Buried deep in the transcript of Donald Trump's interview with The Washington Post's editorial board on Monday is a question and response that it's hard not to see as neatly encapsulating the entire Trump phenomenon.
Post publisher Fred Ryan asked Trump if he would consider using a tactical nuclear strike against the forces of the Islamic State, were he president. Trump responded that he didn't want to "start the process of nuclear," then reminding the editors that he was "a counter-puncher."
"Remember, one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counter-puncher," Trump said. "Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. He spent, by the way -- he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting..."
Ryan jumped in. "This is about ISIS," he reminded Trump. "You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?"
"I’ll tell you one thing," Trump replied. "This is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?"
It's at 56:10 in the audio above. Listen to it. It's remarkable. The editors introduced themselves, and the topic was dropped. (For good measure, on his way out of the meeting, Trump called digital editor Karen Attiah "beautiful.")
Naturally, the thing started with the real estate developer praising The Post's new offices. After that, very little was predictable. Reading through the transcript, there are a number of moments that can only be described as baffling.
Immediately prior to the question about the nuclear strike, for example, Trump spent 550 words and several minutes defending the size of his hands ... and correlated appendages. Why did he bring up size during the debate? "I don't want people to go around thinking that I have a problem."
He concluded his thoughts as follows:
[Rubio] said, ‘Donald Trump has small hands and therefore he has small something else.’ I didn’t say that. And all I did is when he failed, when he was failing, when he was, when Christie made him look bad, I gave him the – a little recap and I said, and I said, and I had this big strong powerful hand ready to grab him, because I thought he was going to faint. And everybody took it fine. Whether it was presidential or not I can't tell you.
That discussion was preceded by this, for which you're welcome to look up the full context: "I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs."
Trump insisted to The Post that he would like to have libel laws loosened in some unspecified way so that he could more easily sue the media. His example? That the media ... weren't fair about the protesters at his events? He described the African-American man who was recorded punching a protester at one of his rallies, saying that the protester was accompanied by someone dressed in Klan regalia.
"By the time it got on to the national shows," he said, "that was for the most part taken out. They just had this African American smacking, you know, fighting. ... We don’t condone violence at all but it’s very, very unfair reporting." So therefore, libel laws should be loosened.
(He really doesn't like the protesters, whom he blames for the violence. "You’re making a speech and you have guys getting up saying, 'f--- you,' and the whole place goes, 'Whoa,' and it incites the place," Trump said. "They incite the place, because then everyone goes, 'USA, USA.' That’s why they’re all screaming 'USA, USA,' or 'Trump, Trump, Trump.'")
At one point, he replies to a question about racial divisions in the country by pointing to his event last weekend in Arizona:
I see it when we go out and we have 21,000 people in Phoenix, Arizona, the other day, the division – not so much Phoenix, because that was actually very smooth. There wasn’t even a minor -- they did block a road, but after that, that was Sheriff Joe Arpaio, when the road was unblocked everyone left and it was fine. But in Tucson, you can see the division.
And that division? "I think it’s as bad -- I mean you have to say it’s as bad or almost as bad as it’s ever been." Things were pretty tricky 160 years ago, but we'll let that slide. His solution? To be a cheerleader for the country, which he'd hoped President Obama would be, but Obama hasn't been.
Donald Trump has been practicing talking around questions from the media for a very long time, and in a sit-down with the editorial board of The Washington Post, he offered few (if any) specifics. He deflected a serious question about handling the Islamic State first by comparing it to the campaign and then with a simple diversion. Remarkable.
Oh, he also complained about The Post's coverage of him (save for the objectively great Robert Costa). "The Washington Post never calls me," he moaned. "I never had a call, 'Why – why did you do this?' or 'Why did you do that?' It’s just, you know, like I’m this horrible human being. And I’m not."
We suspect that his press secretary doesn't tell him about the times she fails to respond to our emails.