Even then, though, this was a risky thing to embrace. If you’re going to highlight a joke about how blank pages can be used as a visual presentation of rhetorical barrenness, you might want to be cautious about your own use of blank pages to make political points.
Unfortunately for Trump, this is a tactic he likes very much.
The most recent example came this week. With the 2020 presidential election looming, Trump has in recent days made the baffling decision to spend as much energy challenging CBS News’s Lesley Stahl as he has his Democratic opponent. Stahl apparently grilled the president in an interview taped Tuesday, reportedly prompting Trump to truncate the discussion earlier than planned. He then jumped on Twitter to disparage Stahl in at times opaque ways.
That effort included this tweet, showing White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany burdening the 78-year-old Stahl with a hefty tome purportedly documenting the Trump administration’s many health-care accomplishments.
Those who’ve been tracking the administration would be justified in wondering what those hundreds of pages document. After all, the administration has been notoriously incapable of presenting a robust health-care plan after spending years trying to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Trump and his team have taken to cobbling together various health-care-related things and presenting them as a comprehensive approach.
What’s particularly odd about the book given to Stahl, though, is that the page to which she opened it appears to be blank.
Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps there’s a title at the top of that page or, perhaps, it’s the flyleaf, albeit a few pages in. Perhaps the book has one health-care accomplishment per page. It’s hard to say.
Or perhaps the book is another masterpiece by renowned author Michael J. Knowles.
Again, this tactic is a favorite of Trump’s. In 2015, he offered one of the few public looks at his taxes, tweeting out a photograph of himself signing his tax return that year — sitting beside a stack of paper that towered over his head.
That appears to have been his 2014 return, a year in which we now know (thanks to the New York Times’s reporting) that he paid no federal income tax.
Despite his never making those returns public, Trump was elected president the following year. In early 2017, as he prepared for his inauguration, he held his first news conference in six months to discuss his plans for divesting from his private company. At the event, he stood next to a table piled high with stacks of paper.
“These papers,” Trump claimed, “are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my sons.”
Perhaps! Or perhaps they were blank sheets of paper jammed into manila folders. Trump’s team wouldn’t allow the media to look at the documents.
A week later, Trump shared a photo of himself sitting at a desk at Mar-a-Lago — one of the properties ostensibly now under his sons’ control — working on his inauguration speech.
This photo, too, prompted some head-scratching. The desk was in a public hallway at the club and was pictured in an Instagram post from several years before apparently serving as a receptionist’s station. Perhaps Trump was in fact sitting at a desk in a hallway, using a marker to sketch out his inaugural address on a pristine pad of paper! Or maybe, as was reported at the time, the speech was written by aides.
In December 2017, Trump again used a big stack of paper to make a point. Hoping to illustrate the way in which the federal government had swollen, he compared a stack of paper representing government regulations in 1960 with a much taller stack representing current regulations. Then, mixing his metaphors a bit, he cut the red tape joining the two.
For what it’s worth, the “today” stack probably contained far more sheets of paper than were warranted for the analogy to precisely mask the government’s growth, but at least this was not an effort to masquerade blank paper as something else.
There’s one more example worth mentioning. When Trump contracted the coronavirus last month, he wound up spending a weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. While there, he made an effort to present everything in a business-as-usual manner, including recording several video messages to the public and staging photos in which he went from jacketed in one room to his shirt sleeves in another over a span of about 10 minutes.
Close observers noticed that, in the image above, Trump appears to be writing on an otherwise blank piece of paper. This is a necessary precursor to getting words on a piece of paper, of course, but it was not really clear what we were supposed to be taking away from this. Was he signing a blank piece of paper? Making notes off the top of his head?
It was something of a mystery. But now, happily, we know the answer.
He was writing down some of the many things he’s done for Healthcare.