Earlier this month, the Internet was gripped with a remarkable anecdote from Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury”: Apparently President Trump was so obsessed with watching gorillas fight on TV that his aides created a fake gorilla TV channel for him to watch?
This wasn’t true, as you certainly know by now. The gorilla channel excerpt was a joke propagated by Twitter user @pixelatedboat. It just sort of rang true to a lot of people, it seems.
It’s fair, after the gorilla channel incident, for people to have been skeptical of the following excerpt from a 2011 interview porn star Stormy Daniels conducted with the magazine InTouch Weekly, published in full for the first time Friday. The interview itself has attracted a great deal of attention because it corroborates reports from multiple outlets that Trump and Daniels had an affair in 2006 and reporting from the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s lawyer paid Daniels to keep quiet about it during the campaign.
Daniels describes an evening when she joined Trump in his hotel room in Beverly Hills.
“The strangest thing about that night — this was the best thing ever. You could see the television from the little dining room table and he was watching Shark Week and he was watching a special about the U.S.S. something and it sank and it was like the worst shark attack in history. He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks. He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’ He was like riveted. He was like obsessed. It’s so strange, I know.”
It’s important to remember that this interview was conducted in 2011, well before Trump tweeted about his disdain for sharks in 2013. (“Sharks are last on my list — other than perhaps the losers and haters of the World!”) So it’s pretty remarkable how much this one paragraph alone rings true given what we know now about him. That dislike of sharks. Trump being within sight of a television. Trump bragging about the amount of money he gives to charity to impress someone — even though that giving is often underwhelming compared with how he describes it. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who knows Trump’s charitable giving better than anyone, figured that only once had Trump actually given to a charity that might indirectly benefit sharks — but that donation was in 2010.
There’s another way in which this rings true, too. Trump loathes sharks and wants to eradicate them because he’s “terrified” of them, in Daniels’s telling. The program they were watching addressed the aftermath of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II, when 900 survivors of a Japanese torpedo attack became the target of a number of sharks. Only 317 men survived when rescuers found them days later, although it’s unclear how many were actually killed by sharks (as opposed to dying of exposure, etc.).
Certainly a terrifying incident — but also an anomaly. On average, sharks attacked slightly over 80 people a year globally without provocation from 2011 to 2016. In the United States, there have been 1,344 shark attacks — since 1837. On average, there are 48.7 attacks a year in the United States — the vast majority of which are nonfatal.
This should sound familiar. There have been some terrorist attacks in the United States as shocking as the events of the Indianapolis, none more so than the attacks of 9/11. But according to the Global Terrorism Database compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, there were 325 terrorist incidents in the United States from 2002 to 2016, resulting in 190 fatalities. That’s an average of 21.7 incidents and 12.7 fatalities a year, although those numbers were increasing over that period.
But, then, the number of shark attacks also increased over the past two decades, a function in part of how many people spend time at the shore.
Trump’s response to the terrorism incidents is generally as sweeping as his desire to eradicate sharks in response to “Shark Week.” His response to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino in late 2015 — an attack carried out by a man and wife, the former of whom was an American citizen — was to call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. (As president, he’s tried to implement this policy without acknowledging that’s his intent, barring migrants from a number of mostly Muslim countries.) He’s repeatedly trumpeted his administration’s firm hand in battling the Islamic State, including dropping bombs on the terrorist group at an unprecedented rate.
Trump wants to eradicate the threat of terrorism as eagerly as he once said he wanted to eradicate the threat of sharks — even though, in a population of more than 320 million, neither generally results in a particularly large number of deaths in the United States.
But this analogy is flawed. Those fatalities from terrorist attacks compiled by START include attacks perpetrated by a number of actors beyond just what they refer to as “jihadi-inspired extremists.” Of the 190 fatalities since 2002, slightly more than half — 105 — were attributed to either “jihadi-inspired” or “Muslim” extremists. An additional 19 were unknown.
(The size of the dark-green bars in 2015 and 2016 are largely a function of two attacks: The one in San Bernardino and the one at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.)
The analogy here is if Trump argued for the eradication of sharks because of the number of people killed at American beaches — but never talked about the number killed by the box jellyfish.
So this, too, rings true to Trump. When considering something he finds dangerous, he exaggerates the danger — and advocates a drastic response. There are many other ways in which the Daniels interview rings true beyond this one paragraph, but this anecdote about sharks helps us understand that the Trump with whom we’re familiar did not suddenly become who he is when he announced his candidacy in June 2015.
This article has been corrected to fix the location of Daniels’ interactions with Trump.