President Donald Trump started the week with a Rose Garden ceremony that should have been nothing more than a dignified commemoration of the sacrifices made by firefighters, police and other first responders who rushed to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.From his lips to god's ears.
On Thursday night, he was back on his favorite territory: A rally of political supporters at an arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, that really needed to offer much more than what we’re accustomed to hearing from him at these gatherings.
The president failed to deliver at both events. This should remind voters who Trump is and the challenges he faces as the outlines of the 2020 presidential campaign become clearer and the shape of his opposition from Democrats comes into focus.
The gathering Trump hosted at the White House Monday was straightforward and meant to be bracing and reaffirming for everyone involved. The president was on hand to sign a bill into law that would provide permanent medical care and compensation to the Sept. 11 responders. But he couldn’t help himself. A compassionate speech sounded all the right, sympathetic notes until he made it about himself.
“I was down there also, but I’m not considering myself a first responder,” Trump said of the site where the World Trade Center once stood. “But I was down there. I spent a lot of time down there with you.”
Oof. Not true. And by inserting himself into history and into a moment that quite properly belonged to the emergency services themselves, Trump shifted attention from the ceremony and onto himself. A wave of fact-checking and media reports followed. There was no evidence that he spent any meaningful time at Ground Zero, nor that he had, as he claimed on the campaign trail in 2016, helped “clear the rubble” there while he worried that the buildings would collapse on “all of us.” There was no evidence to support his fable that he sent more than 100 of his own workers to help at the site or his lie about seeing thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attack. Trump did take time on Sept. 11 to say that the collapse of the World Trade Center would make one of his buildings the tallest in Manhattan’s financial district. That wasn’t true, either.
On Tuesday evening, Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive, told MSNBC that Trump’s use of tragedies to promote himself wasn’t limited to Sept. 11. She said he’d also lied about narrowly avoiding dying in a helicopter crash in 1989 that killed three of his casino executives. I noted in a tweet on Thursday that the families of two of those executives, Steve Hyde and Mark Etess, also knew that Trump lied about avoiding the crash – and that he did so to get media attention for himself after their deaths instead of just honoring them.
My tweet prompted George Conway, a lawyer and prominent Trump critic, to post an article on Twitter recalling that the eulogy Trump delivered at his own father’s funeral in 1999 was largely self-referential. I knew this to be true and responded to Conway with some details about the eulogy that Alan Marcus, a former Trump adviser, had shared with me. Trump began the eulogy, Marcus recalled, more or less like this: “I was in my Trump Tower apartment reading about how I was having the greatest year in my career in the New York Times when the security desk called to say my brother Robert was coming upstairs.” Marcus said “there was an audible gasp” from mourners stunned by Trump’s self-regard. (My exchanges with Conway resulted in the creation of a Twitter hashtag, #TrumpEulogies, featuring satirical, fictional and self-referential funeral orations from the president).
Trump’s self-absorption has been profound of late. He has invited widespread criticism (except from members of his own political party) for weeks of hostile, racist comments directed at Democrats of color. He has pushed for brutal confrontations with migrants on the U.S.’s southern border to solve a humanitarian crisis created by his own policies. He’s escalated a trade war with China even though the impact of the battle lands most heavily and adversely on the consumers and farmers Trump should be courting for his 2020 bid. He has harangued the Federal Reserve relentlessly to lower interest rates and the Fed did so for the first time in a decade on Wednesday. While Trump’s lobbying could be motivated by his own macroeconomic insights, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s strong-arming the Fed to juice the economy so it and securities markets remain buoyant ahead of the 2020 election.
At his Cincinnati rally Thursday night Trump unspooled familiar themes. In a flood of self-aggrandizing talking points, he attacked the Democrats, the media, the judiciary, Hillary Clinton, and Robert Mueller; extolled the virtues of supporters who adore him; slagged the city of Baltimore and the state of California for the umpteenth time; invented some new history for Russia; dumped on immigrants; took credit for legislation helping military veterans that Barack Obama actually signed; and pledged to “keep America great.” Oh, and he promised to cure cancer.
There was a lot in that Cincinnati grab bag that appealed to the president’s most loyal fans. It’s not clear, though, whether any of the bombast helps Trump expand his electoral franchise beyond his base or makes his case effectively to voters in a handful of swing states in the Midwest and elsewhere that will probably determine who wins the White House in 2020.
It’s always a mistake to assume Trump thinks strategically rather than viscerally, anyhow. And his Cincinnati rhetoric is in keeping with his Rose Garden performance on Monday and the eulogy he delivered at his father’s funeral 20 years ago: Narcissistic and self-serving. Trump is being Trump, and it’s not certain that the circumstances that allowed him to get away with that in 2016 will be so accommodating this time around. If the less committed voter has tired of the act, Trump’s self-worship may prove to be self-defeating.
Completely beyond parody: Asked if he has a message for Poland on the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, Trump says, "I have a lot of respect for Poland, and as you know the people of Poland like me. And I like them. And I'm going to be going to Poland fairly soon." pic.twitter.com/jGd0xNJIH4— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 1, 2019