President Trump just pivoted back to being President Trump.
While headed back from an empathetic visit to Hurricane Irma-stricken Florida and on the heels of more bipartisan dealmaking in Washington, the president reverted to his unapologetic, combative, dubious-claim-peddling self. In a 15-minute chat with reporters, he claimed vindication for his hugely controversial comments about Charlottesville, alluded to the Obama administration allegedly spying on his campaign, and — after repeatedly pointing to the unprecedented nature of the latest hurricanes in recent weeks — played down their size when asked whether climate change was to blame.
It was a performance that recalled Trump's wild news conferences, back when he used to do them. As we did with those, let's break Trump's comments down piece-by-piece.
"[Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and I] had a great talk yesterday. I think especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there. You have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also, and essentially that’s what I said. Now because of what’s happened since then with Antifa, when you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville, a lot of people are saying, and people have actually written, 'Gee, Trump may have a point.' I said there’s some very bad people on the other side also. But we had a great conversation. And he has legislation, which I actually like very much, the concept of which I support, to get people into certain areas and building and constructing and putting people to work. I told him yesterday that’s a concept I can support very easily.”
This is Trump quadrupling down on the controversial “both sides” and “many sides” comments he made after a white supremacist allegedly killed a woman and wounded many others by driving into a crowd of counterprotesters. Those comments were decried even by Republicans and criticized by his own staff — both privately and publicly, in the case of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn — who saw it as playing down the role of white supremacy.
The question was about his meeting with Scott, and yet Trump saw fit to reignite this whole controversy — at a time when Democrats who have labeled his policies and comments racist are trying to work with him. That doesn't bode well for his immigration wheeling and dealing.
There have indeed been some Democrats decrying the tactics of antifa, or anti-fascists, in recent weeks, but that's not the same thing as a bunch of people saying "Trump was right." If that's been happening, I sure haven't seen it. In the case of Charlottesville, one group was responsible for death, which made Trump's "both sides” commentary so troubling for so many.
It will also be interesting to see what Cohn and others do now that they have to keep dealing with this headache. There have already been plenty of reports that Cohn and Trump are disillusioned with each other.
On climate change and the storms' effect on his views of it:
“We’ve had bigger storms than this.” (He cited bigger storms in the 1910s, 1930s and 1940s.)
This is a far cry from what Trump has been saying for weeks. He has at times almost gleefully pointed to the supposedly unprecedented sizes of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
So which is it? The storms can't be the biggest in 500 years and “bigger than we have ever seen” but also unremarkable.
(Also, Philip Bump notes all the ways in which this hurricane season has been exceptional.)
On Susan E. Rice and unmasking:
“She’s not supposed to be doing that, and what she did was wrong. We’ve been saying that. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. She wasn’t supposed to be doing that — the unmasking and the surveillance. I heard she admitted that yesterday.”
Rice, who served as President Barack Obama's National Security Advisor, told Congress this week that she unmasked — or asked for the redacted identities of — Trump aides in intelligence reports to learn what the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was doing in New York last year. Trump's allies have argued that this unmasking was outside Rice's purview and that it may have even constituted spying on the Trump campaign.
Their claims are highly questionable, and Trump saying “what she did was wrong” is taking plenty of liberties. He also seems to be suggesting, with his “surveillance” and “tip of the iceberg” comment, that he might still believe he was spied upon by the Obama administration. And so another long-dormant controversy may have new life.
On Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and health care:
“It was a very unpleasant surprise. Now we have people talking about single-payer. So Republicans have to stick together better. We had the votes. John McCain changed his mind, pure and simple.”
Thus continues Trump's feud with McCain, who returned from treatment for brain cancer to deliver a key vote to move forward with debate, and then the deciding vote against the health-care bill.
But Trump seems to be freelancing here by suggesting that McCain changed his mind. Even as McCain voted to move forward with debate, he never suggested he was definitely on board with the final product, which has been called “skinny repeal.” In fact, his vote seemed to be very much in doubt throughout the process. (Politico has a good story on this.)
On tax reform:
“If the Republicans don’t stick together, then I’m going to have to do more and more. By the way, the Republican Party agrees with me. The people out there definitely agree with me. If they’re unable to stick together, then I’m going to have to get a little help from the Democrats. And I've got that, and I'll tell you, for the tax bill, I would be very surprised if I don’t have at least a few Democrats.” (He added that he won some states by 30 points where Democrats are running.)
This is a pretty strong threat issued to the congressional GOP.
On the Iran deal:
“You’ll see what I’m going to be doing very shortly in October. The Iran deal is one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen. Certainly, at a minimum, the spirit of the deal is atrociously kept. The Iran deal is not a fair deal to this country. It’s a deal that should not have ever been made. … We are not going to stand what they are doing with our country. They’ve violated so many different elements, and they’ve also violated the spirit of that deal.”
Two months ago, Trump's State Department certified Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal. If they have violated it, Trump's administration hasn't said how.