It started shortly after he took the test, when he told an interviewer from Reuters in January 2018 that tensions with North Korea had not been solved by previous presidents because “I guess they all realized they’re going to have to leave it to a president that scored the highest on tests.” Which, again, is like saying that past presidents wanted to ensure that the situation was left for the guy whose cholesterol levels were lowest.
Speaking at a Republican fundraiser a few days later, he insisted that his performance was something special.
“Let me tell you,” he said of the 30-question test, “those last 10 questions are hard. There aren’t a lot of people that can do that.”
Except, of course, for people with unimpaired cognition.
Over the past few months, the subject has reemerged because Trump and his reelection campaign are trying to paint former vice president Joe Biden as suffering from mental decline. Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in November’s general election, has a habit of fumbling words and phrases, allowing the Trump campaign to produce a battery of video snippets suggesting that something more significant is going on.
Late last month, that line of attack was picked up by a Fox News reporter, who asked Biden directly if he had been tested for cognitive issues.
“I’ve been tested. I’m constantly tested,” Biden said in response. “Look, all you’ve got to do is watch me, and I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”
In a conversation with Fox News’s Sean Hannity a few days later, Hannity asked the president about Biden’s response.
“I aced it. I aced the test,” Trump said. “And he should take the same exact test, a very standard test. I took it at Walter Reed Medical Center in front of doctors.”
Those doctors, Trump claimed, “said that’s an unbelievable thing. Rarely does anybody do what you just did.” Which — to belabor the point — is akin to saying the doctor fawned over the unprecedented extent to which your lower leg jerked forward when he tapped your knee with his rubber hammer.
This bizarre insistence that he is particularly good at this test dropped the president into a spiral of his own creation: bemused reactions about his crowing led to more questions about it and more boasting from Trump.
In an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Trump insisted that “the first few questions are easy, but I’ll bet you couldn’t even answer the last five questions” because they “get very hard.”
He was objecting to Wallace’s noting that one question demanded that the test subject properly identify an elephant.
In an interview that aired on — you guessed it — Fox News on Wednesday night, Trump offered the lengthiest and oddest defense of his successful test.
“The first questions are very easy; the last questions are much more difficult,” he explained. “Like a memory question. It’s like” — he looked around him — “you’ll go: person, woman, man, camera, TV. So they’d say, ‘Could you repeat that?'”
“So I said, ‘Yeah.' So it’s person, woman, man, camera, TV. ‘Okay, that’s very good,'" he continued. “If you get it in order, you get extra points. If you — okay. Now he’s asking you other questions, other questions, and then 10 minutes, 15-20 minutes later, they’d say, ‘remember the first question?’ Not the first, but the 10th question — ‘Give us that again, can you do that again?' And you go, 'person, woman, man, camera, TV.’ If you get it in order, you get extra points.”
“They said, ‘Nobody gets it in order,’” Trump claimed. “It’s actually not that easy. But for me it was easy.”
By now, we’re all sufficiently familiar with Trump to track what’s happening here. He bragged about how well he did at something, because this is what he does — but when challenged on that boasting, he couldn’t resist doubling down. And so here we are, with Trump spending an extended period of time repeating five words in a television interview by way of proving how mentally sharp he is.
As for his campaign’s goal of getting people talking about Biden? It’s not working as intended.
A review of discussion on cable news shows that while Fox News and Fox Business spent more time talking about Biden in the context of mental acuity or decline, CNN and MSNBC spent more time focused on Trump. It’s not the case that the coverage posited that Trump or Biden was necessarily suffering a decline. It is the case, though, that Trump was spurring a lot of conversation that probably wasn’t what was intended.
Even on Fox itself, there have been seven days this month when Trump was more of a topic of conversation in the context of mental capacity and capabilities than Biden.
The data above are a summary of Internet Archive closed-captioning data compiled by the GDELT Project. GDELT also tracks online news sources; that analysis shows far more discussion of Trump than Biden.
In public Facebook posts, the effect has been remarkable, according to data from the social metrics site CrowdTangle. While Biden was more a subject of conversation at the beginning of the month, Trump’s repeated seizing of the conversation has had the effect of redirecting attention to himself.
Again, this wasn’t the goal. The Trump campaign wanted everyone raising eyebrows at the things Biden was saying. Trump, though, got every person — every woman and man — talking about himself, thanks to looking into that camera and appearing on TV.
I get extra points for using the words in order.