President Trump didn't dwell upon his reversal on separating families at the border during a campaign speech Wednesday night in Minnesota. But you could tell it was on his mind.
Trump spent much of his speech reassuring supporters that he still favors a hard-line immigration approach, and as The Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Jenna Johnson write, he spent an inordinate amount of time doing what he often does: airing grievances and seeking credit on things for which he doesn't feel he's gotten sufficient credit. The Kim Jong Un summit, his crowd sizes, the economy, etc. None of it was enough. The critics were always trying to bring him down.
But one particular section was pretty new and novel, and it seemed to betray a man whose ego had been bruised. It was when Trump talked about “the elite” and cast himself as superior to them.
“You ever notice they always call the other side 'the elite'?" Trump asked. “The elite! Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t.”
Trump is capable of being funny when it comes to talking about his wealth and stature, and this was certainly in the vein. And his need to attend to his ego and constantly compare himself to others isn't exactly news. It defines him as a person.
But it's not difficult to connect that little riff to what transpired Wednesday. Here was the rare situation in which the White House had to clearly reverse course in the face of a political backlash. Trump will do most anything to avoid backing down and looking weak, but he had to do it Wednesday. Perhaps not since he signed Congress's veto-proof Russia sanctions — which he made clear he didn't like — did he so fully capitulate to the politics of the day. As I wrote, it was an embarrassing episode.
Trump's message Wednesday seemed clear: You guys won this round, but I'm still the president of the United States.
Does Trump truly want to be considered part of the nation's “elite”? Of course not. Just like other politicians, Trump has turned the term into a punching bag for his populist politics. “Hillary Clinton's America is a country where the elite get one standard of treatment and everybody else gets second-class treatment,” Trump said the day before the 2016 election in Virginia Beach “It is time to reject a failed political elite that has bled this country dry,” he said the same day in Scranton, Pa. “The political and media elite have no idea what it's like to be living on a paycheck, paycheck-to-paycheck basis,” he said the day before in Sioux City, Iowa.
Trump has largely shelved this kind of “elite” rhetoric since then, but he did say something similar to what he said Wednesday back during an August speech in Phoenix. In that speech, he talked about how he went to “better schools” and lived in a “bigger, more beautiful apartment” than the elites.
That speech came in the aftermath of the situation in Charlottesville in which pretty much everyone decried Trump's “both sides” rhetoric about the white supremacist who killed a counterprotester. It was one of the ugliest moments of his presidency, and he even backed down in the face of the backlash, at least momentarily. By his speech in Phoenix a week later, he was clearly still sore about the whole thing.
And it looks like the same thing just happened again.