First, as a group, the people who work for President Trump are not particularly smart or skilled at politics. Second, because they work for Trump, they are often called upon to defend the indefensible, whether it’s disastrous negligence, shocking corruption or farcical lies. And third, Trump is so erratic and self-contradictory that it can be almost impossible for them to keep track of which brand of lickspittlery they’re supposed to perform at any given moment.
So watching the Trump spin machine whining, clunking and throwing off sparks isn’t a bad way to ascertain just how deeply this president is failing, in both practical and political terms.
Let’s take a tour of what we’ve heard from the Trump team in the last couple of days.
On CNN, Dana Bash tried to get Deborah Birx, a top adviser on the pandemic, to explain why the United States has failed so utterly to contain the virus when many other countries have succeeded. Though Birx has plainly worked hard to avoid Trump’s wrath, even she could not bring herself to claim that the administration’s performance has been stellar, as he so often claims. So her boss went after her:
It’s unclear what he meant when he said Birx “hit us." But he may have been referring to this claim: “What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It’s into the rural as equal urban areas.” That’s the sort of simple statement of fact that Trump cannot tolerate.
Or Trump may have been referring to Birx’s claim about schools reopening: “If you have high caseload and active community spread, just like we are asking people … not to create large spreading events, we are asking people to distance learn at this moment, so we can get this epidemic under control.”
Which directly contradicts Trump’s repeated insistence that schools must reopen because everything is fine, as he tweeted Monday morning:
Should Birx persist in reluctantly admitting the obvious, she might find herself cast out.
On ABC’s “This Week,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was more firmly planted in the president’s fantasy world, repeating three times that we have to get kids back into school and proclaiming that everything is going to be fine.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the scientific improvements that we’re making on testing, that we’re making on the vaccine,” Mnuchin said. “And I think when we have a vaccine and life gets back to normal, you’re going to see a great economy again next year.”
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Chief of Staff Mark Meadows insisted: “We continue to test more than any country in the world." It only looks bad because we do so much testing, never mind that we have 4 percent of the world’s population and nearly one-quarter of the world’s covid-19 deaths.
Asked to justify the president’s insane suggestion that the election should be delayed, Meadows said, “Well, it was a question mark” — no harm, no foul. And he echoed Trump’s attacks on mail voting, an assault that has Republican officials terrified that Trump’s undermining their own mail balloting efforts (which have been highly successful in past elections).
Over on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said “we’re going through this coronavirus recovery right now,” which may have been the single most bizarre statement of the weekend. But then Miller refused to categorically rule out taking foreign assistance in the election. Then he finally said, "There is no foreign assistance that’s happening in this campaign,” a comment strikingly reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s precise use of the present tense about Monica Lewinsky: “There is not a sexual relationship."
And the president himself is once again claiming he’ll release what he called “a full and complete health-care plan,” which of course he has promised many times before. “He’s pretty excited about it,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham said of the imaginary plan, which may be true, in the same sense as a toddler might be excited about her “plan” to ride a unicorn across a rainbow to an island made of chocolate.
Meanwhile, 30 million Americans just lost their enhanced unemployment benefits because Republicans can’t bring themselves to give people the help they need, more than 150,000 Americans have died from covid-19, the administration can’t come up with a strategy to address the pandemic or the economic crisis, and Republicans seem increasingly resigned to the idea that Trump will lose in November.
In other words, what we’re seeing now is a kind of concentrated version of what has characterized the Trump administration all along: a chaotic stew of fantasy and lies in which brief eruptions of candor from administration officials are quickly punished, but not before they highlight how ludicrous the prevailing line of spin is. And behind the spin is a reality of horror.
But with each passing day, the spin is less capable of distracting from that reality. “Nobody likes me,” the president recently moaned. He may be on to something.