The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A president ignored: Trump’s outlandish claims increasingly met with a collective shrug

President Trump on Aug. 5 said his administration was still determining what caused blasts in Beirut that killed dozens and injured thousands a day earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

Shortly after a deadly explosion in Beirut this week, President Trump offered a theory — backed by no apparent evidence — that the devastating incident was “a terrible attack,” claiming “some of our great generals” thought it was likely the result of “a bomb of some kind.”

Such a bold proclamation from a U.S. president would usually set off worldwide alarms. Yet aside from some initial concern among Lebanese officials, Trump’s assertions were largely met with a collective global shrug.

More than 3½ years into his presidency, Trump increasingly finds himself minimized and ignored — as many of his more outlandish or false statements are briefly considered and then, just as quickly, dismissed. The slide into partial irrelevance could make it even more difficult for Trump as he seeks reelection as the nation’s leader amid a pandemic and economic collapse.

In battling the coronavirus crisis, which has left more than 158,000 Americans dead, many of the nation’s governors have disregarded the president’s nebulous recommendations, instead opting for what they believe is best for their residents. So have the nation’s schools, with many of the country’s largest districts preparing for distance learning when they reopen this fall, despite Trump’s repeated calls for kids to return to classrooms in person. And the president’s own top public health officials are routinely contradicting him in public — offering grim, fact-based assessments of the raging virus in contrast to his own frequently rosy proclamations.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, never seriously entertained Trump’s desire for a payroll tax cut in the latest coronavirus stimulus bill, and the president has been more of a spectator than a key player in negotiations. Even former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, often seems to ignore the president he is running against, focusing his messaging elsewhere.

Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, a political consulting firm with a global emphasis, said that when Trump made his claim about the bomb in Lebanon, much of the global community intuitively understood that the president “is inclined to think that of course it must be terrorism because it’s the Middle East and people blow up stuff up there.”

“And so he said it, and it’s stupid, but after almost four years of Trump, we all kind of know that he doesn’t really listen to experts and briefings,” Bremmer said.

International leaders and diplomats, he added, no longer find themselves scrambling over every Trump tweet and utterance, the way they did early in his presidency. “They understand that a lot of stuff that Trump says does not remotely equate to policy and they’ve had enough experience with that to understand, most of them, when you can just tune it out,” he said.

President Trump falsely claimed that lockdowns do not prevent coronavirus infections during an Aug. 3 news conference. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden, meanwhile, has made a core theme of his campaign the argument that Trump’s lack of credibility is eroding the presidency, as well as the relevancy of the United States on the world stage. He has called the president a “charlatan” and “a serial liar,” and criticized his response to the coronavirus, saying he should not be listened to.

“He’s like a child who just can’t believe this has happened to him,” Biden said during a speech earlier this summer.

At times, Biden has tried ignoring Trump altogether — or, when he does engage, doing so with a tone of exasperated mockery.

“I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach,” Biden wrote on Twitter in April, after Trump suggested injecting disinfectant as a means of combating the coronavirus, in a missive that became the platform’s most-liked tweet that week.

John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster, said the strategy against Trump works because “a supermajority of people believe he’s a liar, so he can come into the Situation Room or he can come into people’s living rooms and they don’t believe him.”

That represents an electoral weakness for Trump, Anzalone said, making it harder for the president to effectively diminish Biden. Part of that, he said, is how the public views Biden — as a generally decent man — but part of that is the president’s own credibility deficit.

“His problem is that there’s also a collective shrug when he attacks Joe Biden,” Anzalone said. “He attacks, attacks, attacks, but people don’t believe his attacks. They kind of eye-roll and they shrug.”

The White House press office rejected the notion that Trump now finds himself minimized on a range of issues.

“While the radical left and the D.C. Swamp continue to attack this President, the American people recognize his bold leadership and commitment to putting America First every day,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email statement. “President Trump has proven over and over again that he will not back down from tackling the big challenges facing this country, including defeating the China virus, rebuilding our economy, and protecting this country.”

The deadly pandemic seemed to hasten Trump’s troubles in being heard. Many state and local officials have implemented their own strategies to combat the virus, regardless of the president’s desires and demands.

In early May, more than half a dozen Eastern states announced they were banding together to buy medical supplies. This month, another group of governors formed a bipartisan consortium to address severe testing shortages and delays.

“If you’re a governor fighting the coronavirus and you want to get information out to the people of your state, what is the value in fighting Donald Trump?” said Lis Smith, a Democratic consultant, explaining the go-it-alone approach of some of the nation’s governors. “If you’re amplifying the president’s misinformation on this virus, then you’re shortchanging the people of your state.”

While Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire that all students return in person to school this fall, a growing number of school districts are openly defying his requests. Even St. Andrew’s Episcopal School — the private school in the Maryland suburbs attended by Trump’s youngest son, Barron — plans to begin the school year with virtual classes only.

The president’s own top public health officials, meanwhile, are increasingly contradicting him in public. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” last Sunday — just one day before Trump claimed the coronavirus was “receding” — White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx warned that the virus was “extraordinarily widespread” in “both rural and urban” areas.

And on Wednesday, as Trump was repeatedly claiming at a news conference that the virus will “go away,” infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta that the United States is faring poorly compared with the rest of the world. “The numbers don’t lie,” Fauci said.

Similarly, Trump has played only an ancillary role in the ongoing discussions for a pandemic relief package on Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans almost immediately rejected his desire for another payroll tax cut, never seriously entertaining the idea. And in a seeming acknowledgment of his inability to directly shape the congressional negotiations, Trump held a news conference Saturday at his private club in Bedminster, N.J., to sign one executive order and several memoranda intended to provide economic relief to millions of Americans by providing temporary unemployment benefits and deferring taxes.

At a news conference the previous day, Trump also rejected the idea that he is not deeply involved in the stimulus conversations, saying he is being represented daily by his emissaries — Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — and speaks with them frequently.

But a Republican Senate aide likened the president to a sleeping grizzly bear. “If you woke up the grizzly bear, he could destroy anything — but now he’s just hibernating,” the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a frank assessment of Trump’s role in the relief package.

Smith, the Democratic consultant who was also a senior adviser to former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, said ignoring Trump was also an effective strategy for 2020 Democratic hopefuls. The candidates who ran campaigns that deliberately didn’t engage with the president generally fared better, she said.

And, she said, the novelty of getting attacked by Trump — once a badge of honor in some Democratic circles — has now worn off, another sign the president is losing some of his influence.

“A lot of politicians would pray for Trump to attack them,” she said. “But now, you see him going after obscure Democratic county officials and Z-list celebrities.”

She added: “It’s not worth dignifying his attacks a lot of the time.”

Matt Viser contributed to this report.