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Trump’s Mother of All Truth Bombs

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with governors on "workforce freedom and mobility" in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Washington.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with governors on “workforce freedom and mobility” in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Washington. | AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Fourth Estate

Everyone’s asking why on earth he said that stuff to George Stephanopolous. A better question is, could he ever have stopped himself?

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

President Donald Trump unloaded a baffling cargo of words Wednesday after George Stephanopoulos asked him whether his son Donald Jr. should have contacted the FBI in June 2016 when a gang of Russians offered him “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Not necessarily, Trump implied in his first answer. Asked about his own FBI director’s assertion that of course a campaign should contact the FBI, Trump went full-tilt adamant.

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“The FBI director is wrong,” Trump said.

The exchange detonated on cable news and Twitter like the mother of all truth bombs. Trump kept hedging and twisting around—implying you might both take the dirt and call the FBI—flummoxing normally voluble critics like former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “I’ve run out of adjectives,” he said. “‘Unfit to be President’ is a gross understatement,” tweeted former CIA Director John Brennan in equal exasperation. The leading Democratic candidates for president—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and even the undercard candidates—torched him as a danger to the electoral process.

What was he thinking? Was he thinking? In a normal politician, the moment might have been what used to be politely called a “gaffe,” and more accurately called a career-ending self-own. With Trump, though, it’s better to understand it as the perfect melding of all the preoccupations and instincts and political acumen that got him where he is. If he’d held back, it might have been more prudent, but it would have been positively un-Trumpian.

First off, of course, the question was about Russia—Trump’s great bugbear. The whole subject of Russian interference grates on an easily bruised ego, intensifying his insecurities about his squeaker victory over Clinton. He’ll be relitigating the Mueller investigation all the way through November 2020.

Second, the issue remains a terrific media draw for Trump. Trump’s responses weren’t a surprise to anyone who’s been following his presidency, but they slurped up a day’s worth of TV chyrons, keeping him the center of attention at a moment when people might be focusing on his thin claims of a deal with Mexico, or his grim 2020 poll numbers. Instead, they’re focused on a sexy but meaningless round of new pro-and-con shouting about the president himself.

And there’s a third factor: His kids. From everything we know about the Trump family, he lives in a universe in which either you’re family or you’re nobody, and in this case that “nobody” includes the entire nation he’s governing. Don Jr. is the weakest link in this whole operation—he’s the one who didn’t call the FBI, after all—and one way to see the interview was as a media smokescreen cast to shield his namesake from deeper scrutiny after his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. In a closed hearing, Junior claimed never to have lied to Congress—”despite claims by former Trump aides to the contrary,” the New York Times reported. Trump’s interview can be understood, in the simplest way, as offering cover to his son: Of course he didn’t call the FBI. Nobody would. “Life doesn’t work that way,” said the president.

Had Trump answered the hypothetical about taking campaign information from the Russians in 2020 in any other way than he did, it would have been read as a confession that he and his son did something wrong in 2016, and Trump almost never admits to having been wrong—or to anyone in his family being at fault.

Trump must have realized from grazing the Fox News Channel on Thursday morning that he didn’t stick the landing in his Stephanopoulos interview, so he did what he always does when he flubs: He took the fight to the enemy—his critics and political adversaries. In his Thursday morning Twitter thread, Trump showered Democrats with bogus “whatabout” accusations, damning their behavior as scandalous and illegal and slamming Robert Mueller.

Contradicting his FBI director, defending his son for playing footsie with the Russian, and using a network TV interview to all but solicit political dirt from foreign powers was for Trump just another delightful round in the octagon. The only way for him to know for sure that he’s breathing is when he’s fighting. So fight he must, reigniting whatever cooling embers he spots.

The Trump responses, while low in news value, remind us of how Trump regards the office he’s been handed, and how he regards the law itself. His own FBI director, he says, is wrong about how to proceed if a foreign power attempts to sway an election; campaign interference isn’t interference, it’s “information”; foreign meddling isn’t meddling, it’s oppo research, and everybody in Congress does it. And why call the FBI when offered stolen information? “Give me a break,” Trump told Stephanopoulos when he brought up the topic once again.

The law, in Trump’s view, is anything he says it is, and he’ll fight anybody who says otherwise. If Trump is swinging this hard from the hips 500 days before the election, imagine the martial arts tricks he’ll deploy when the campaign is fully engaged.

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Trump is brazen enough to make Caligula blush. Send applicable Smiths lyrics via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have been fighting my Twitter feed in court for decades. My RSS feed killed its lawyer.

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