Interviewing politicians is, much of the time, a waste of energy. You get more substance from the campaign flyer someone stuck under your windshield wiper. Even the “tough questions” are greeted with road-tested, committee-drafted answers devoid of content. Sometimes, though, you get a live one, a person with no filter, no internal monologue, no brakes and no grasp of the material being discussed. That kind of interview is rare but revealing. Sometimes, horribly so.
This one involved the president of the United States, and The New York Times.
Consider this quote alone: “I mean, one of my ideas was repeal. But I certainly rather would get repeal and replace, because the next last thing I want to do is start working tomorrow morning on replace. And it is time. It is tough. It’s a very narrow path, winding this way. You think you have it, and then you lose four on the other side because you gave. It is a brutal process.”
Let’s crack it like crude. First of all, for every news correspondent and TV talking head wondering why Trump didn’t take a more active role in promoting something he promised on a daily basis for more than a year, well… there’s your answer. The man does not know, or care to know, the first thing about the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation. “My ideas”? Nope.
He comprehends neither the processes of health care, nor the insurance industry, nor the politics that surround them like a bloated cocoon. He didn’t promote the legislation because he couldn’t, and like as not, Senate Republicans wanted him nowhere near it. They haven’t been questioning his absence the way Democrats and the media have, because they probably wanted it that way. The man was not up to the drill, and it shows every time he even brushes up against the topic.
Here is a sample of the verbal Jiu-Jitsu Trump hits us with: “The next last thing I want to do is start working tomorrow morning on replace.” Those are words. He definitely said something. They wrote it down. What does it actually mean? No one knows.
Last but not least from that short yet astonishing paragraph: “You think you have it, and then you lose four on the other side because you gave.” He never “had it,” of course — the Better Care Reconciliation Act was in peril before it ever saw the light of day, and everyone but Trump knew this. Those “four on the other side” were actually stalwart Republicans from liberal strongholds like Kentucky, Alaska, Maine and Kansas. He “gave” to the “other side,” and that’s why the legislation keeps failing? No, I totally get it, or something.
Way to advertise his party’s ongoing civil war, by the way. What side is he on? Oh, right. His own.
That was one small paragraph, a mere accent in the symphony. There is more like this, so much more, but don’t take my word for it. Read it. Better yet, read it out loud. Feel the formation of it in your own mouth. When he was young, Hunter S. Thompson would type out every word of timeless works like The Great Gatsby from beginning to end because, he later explained, he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece. This is just like that, only completely in reverse and a hell of a lot less edifying.
The mainstream media outlets are going sideways with delight because Trump used the interview to verbally menace, if not openly threaten, virtually everyone in Washington DC. He warmed up by threatening Nevada’s GOP Sen. Dean Heller to his face on live TV before the interview took place, and Senator Heller just chuckled like a child’s toy that got kicked down the stairs by the dog. Trump questioned the integrity of the acting FBI Director and his wife. He slagged Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and then bizarrely took off on Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, “who is from Baltimore. There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he’s from Baltimore.” And the Orioles take it in the teeth once again.
Weaved throughout the conversation was Trump’s scattered drum-and-bass jam about Russia. “I would say,” he said, “I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia.” Nevertheless, he certainly got edgy about Special Counsel Robert Mueller looking into his finances. He called such possible actions a “red line” and a “violation.”
Trump sounded nervous, and rightly so. His son took a meeting with a Russian accused of international money-laundering, a former Soviet counter-intelligence officer with ties to the international hacker community, and a Russian attorney devoted to lifting the sanctions against a bunch of Russian oligarchs who had their assets seized after the man who exposed their massive money-laundering operation died in prison — all this, it seems, in service to the Russian government’s professed desire to help the Trump campaign.
An investigation by former Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara into Russian money-laundering with ties to “Manhattan real estate entities” ended when Bharara was fired by Trump. That investigation has been folded into Mueller’s. The lawyer representing the Russian being investigated by Bharara was the lawyer at Trump Jr.’s meeting. Yeah, I’d be nervous, too.
At the end of the conversation, Trump refused to say whether he would fire Mueller if he took the investigation in that direction because, Trump said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” It happened, almost immediately. The next morning, Bloomberg News revealed that Robert Mueller is, in fact, pursuing an investigation into the financial dealings not only of Trump, but of Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and perhaps others.
By Thursday evening, The Washington Post was reporting that Trump was in the mood to talk about his pardoning powers: “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe … A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves. ” This is, simply, unprecedented. Of course, every single president at some point probably joked about pardoning themselves. Trump is the first president to really mean it. Even Nixon had more shame than that.
The “red line” has been crossed, and all the secrets are waiting for daylight. The world woke up on Friday morning wondering if Mueller still had a job. Will Trump actually pardon himself? Will he fire Mueller and drop a political and constitutional bomb? Archibald Cox, your table is ready.
In any interview, especially one involving the president of the United States, you hope to come across something genuine to take away, a sliver of the real person behind the politics and the sloganeering. I found one such sliver in the onslaught that was this interview, and it is all too telling in its pure moral depravity. When speaking of the health care legislation and the issue of pre-existing conditions, Trump said: “As they get something, it gets tougher. Because politically, you can’t give it away. So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal.”
The “they” he refers to are people living with disabilities and chronic illness — those with pre-existing conditions. There are more than 130 million of them, not counting elderly people. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about half the country has at least one pre-existing condition. “It gets tougher” means, “It gets tougher to take care away once they have it.” This is offered as a lamentation, a bad thing: It’s a “tough deal” that it’s politically difficult to strip people of needed care once they have gotten access to it. The inability to screw over sick folks, likely with lethal consequences, is a real bummer for the president.
In the end, we come away with what most of us already knew, though some of us steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it: We are afflicted with this dangerous, cruel, callow, staggeringly uninformed, petulant, blustering bully for precisely as long as cowardice and greed hold sway in the governing bodies of this republic.
I am just at ebb tide with this man. I hope you are, too.