatic incident); and, to the best of my knowledge, kept his pants firmly around his waist while in public.
We have been through this before. Trump had a disastrous August, for instance. He was smarting from the Khizr Khan debacle, he shook up his campaign team, and his campaign chair Paul Manafort quit after it became impossible to deny his numerous ties to Russia and to pro-Russian leaders. But it was still treated as a Great August Pivot™ by some in the media because Trump stirred shit only occasionally. Trump’s numerous failings as a politician and a person mean that the bar for normal adult behavior is set exceedingly low—somewhere between shelter dog and toddler.
Trump began his fifth week in a massive hole. His first month in office had been defined by incompetence, overreach, and scandal, all of which were encapsulated in the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. But with Congress in recess and with low-rent Hardy Boy Jason Chaffetz unwilling to push for a larger investigation, the Michael Flynn story—and the larger story of Trump’s troubling ties to Russia—began to fall by the wayside. By Friday morning, the attention of the nation was on the Trump administration’s insane 25-question poll about media bias—hosted on whitehouse.gov presumably because it didn’t meet surveymonkey.com’s notoriously high standards—and this promotional photo from Get Out.
That quickly changed when the Associated Press reported that the Trump administration was reportedly considering mobilizing 100,000 National Guard troops to round up and deport undocumented immigrants—the deportation force that Speaker Paul Ryan had repeatedly laughed off as a paranoid liberal fantasy. The Trump administration almost immediately condemned the report: “This is 100 percent not true,” yipped White House press secretary/effective distraction from carceral fascism Sean Spicer. But it soon became clear that the AP had informed them of their intent to publish 24 hours previously, suggesting the possibility that the White House intended to float the proposal as a trial balloon. Trump continued to make the case that he was a straightedge Nixon when he tweeted, then deleted, then tweeted again that the media was not his enemy, but the enemy of the United States.
On Friday, Trump also revealed that he was sexually attracted to airplanes, even ones that are sort of old.
On Saturday, Trump flew Air Force One from Mar-a-Lago, where he had presumably spent the morning asking patrons which country he should nuke first, to Melbourne, Florida, where he held a rally that was billed as the start of the 2020 campaign. (God help us all.) Trump was extremely pleased to be among friends—he even pulled a Bruce Springsteen and invited a fan on stage to dance/yell about how much he loves Trump. But the tension between campaigning and governing was still evident. Trump was not only seeking the comfort of adulation, but the comfort of the stump speech. It was his version of The Eagles “Hell Freezes Over” tour, consisting entirely of tired versions of old standards like, “The Press Is Evil and Out to Get Me (And Also You)” and “We’re Gonna Build a Great Wall (And Get Mexico To Pay For It).”
That’s not to say it was all old material, though. Trump also referred to a terror attack in Sweden that had happened the day before—the only trouble is that no such attack occurred. Trump later revealed that he got the idea that Sweden is a terrorism-infested hell hole from a documentary that aired on Tucker Carlson’s new show.
On Sunday, garden gnome (chaotic neutral) Chris Wallace and garden gnome (lawful evil) Reince Preibus yelled at each other on Fox News about Russia and the importance of a free press for several minutes and it was great. Trump only tweeted once on Sunday—clarifying his remark on Sweden, while not taking responsibility for it.
That would effectively set the tone for most of the week ahead. Trump’s team, surveying a disastrous month, clearly made the decision that silence was the best policy—that Trump’s unhinged, often off-message tweets were making governance harder and were eroding what little faith people had in his clearly incompetent and improvisational presidency.
On Monday, unwanted plastic action figure Mike Pence told a bunch of Europeans that the Trump administration would honor its NATO commitments and was, like, totally into the concept of a free press, to which nearly everyone said, “Oh, for sure, man.” Trump tapped Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to be his new national security adviser, leaving John Bolton at the altar once again. While the selection of McMaster over Bolton is good for anyone who thinks that war is maybe not the greatest, it’s worth pointing out that McMaster, as an active-duty service member, had to take the job and that Bolton was only passed over because Trump hates facial hair.
Also on Monday: Donald Trump, who hates when presidents play golf, played golf for the 67th time while in office; Milo Yiannopolous, who Trump has defended in the past, lost pretty much everything he had going for him over comments he made defending pedophilia; and the U.S. ambassador gave this bad hat to the Somalian president, who was clearly thrilled.
On Tuesday, Trump went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and said, while looking at some shackles, “That is really bad. That is really bad.” Trump also used the occasion to speak out against anti-Semitism, which has been on the rise since he declared his candidacy for president. “Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop and it has to stop,” Trump told MSNBC. “This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance, and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” That Trump had to condemn anti-Semitism in the first place was the notable thing, and yet Trump was nevertheless praised for his tardy, cursory statement. The Anne Frank Center rightfully labeled Trump’s remarks as being too little, too late.
Sean Spicer responded by shaking his head and wishing that they would focus on what was really important: not the disturbing rise in anti-Semitism and the wave of bomb threats against Jewish centers and synagogues, but Trump’s “leadership” on the issue. (One could argue that they were.) Trump didn’t tweet until Tuesday evening, when he accused people who are exercising their democratic rights by attending town halls held by congressmen, of being paid protesters. If you have any idea what “so-called angry crowds” means, hit me up.
Nevertheless, Trump’s Tuesday was seen as a big win by some. Here’s the lede of Politico’s Playbook from Wednesday:
WELL, YESTERDAY didn’t go too badly. President Donald Trump went to the African-American History museum, where he disavowed racism and spoke out against a new wave of anti-Semitism. He didn’t tweet his thoughts until 6:23 p.m., when he said the “so-called angry crowds” at town halls around the country were “planned out by liberal activists.” There were no massive blowups to speak of. Sean Spicer seemed spry during his press briefing, too.
The bar for a sitting president, as Eric Kleefeld noted, has never been lower. It has also never been lower for anyone else, ever, except maybe Atilla the Hun.
On Wednesday, Trump put on his pundit hat and sort of endorsed Keith Ellison for DNC chair.
What Trump is doing here is fairly obvious. Trump, like many Republicans, has seen the divide in the Democratic Party—between corporate, establishment forces and progressive, grassroots ones—as something to exploit for his own benefit. This is why, for instance, he rarely says bad things about Bernie Sanders. But, like most of Trump’s supposedly clever political ploys, it’s so obvious that it doesn’t work.
Trump, who had made absurd claims that he, not Hillary Clinton, was the real friend of the LGBT community in the wake of last summer’s horrific shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, also scrapped an Obama-era rule that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their gender identity—reportedly siding with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the process. The decision itself is discriminatory and horrifying, and is also largely in keeping with Trump’s pledge to return the country to darker, more discriminatory times. (DeVos, it’s worth adding, is no hero in this fight and shouldn’t be treated as one.)
Also on Wednesday: Mike Pence kind of helped clean up a Jewish cemetery in St. Lous that had been vandalized, suggesting that the Trump administration has maybe finally sort of realized that its reputation for aiding and abetting anti-Semitism is not good politically. And Politico reported that Trump’s recent good-ish behavior on social media may have resulted from his aides force-feeding him positive stories.
On Thursday, Trump described his immigration policy thusly: “We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country ... it’s a military operation.” In Mexico, a few hours later, his Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that there will be “no use of military force” in enforcing the administration’s immigration policies. For all of the spin that comes out of the press room and Trump’s communications team, no one gets to the essence of what Donald Trump is really doing like Donald Trump.
Enemy of the dank bud Jeff Sessions reversed policies aimed at reducing America’s use of private prisons, which are a major driver of mass incarceration. But Trump’s fifth week ended more or less where it began. Late on Thursday, CNN reported that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked FBI officials to deny that members of Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian intelligence officials. The FBI refused. Sean Spicer denied the whole thing unconvincingly, saying, “We didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth.” But the Russia story is the biggest Achilles heel in a presidency that is made almost entirely of Achilles heels.
In the lead-up to Trump’s fifth week, everyone argued that he needed a “reset.” But Trump has never done a “reset.” Instead, he’s just been marginally less odious—and significantly less public-facing. After a public rally that made him feel good about himself, Trump spent much of his fifth week as president out of the limelight, resurfacing on Friday only to give another stump speech at CPAC. Don’t be fooled: He is biding his time until he can come out and start swinging wildly again.