“Believe me, there’s no collusion.”
— Donald J. Trump
Trump gave a talk from the East Room of the White House today, and everybody watched. What does it all mean, as the preacher said to the mosh-pit. The entire event was a dull affair, if we’re being honest. The event was ostensibly a joint press conference between the Presidents of two friendly countries. There were a lot of meaningful glances between the Commander-in-Chief and his theoretical peer, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The event was designed to communicate that Trump is a Very Serious Man in a Very Serious Time.
The playful secret in the room, the daydream of an impeachment, would not disappear, and could not be hand-waved away into nonexistence. Trump announced, “I can only speak for myself,” as if anyone else who has ever lived could capture his highly unique phrasing:
There’s no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign — but I can only speak for myself — and the Russians — zero.
The sentence was classic Trump. I don’t mean the pauses and dashes. The character is all him. The President is not an aware man. In his entire life, Trump only demonstrates shrewdness when it means keeping his own capacious person out of harm’s way. The Donald insisted there was no team-up with Russia, but was careful to add the lawyerizing qualification that he had not colluded. But those other guys, who knows?
It was a weird twist of language, and suggested a red flag: it indicated the “author” of Art of the Deal was, in fact, ready to make a deal. I suspect Trump wants to clear himself at all costs, even if the price is letting his team sink beneath the waves. In poker, they call this a tell. That’s what Trump does. Throw others in the line of fire.
But first things first. The President began, as he always does, by praising people, topping each mention with rote encomiums to their strength and power. You know the music by now: this guy is tremendous, this guy is great, the best, etc. At no point was Trump’s speech distinguishable from the rhetorical tropes of wrestling speech—except wrestling speech is meaningful and beautiful. Triple H is more eloquent, honest, and moving than anything the President has said during his entire term.
Really, the big reveal for this episode was Trump’s willingness to praise a man from South of the Border, which was new for all of us.
In this weirdest of all possible worlds, the East Room seemed appropriate for lurid displays. Those strange, heavy saffron curtains and the overwrought Gilded Age flower spittoons seemed natural, even healthy, in this Gothic air. The tawdry surroundings, which would have been fit for a 1900 socialite, complemented Trump, who had shown a loathing for all the business of reading and an endless need for Scotch Tape on his ties. The winter of life invested with the spring of power makes a merry martyr of taste.
Then Our President invited the press to ask questions. There is no collusion, Trump said, between me and the Russians. Zero. He went on to say exactly what every President under siege has said since Watergate: this is a distraction from what matters, we want to bring this great country of ours together. That was as far as the President got before starting to brag; boasting is the drive-through that is always open in the hungry rear of Trump’s mind.
“I’m fine with whatever people want to do,” Trump said, as he wove his enchanting spell. “We’ve made tremendous progress, tremendous progress.”
What really happened today is this: Trump moved into triage mode. It was a subtle shift of weight, but on these grounds, it spoke libraries. This was not exactly the same Trump as in ye olden times. Where were the offensive strikes against his enemies? The President made a stab at his critics, but he was as defensive as a sinner caught with five aces. Trump knows he is under the microscope. The President is an obliging guzzler of news—he is aware of what people are saying. How could he not be?
He denied seducing Comey. There had been no Graduate-like meeting between him and the FBI Director, he informed us. He had not requested Comey stop the investigation. There had been nothing done which was worthy of impeachment. “Working our country properly,” he said, in apparent seriousness.
Trump then rattled off a string of easily demonstrable falsehoods. Director Comey was very unpopular with most people, he said. I received a strong recommendation from Rod Rosenstein, he said. I cherish the FBI, he said. The FBI is special to me, he said. Even my enemies say there’s no collusion, he said.
Not since the dawn of prestige TV have so many high-profile stories been so quickly invented for so many watchers. Trump went into a compelling description of an alternate reality very much like ours. “Obamacare is a fallacy,” he said.
One could only imagine the thoughts of Santos, a Nobel Prize winner. How would you feel, staring at President Donald Trump? What would you be thinking, if you were Santos, knowing the depth and seriousness of the American President? Imagine you were Santos, who had to wheedle and barter between armed camps in your own country.
And after you have moved heaven and earth to heal your nation, you, Santos, the 32nd President of República de Colombia, are made to stand next to this bumbling, husky-voiced charlatan. Imagine you were Santos, Fulbright scholar, holder of Mexico’s Order of the Aztec Eagle. I expect you would say all the cordial things required of you, fulfill all the protocols. It’s what you’ve done all your career; not only are you a lifelong politician, but you have spent the last several years sitting across the table from people who you probably wish you could strangle.
If you were Santos—if you were the rest of the world—you would stare at Donald Trump in curious silence, the way a bystander might look at a balsa-wood cathedral under the blowtorch: what frail material, what great ambitions, and what ruin a quick fire makes of them both.