While his lawyers argued that presidents cannot be investigated even for murder and threatened to sue CNN for claiming to produce journalism, Trump joked that he would defy the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment to stay in office 20 more years, while dismissing “that phony emoluments clause” in Article I, Section 9. He repeatedly implored Americans to vote for his former press secretary on “Dancing With the Stars,” mistakenly called his current defense secretary “Mark Esperanto” instead of Esper and threatened to get involved with a murder trial in Anguilla.
“A lynching,” “witch hunt” and “scam,” he called the impeachment investigation that began on Sept. 24. “Don’t be a fool!” he wrote to the Turkish president in a formal letter in which he threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy with sanctions, weeks before announcing that he was dropping all sanctions. “I want to see the server,” he said in the Oval Office, reviving a conspiracy theory that would exonerate Russia for hacking Democratic emails in 2016. He even accused former vice president Joe Biden of raping and pillaging the nation, though instead of saying “rape,” Trump said “the R-word.”
Without the luxury of undivided attention, anyone who tried to follow the bouncing ball of Trump’s hourly utterances and tweets was doomed to fail, and there is no relief on the horizon. Simply tracking the provocations, contradictions and exhortations that fill the average day of this president can be an overwhelming task.
But it has also become an increasingly consequential one as the impeachment case against Trump unfolds and his foreign policy decisions come under greater scrutiny in the United States and abroad. He ordered a surprise withdrawal of troops from Syria, prompting immediate fighting, loss of life and a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. He also announced his intent to award his own golf club a major federal contract for an international summit, and then reversed that decision days later amid criticism he was using the power of his office to help his struggling business.
The resulting controversies have only amped up Trump’s response. Over a sample of seven days between Oct. 14 and 20, he sent a blur of 206 tweets and spent hours talking in front of news cameras, always seeking to monopolize attention, for good or ill. The defense of his actions is dependent less on the merit of his words than the sheer number of them. He dazzles and misdirects, prods and pokes, changes topics midsentence and frequently offers claims that are on their face so bizarre that they demand repetition by the media, if only to be discounted.
“When you are in a fight, there are only two ways to win: You can bring your opponent to submission or you can break their will to fight,” said Steve Schmidt, a Trump critic who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “There is no doubt that the effect of the great Trump fog machine is a type of exhaustion that has disengaged millions of Americans from politics.”
At a Cabinet meeting Monday, Trump spent the better part of an hour talking, making claims at odds with reality.
He took personal credit for defeating the Islamic State — “I’m the one that did the capturing” — despite a summer report from the Pentagon’s inspector general that the insurgent group had “solidified” its capabilities in Iraq and was “resurging” in Syria. Out of nowhere and with no evidence, he accused Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) of being the whistleblower that launched the impeachment inquiry over his actions toward Ukraine. He suggested former president Barack Obama was guilty of corruption for signing a production deal with Netflix 16 months after leaving office.
Democrats, who lost the 2016 election amid similar attempts by Trump to dominate public attention, have made no secret of their concern over his approach, for the impeachment investigation and next year’s presidential campaign.
“We are in such an information-overload world, people can’t figure out what’s important, what’s more important than something else, how do you make sense of this,” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who lost the presidential contest to Trump in 2016, said in a podcast interview last week. “We have a really difficult environment to do politics in, to govern in, legislate in and certainly conduct an impeachment inquiry in.”
For his part, Trump seems quite clear about the effect he hopes to have on the overwhelmed American public. He shared a video three times over the weekend that asked Americans to just turn off the news.
“This is just noise. Tune it out,” advised a Fox News pundit in the clip. “You know how you feel.”
Of course, the consequences of Trump’s words and actions reach beyond feelings, or even voter sentiment. And the tendency of Trump and his advisers to reverse themselves — doubling the number of headlines they can notch — has made matters only more confusing.
Trump’s decision Oct. 17 to force foreign nations to pay his own resort for the 2020 Group of Seven summit appeared to contradict the plain language of the Constitution, until he reversed it two days later under Republican pressure.
The admission by his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, that Trump held up aid to Ukraine to force an investigation of the country’s role in the 2016 election seemed to confirm the quid-pro-quo allegation at the heart of the Democratic impeachment inquiry, until Mulvaney reversed himself hours later in a written statement.
That reversal did not prevent the president from sharing a video the next day featuring a sympathetic columnist who argued that it was perfectly proper for Trump to hold up aid to force an investigation of the 2016 election.
In Syria, the president’s confusing and controversial statements have carried the gravest consequences. On Oct. 7, he released a statement announcing that U.S. troops would withdraw from the border region with Turkey before a “long-planned” Turkish military operation in the area. He spent the following weeks denying that this amounted to a “green light,” even as his decision led to the displacement of at least 100,000 people and led to fighting that has killed dozens of civilians.
He seemed to encourage international conflict in Syria on Oct. 16 — “there’s a lot of sand that they can play with” — and then announced on Oct. 17 that he had let the Turks and the Kurds “fight like two kids in a lot” and decided to pull them apart by brokering a fragile cease-fire.
Then on Wednesday, he announced the cease-fire would be permanent, a proposition he also called “questionable” but something “I do believe.”
“A small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil,” he said, though he has offered no plans for extracting or profiting off the resource.
At one point, he called his plan to withdraw forces from Syria “strategically brilliant.” Two days later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote that the decision was “a grave strategic mistake.”
The clearest demonstration of Trump’s tendency to overload communication circuits came on Oct. 16, when he met in the Oval Office with the president of Italy. A reporter asked him to react to criticism of his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine.
The president responded with more than 1,000 words, a monologue that lasted five minutes and 41 seconds, including an interruption for a follow-up question about Giuliani.
Trump answered neither question directly. Instead, the president alleged corruption in the 2016 election without offering specifics or evidence. He promoted an unreleased Justice Department inspector general report on the use of secret warrants to investigate foreign interference in the 2016 election, speculating that it would impugn several former FBI officials.
“Let’s see whether it’s President Obama,” he said. He also criticized former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) for not using subpoenas more, saying the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), hands them out “like cookies.” He denounced leaks of impeachment testimony in the House, called the Democrats “a disgrace,” defended his phone call with the Ukrainian president as “perfect,” spoke about how many people listen when he makes diplomatic phone calls, falsely claimed that the whistleblower report on his call was “totally wrong,” and denied, again, any quid pro quo.
He predicted the Democrats would lose control of the House in 2020. Then he demanded that the FBI acquire and let him see a Democratic National Committee email server that the U.S. intelligence community said was hacked by Russia. He said he rebuilt the military, boasted of a $5,000 increase in median household income, and falsely stated that the economy is “the best it’s ever been.” (The rates of wages and GDP growth have been higher in the past, and the unemployment rate has been lower.)
“Nobody has ever heard of numbers like that, so people want to find out: Why was it so corrupt during that election?” he said, in a typical non sequitur that connected the current economy to the 2016 contest. “And I want to find out more than anybody else.”