One of the most undersold aspects of President Trump's “shithole countries” comment is the setting in which he said it — specifically, in a meeting with a bunch of senators, including Democratic ones. Did Trump really not expect that such a comment would leak out of a room in which his political adversaries like Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) are present?
This really goes back to a central question of Trump's presidency, and that's whether he's self-aware. Trump does so many things outside the political and societal mainstream that one wonders if he knows he's doing it. The alternative explanation is that he's merely floating unwittingly from controversy to controversy, utterly surprised that people would be offended he labeled one-sixth of the world's population — which happens to be overwhelmingly black — as coming from shitholes.
I continue to think, if you look closely, you'll see self-awareness and deliberation. To be clear: That doesn't mean what he does is moral, smart or advised; it just means he intends to do it.
As I've written before, Trump's controversies almost always involve a certain degree of plausible deniability — as if he did them knowing he'd have a persuasive enough defense for his base. Even in Trump's shoddy tweet Thursday night claiming he canceled his Britain trip because the deal to move the U.S. Embassy in London was bad, Trump carved out some plausible deniability. He emphasized that the old embassy was sold by the Obama administration, which is technically true even as the decision to sell it was made by the Bush administration before it. So the media focused on how Trump flubbed his argument, and he'll have that grain of truth to latch on to. In this and many other cases, Trump almost seems to be daring the media to overreach in its coverage of him, in hopes of solidifying his base against a common enemy.
I also saw some self-awareness Thursday — not in Trump's “shithole countries” comments, mind you, but in the Wall Street Journal interview that landed around the same time.
In one section, while talking about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump acknowledged that he can be rather fickle when it comes to alliances with people.
WSJ: Some people would see your tweets, which are sometimes combative towards Kim Jong Un . . .
TRUMP: Sure, you see that a lot with me, and then all of a sudden somebody’s my best friend. I could give you 20 examples. You give me 30. I’m a very flexible person.
Trump said something similar about Stephen K. Bannon, the former top campaign and White House aide whom Trump seems to be out to destroy thanks to his comments in Michael Wolff's book about Trump's children:
WSJ: Is that relationship permanently broken between you and Steve?
TRUMP: You never know, you know again, the word — I don’t know what the word “permanent” means, OK? I never know what the word “permanent” means.
And in a third section — also about North Korea — Trump says something about his approach to foreign policy that could just as well apply to his approach to domestic policy:
WSJ: You think North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between the two countries, between you and President Moon? . . .
TRUMP: I will let you know. But if I were them, I would try. But the difference is I’m president; other people aren’t. And I know more about wedges than any human being that’s ever lived.
Trump claims to be better than anyone at lots and lots of things. In this case, he may actually kind of be right; his ability to slam wedges between his supporters and his opponents might be without parallel.
It's been a defining characteristic of his presidency. And to dismiss it as him constantly and unthinkingly spouting off may be missing the point.