President Trump’s campaign spent the past several weeks trying to center the presidential campaign on cogency. His message has combined spreading baseless claims that Joe Biden is trying to get out of debating him and offering his time to right-leaning but tough interviewers. The latter part of the strategy has backfired spectacularly. Two weeks ago, he rambled through a jaw-dropping interview with Chris Wallace. Last night, he gave a shorter but equally disastrous performance with Jonathan Swan.
The interview contained so many crazy and disqualifying moments that they crowded each other out, and none of them is likely to register in the public memory. (In this way, it was a synecdoche for the entire Trump era.) But in an attempt to impose some order on the surreal events, here is a ranking of the wildest moments, measuring every moment by a combination of novelty and political damage, using my proprietary, secret formula.
9. John Lewis will be remembered for skipping Trump’s inauguration
Asked how history would remember the late civil-rights icon, Trump replied, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speech.”
Prompted by Swan to give a nod to Lewis’s history in civil-rights activism, Trump instead returned to skipping the inauguration, which he emphasized this was “a big mistake.”
8. Having many different tests is good
The coronavirus testing system in the United States has been a disastrous hodgepodge. There is no uniform standard, it is difficult for parts of the system to coordinate or communicate with each other, and even people who do get tests have to wait so long for the response that the signal is useless.
Trump presented this state of affairs as if it was good. “We’ve come up with so many different kind of tests,” he boasted. “The only thing we have now is some people have to wait longer than we’d like them to.”
7. The only problem with his Tulsa death rally was too few people attended
Swan asked Trump why he would hold a huge maskless indoor rally during a pandemic. Trump’s reply, incredibly, was to boast about the size of the crowd and insist it was twice as large as news reports (and photos) indicated:
We had a 19,000 seat stadium. First of all, we had 12,00 people, not 6,000, which you reported. But, you couldn’t even get in. It was like an armed camp — 120 Black Lives Matter people there, and Tulsa …
When Swan tried to clarify and ask why he felt it was wise to hold such a rally during a pandemic, Trump explained, “That area was a very good area at the time. It was an area that was pretty much over … Oklahoma was doing very well as a state.” And then he held a large concentrated indoor event with lots of cheering and shouting, after which the virus seemed to have spread. Who could have known?
6. “The manuals” say you shouldn’t test too much
Trump has repeatedly said he doesn’t like coronavirus testing because it shows how many cases you have, which makes him look bad. This time he attributed this position to undefined manuals and books.
Trump: There are those that say, you can test too much. You do know that.
Swan: Who says that?
Trump: Oh, just read the manuals. Read the books.
Swan: Manuals? What manuals?
Trump: Read the books. Read the books.
Swan: What books?
Trump changed the topic rather than explain.
5. The virus cannot be contained any better than it is now
On several occasions, Trump replied to questions about the coronavirus response by insisting the U.S. is containing the virus as well as it possibly could. When Swan points out that 1,000 Americans are now dying per day, Trump replies, “They are dying. That’s true. And you have — it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”
At another point, he conceded, “They are dying. That’s true. And it is what it is.”
When Swan asks about the long delay between testing and results — a delay that renders the tests all but useless — Trump again shrugs, saying, “It’s three or four or five days, there’s nothing you can do about that.”
4. Defending Putin’s bounties on U.S. soldiers
This was the first clip Axios released from the interview. In it, Trump denied that Russia is paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops, denied that reports of the bounties were in his intelligence briefing (they were), defended Russia for arming the Taliban, and admitted he didn’t even bring the issue up in his last phone call with Vlad.
On its own, the clip seemed crazy, but in the context of the surrounding interview, it was almost sober.
3. Ghislaine Maxwell might be innocent?
Trump has previously expressed his well-wishes for Jeffrey Epstein accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell. “Mr. President, Ghislaine Maxwell has been arrested on allegations of child-sex trafficking,” he asked.
“You don’t know that,” replied Trump. Swan noted that we do in fact know that Maxwell has been arrested.
Trump then explained she was in jail: “Good luck. Let them prove that somebody is guilty.” It is weird for President Lock Her Up to give an obviously guilty sex trafficker the benefit of the doubt.
2. Nonsense chart exchange
Trump is attempting to obscure the fact that the U.S. currently has a much worse outbreak than almost any peer country. The method of obfuscation he is trying to use — most likely, that his aides have prepped for him — is to cite the raw numbers of tests performed and the death rate of patients who have coronavirus. This allows him to avoid the fact that the U.S. has far-higher rates of both coronavirus infections and deaths.
Unfortunately for Trump, he cannot remember his lines, and so he simply hands over the charts that have been given him without coherently explaining what they’re supposed to mean. “Well, right here, the United States is lowest in numerous categories. We’re lower than the world. We’re lower than Europe.”
Swan looks at the chart and realizes Trump has given him the proportion of patients who die who already have the coronavirus. That number, of course, means very little. The problem is not that the coronavirus kills more people who have it here than who have it elsewhere. The problem is that way more people have it here.
When Swan points out that he is citing the percentage of people who die as a proportion of the public, not the proportion who die as a share of patients, Trump seems not to understand what he is even saying. “You have to go by — you have to go by — here, look. Here is the United States. You have to go by the cases.”
He looks like an addled used-car salesman trying to upsell a customer on Tru-Coat, but he can’t remember what it’s called, so he keeps saying “it’s for your car.”
1. The Civil Rights Act hasn’t worked out very well
Swan: Lyndon Johnson! He passed the Civil Rights Act.
Trump: Ask, ask: how has it worked out? If you take a look at what Lyndon Johnson did. How has it worked out?
Swan: You think the Civil Rights Act was a mistake?
Trump changed the subject back to his administration and the fact that black unemployment was low. (Before it became very high.)
Even the most racist Republicans at least give lip service to supporting the Civil Rights Act. The standard racist demagogic move is to imply that the civil-rights movement turned bad after ending de jure segregation. Claiming it was a mistake to end segregation is not a popular or clever idea.