On Monday, as the nation marked Memorial Day, President Donald Trump mocked his campaign rival for wearing a face mask. On Wednesday, as the national death toll from coronavirus reached a wretched milestone, Trump and his family flew to Florida in an attempted focus on space travel.
By Friday, as smoke was lifting in Minneapolis after a night of racial unrest, he announced the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization. A day later, after another night of protests, he declared himself safe inside his heavily fortified mansion and insinuated his own supporters would rally outside that evening.
In between, there was a dark suggestion of murder, false conspiracies about voting through the mail, a fight over where to hold his nominating convention and a dramatic escalation of ill will with the very social media platform that facilitated almost all the other diversions in the first place.
Trump’s efforts to change the subject at moments of peril have been a hallmark of his entire career in politics and, when successful, a constant source of frustration for his rivals. But rarely have they appeared more blatant or off-key than now, as a battered nation emerges from a pandemic that has left more than 100,000 dead and as racial unrest brews again.
That it is all happening five months before Trump faces an election in which polls show him trailing only heightens the sense of a leader in crisis, even as he insists he has a handle on both matters and attempts to proceed as planned with his presidency. Trump, cognizant of his precarious political position, has retrenched.
Unwilling or unable to strike a unifying tone, Trump lashed out Saturday morning when he criticized the Democratic mayors of Washington and Minneapolis while appearing to summon his own supporters to rally outside the White House.
After announcing his was safe, warning he was protected by “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” Trump provided a play-by-play of Friday evening’s protests, of which he said he’d “watched every move.” Trump wrote: “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???”
Advisers insist Trump is focused on reviving the country after three months of pandemic that have led, along with the six-figure death toll, to record levels of unemployment and entire industries shuttered. Trump has aggressively pushed for states to reopen even when they don’t necessarily meet the parameters set out by his task force, which has seen its meetings sharply curtailed and its health experts’ public roles reduced.
At the same time, Trump has sought over the past week to shine the presidential spotlight into dustier corners filled with festering racial grievances and antique conspiracies, all of which have been debunked. He has waged feuds old and new and unveiled strategically timed policy announcements at a moment when his leadership is being questioned.
The events that unfolded after the President issued a tweet early Friday laden with racist overtones underscored the degree to which he has used inflammatory statements to ignite controversy and enthuse his supporters, even as he denied later that those were his intentions.
Aides spent Friday debating whether Trump should address the situation in Minnesota during a planned appearance in the Rose Garden, which had been called to announce new actions against China and the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
Some of his advisers encouraged him to speak about Minnesota because his election-year rival had already delivered an address on the topic. Others were more skeptical, convinced Trump would only face more questions about his tweet that used a phrase first uttered by a Miami police chief in 1967 to describe a crackdown in black neighborhoods.
More than 12 hours after tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” as images of Minneapolis fire and riots played on cable news, Trump insisted on Twitter that his message was not, in fact, a reference to brutal civil rights-era police tactics. But he ignored the topic in the Rose Garden, choosing instead to focus on China and retreating to the Oval Office as reporters shouted questions.
It was only around 5 p.m. ET – after a full day of public silence – that Trump announced he’d spoken with the family of George Floyd, the black man who had died after being pinned to the ground by his neck by a white police officer.
“It certainly looked like there was no excuse for it,” he said of the violent arrest during a roundtable event meant to focus on coronavirus.
The episode followed Trump’s longtime model of igniting controversy before retreating hours later. If anything, leaving his message lingering without explanation was a diversion in itself and another example of Trump’s inability – or unwillingness – to put aside the divisive itch he’s long cultivated.
The role of national consoler has never come easily to Trump, nor have attempts at unifying a country riven by politics and ideology. In many instances he’s simply shown no interest in assuming the tone or accepting the responsibilities that US presidents have shouldered throughout history.
He doesn’t believe it’s up to him to demonstrate responsible mask-wearing, and he retweeted a message earlier this week that appeared to mock former Vice President Joe Biden’s mask-and-aviators ensemble.
Most of the country may say Trump should wear a mask in public – a Quinnipiac University poll this week put the figure at 67% – but among white men the number stands only at 49%, enough for his stance to pass political muster with his most reliable bloc of supporters.
As coronavirus began ravaging parts of the country, he did declare himself a wartime President waging battle against the “invisible enemy.” But with war comes death – in this case, more US deaths than the Vietnam and Korean wars combined – and Trump was slow to acknowledge the 100,000 milestone reached midweek.
He was aboard Air Force One when the death toll officially ticked into six digits, returning to Washington after his plans to witness the first manned US space launch in nearly a decade had been thwarted by the weather.
He had hoped that the trip, with his entire family in tow, would help shift a national storyline from the miserable pandemic toward a more optimistic one of scientific potential. But the launch was scrubbed when thunderstorms rolled in and Trump was forced to return to Washington.
The President didn’t address the grim figure as he returned to the White House with the first lady on Wednesday.
He finally tweeted about it on Thursday morning, deeming it “a very sad milestone.” But he did not make time to address it in person.
Instead, he has wielded sinister conspiracies and false allegations.
He’s railed against vote-by-mail, which many governors are seeking to expand amid a highly contagious viral pandemic and which has not proved to be rife with fraud. Despite his issues with the practice, Trump himself voted by mail in February, even though he was in Florida – the state where he votes – on the day that early voting locations opened and drove past one that’s across from his golf course at least six times.
He has actively worked to relitigate the circumstances that led to Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, including this week, when he fan-danced around the still-unnamed allegation against his predecessor Barack Obama.
On Friday evening, his newly installed director of national intelligence appeared to further the cause by releasing the transcripts of phone calls between Trump’s onetime national security adviser and the then-Russian ambassador to the United States.
The darkest of Trump’s fixations remains the unfounded insinuation that a morning cable news host played a role in killing a young aide almost two decades ago, a blatant falsehood that led this week to pleas from the young woman’s widower for Twitter to disallow the messages.
The social media giant did not block those messages but did attempt to fact-check his claims about vote-by-mail, a move that set Trump off and led to a hurried effort inside the White House to finalize an executive order few believe will withstand legal scrutiny and that could, potentially, cause even more regulation of the President’s tweets. Hours after he signed it, Twitter slapped a warning on his Minnesota tweet, saying it glorified violence.
At one time, Trump used his once-a-week campaign rallies to unleash the vitriol and paranoia that his supporters love and that he believes are the very characteristics that led to his unlikely victory in 2016.
Rallies are out of the question for now – though aides say they’re looking to revive them sooner rather than later.
This story has been updated with additional developments.