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Trump’s Staff Is in Denial, But World Leaders Aren’t

The White House says Trump's words don't matter. No one's buying it.

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In the closing days of a hard-fought election, the last thing British Prime Minister Theresa May needs is to get caught up in one of President Donald Trump’s social media dust-ups. But President Donald Trump has shaken one of America’s oldest alliances by carrying on a one-sided Twitter feud against London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is dealing with the aftermath of a Saturday night terrorist attack that left seven dead. Trump first misrepresented Khan’s words, and then lashed out again when Khan’s spokesman rightly stated that the mayor “has more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet.”

May, the Conservative leader, has been under intense pressure to respond to Trump’s wildly inappropriate derision. After hemming and hawing for a day, she issued a minimal rebuke: “Sadiq Khan is doing a good job. It’s wrong to say anything else.” May’s rival, Jeremy Corbyn, was more forceful in defending his Labour colleague, saying on a speech in Sunday that “it is the strength of our communities that gets us through these awful times as London Mayor Sadiq Khan recognized, but which the current occupant in the White House has neither the grace nor the sense to grasp.” Corbyn also used Twitter to chastise Trump’s response to the terror attack:

Yet as Trump’s tweets were roiling British politics, the president’s own surrogates argued on Monday that the press was making too much of his words. White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway told the Today show that there is “this obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.” Sebastian Gorka, a senior White House national security official, said on CNN that Trump’s tweets were “social media” and “not policy.” In her press briefing, principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the contradictory argument that Trump’s tweets were both an important megaphone for reaching the general public and something the media was paying too much attention to. “[Trump’s tweets] matter in the sense that it gives him a communications tool, again that isn’t filtered through media bias,” Sanders argued. “But at the same time I do think that the media obsesses over every period, dot.”

There’s a reality gap between the White House and the rest of the world. Those around Trump are in apparent denial about his words, which they either try to downplay or translate into more reasonable terms. This goes well beyond tweets. Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” and this past weekend he reportedly justified pulling out of the Paris agreement by saying, as Politico paraphrased it, “they can’t even get the weather report right, so how come they think they can get that right?” And yet, that same day, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said on CNN, “President Trump believes the climate is changing and he believes pollutants are part of the equation.” Trump also blindsided his foreign policy team in his speech to NATO leaders last month when he left out language, which had been cleared by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, reaffirming America’s support of the mutual defense commitment at the heart of the alliance. Nonetheless, two days later, McMaster assured the press that “of course” Trump supports it.

Instead of acting as surrogates for the real Trump, administration officials are engaged in a massive charade to pretend that the president is a much more moderate and stable leader than he is. Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall observed on Monday, “What is notable is that we are seeing in real time a White House and an administration trying to force a distinction between what a notional ‘President Trump’ has set as policy (usually meaning the policies key advisers have articulated) and the actual person Donald Trump who we see on Twitter and occasionally in unscripted press settings saying and doing things that often totally contradict his own policies.”

The problem with trying to create a Potemkin President is that the flesh-and-blood Trump continues to exist, blurting out embarrassing statements, turning every handshake into a battle of wills, and tweeting disparagingly about foreign politicians, American judges, and his own administration. Even America’s most subservient ally is finding his antics difficult to ignore, as May’s gritted-teeth response shows. It’s been markedly easier for autocrats, notably the president of China and the king of Saudi Arabia, because they can ignore his buffoonery and instead appeal to his pride (with flattery) or to his avarice (with business deals). Such tactics are much more difficult for democratic leaders, like May or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have to contend with popular opinion in their home countries, where appeasing Trump or turning a blind eye to his offenses is unpopular.

“The words of the president matter whether they’re spoken, written in a press release or sent out in a Tweet,” Ryan Williams, a veteran Mitt Romney spokesperson, told Politico. “Whatever the leader of the free world says and does is important and has meaning to it.” Normally, an observation like this would seem so obvious and banal that it wouldn’t even be worth recording. Yet in this bizarro presidency, we now have senior White House staffers making the argument that the president’s words don’t matter—an argument that Trump himself continues to contradict:

Donald Trump’s presidency has been a triumph of marketing over substance. The first miracle was convincing enough voters that he was fit for public office. Having achieved that remarkable feat, Trump’s cronies are now trying to convince the world that the Trump we see before our eyes isn’t the real president. The reaction from America’s longstanding allies suggests this new con job is failing.