Over the span of a few hours, the president would mix the traditional pablum of Thanksgiving tidings with renouncing the findings of his Central Intelligence Agency, threatening Mexico, criticizing court decisions, attacking Hillary Clinton over her emails, misstating facts about the economy, floating a shutdown of the government — and per usual, jousting with the news media.
Asked what he was most thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day — a question that for commanders in chief usually prompts praise of service members in harm’s way — Trump delivered a singularly Trumpian answer.
“I made a tremendous difference in our country,” he said, citing himself.
Trump opened the public part of his day by hosting a televised conference call with military officers around the world that, while intended to spread cheer and inoculate him from criticism of his absence from war zones, quickly morphed into an effort to enlist them in his domestic priorities.
In the slathered-in-gold center foyer of his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump sat at a small table covered in a black tablecloth, holding a script as aides scurried about. An American flag stood nearby, and a crystal chandelier dangled above. Behind him, servers arranged the tables for a Thanksgiving feast.
Beneath a gold ceiling, Trump told troops representing five branches in five countries overseas about “barbed wire plus . . . the ultimate” that was blocking migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Loquacious and hopping from topic to topic, he debated the merits of steam catapults vs. electromagnetic ones for aircraft carriers and whether the United States was being treated poorly on trade. On both occasions, perplexed officers on the other end of the phone seemed to disagree with his conclusions.
He blamed “the world” for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, disputing the analysis from the CIA that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was to blame. In fact, Trump said inexplicably, the crown prince hated the death even more than Trump did.
Explaining why he needed to keep a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, he cited lower oil prices. That leads to lower gas prices, he said, before saying the news media had unfairly blamed him for traffic jams caused by cheap gas.
In recent weeks, Trump has stumbled when it came to demonstrating his support for the military — skipping a military cemetery memorial service outside Paris, declining to visit Arlington National Cemetery to mark Veterans Day and mocking a Navy SEAL who led the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, saying bin Laden should have been found far earlier.
Asked Thursday whether it was enough to call troops from his palatial resort and later visit officers at a nearby station, he retreated to a familiar boast.
“Nobody’s done more for the military than me,” Trump said.
Sometimes, he praised those on the other end of the line, but often by extension he praised himself.
“A as in the best,” he said of one Coast Guard officer’s school, likening it to his alma mater. “Going to that school is like going to the Wharton School of Finance if you happen to be doing what you do.”
A Navy commander in Bahrain, a U.S. ally, became the foil to discuss trade.
“As you know, trade for me is a very big subject,” Trump said, adding that the United States was getting ripped off.
“We don’t have any good trade deals,” Trump complained.
The commander seemed confused and told the president of abundant goods being carried across nearby waters. “We don’t see any issues in terms of trade right now,” the officer said.
Trump quickly moved on to hurricane response, bragging several times about the improving brand of the Coast Guard.
“Waves like record-setting. It’s been record-setting. The one hurricane in Texas they say dumped more water, and it was more violent in terms of water, than anything we’ve ever had in the country,” he said, referring to rescues they had undertaken.
He complained at length that a new Navy ship was using electromagnetic catapults to propel planes off ships. He said steam was better and was incredulous the military would consider otherwise. “Would you go with steam or would you go with electromagnetic? Because steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic, unfortunately, you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly,” he asked.
“You have to be Albert Einstein to run the nuclear power plants that we have here, as well. But we’re doing that very well. I would go, sir, with electromagnetic,” the officer responded.
Trump repeatedly asked military commanders what they were seeing in their regions, a conversation not usually held on a televised broadcast. He asked if those serving in Afghanistan were enjoying themselves. (Later, he demurred when asked by reporters whether he would pull troops out of the country.)
He bragged during part of the conversation about sending troops to the Mexico border, a mission that is controversial and seen by many as a waste of time. He expressed no second-guessing about the constitutionality of signing an order giving soldiers the right to use lethal force at the border, although many in his government harbor such concerns.
As he spoke, a soccer net was being set up on the large front lawn, and his daughter Ivanka Trump and her children were spotted in leisurewear near the mangrove bushes.
The subsequent 55-minute question-and-answer session with reporters had a similar antic air. He claimed to know little about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or the Justice Department’s desire to prosecute him. (In the past, Trump has said, “I love WikiLeaks!”)
Falsely, the president said the gross domestic product percentage was “going down to minus 4, 5, 6 percent” when he took office, describing the country as “teetering” under President Barack Obama. (It was a positive 2.1 percent in the last quarter of 2016.)
He offered, without evidence, that Clinton had “probably” deleted more than 100,000 emails, a continuation of his long campaign to impugn her for using a private email system. At the same time, he defended Ivanka Trump’s use of a private email account for government business as “very innocent.” He said Ivanka’s private emails were all “in the Historical Society”; her lawyer has said they were forwarded to an official government server.
He disclosed that he was interviewing job candidates at Mar-a-Lago, although no jobs are known to be open. He has let his frustration with several Cabinet officials be known, and the president said Thursday that embattled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was “in there trying.” And he offered effusive, unprompted praise for Hope Hicks, a former top aide.
By 11:15 a.m., he had arrived at a nearby Coast Guard station, where he greeted troops and posed for pictures for 14 minutes in a sweltering kitchen, in front of a tray of submarine sandwiches the troops would soon eat for lunch. He served no turkey but told Coast Guard officials there that he would give them $100 if they could break par at his golf course.
By noon, Trump disappeared behind the towering hedges of that course. Thursday night, he was enjoying a spread in the gilded Mar-a-Lago ballroom. The menu included turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, ribs, Chilean sea bass, Florida stone crab, beef tenderloin and Caesar salad, among other dishes. Surrounded by family, he pointed at the cameras and waved while other clubgoers angled to get in the camera shot.