Thursday evening, around the time President Donald J. Trump was likely retiring to his bed with a cheeseburger and his remote (if claims in Michael Wolff’s book are accurate) the Washington Post reported Trump had launched into a rant earlier in the day. The President asked lawmakers gathered in the Oval Office to talk immigration reform, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
Trump would wait until Friday morning to deny the use of the specific word.
Predictably, his ‘non-denial denial’ pandered to his base. Trump congratulated himself for talking tough and speaking like an every-man. As Newt Gingrich said when asked for comment, “Almost anything he does that is outside the establishment resonates in the end with people who say, well, at least he’s sticking it to the powerful.”
Democratic Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who attended Trump’s immigration meeting, confirmed Trump used the word “shithole” repeatedly in the meeting. Republican Senators in the meeting were apparently struck deaf and mute. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Purdue of Georgia claimed to not recall Trump’s comments specifically. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to comment. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina issued a statement in which Graham confirms confronting Trump, but does not clarify what Trump said to provoke the confrontation.
Perhaps Senator Graham was hesitant to criticize President Trump, as Graham himself had referred to Mexico and other Latin American nations as “hellholes” during immigration negotiations back in 2013? Or perhaps it is simply Graham’s newfound appreciation for Trump that led to the passive-aggressive response? During the 2016 primary season, Graham had a much lower opinion of Trump, saying, “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.” Recent articles have described the Trump/Graham relationship as “best friends” or a “budding bromance.” Likely, Graham understands South Carolina’s position near the front of the 2020 primary field provides an opportunity for Graham to reap Trump-style “huge” rewards for his home state in return for becoming a loyalist.
Trump is many things, and which of those things he is at any point in time often is determined by which side of the political aisle one sits on. But his proponents and detractors would likely agree on one thing: Trump is a master at misdirection. Sometimes, he is like a sleight-of-hand magician, drawing attention to one hand while he plays out the trick right in front of your unseeing eyes with the other. Sometimes he is like a firefighter battling a spreading wildfire by starting a series of smaller back-burns to draw fuel away from the primary fire.
In this case, the fire was a story that broke on Friday accusing Trump of having a sexual encounter with porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) in Lake Tahoe. The alleged tryst occurred while he and Melania were still newlyweds. The Wall Street Journal alleges Daniels was paid six-figures in hush money through Trump attorney Michael Cohen. The accusation first surfaced in the closing weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign. This was around the same time as the Access Hollywood tapes were made public.
Trump employs two time-tested tactics to accomplish his misdirection goals, and his behavior on Thursday and Friday provided great examples. The first move, as we witnessed with the “shithole” comment on Thursday, is to say something so outrageous and controversial that it dominates the media coverage for days. The follow-up, which happened Friday, is to take some current event and not only hold it up as an example of why we need Trump in the Oval Office to “Make America Great Again” but to find a way to blame the newly-fabricated controversy on someone else. Preferably a rival, which for Trump usually means former President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. This time, it was the Trump-alleged “bad deal” America sufferedwith the relocation of the United States embassy in London.
There are a couple of problems with this claim, though. The embassy move was announced in October of 2008, when George W. Bush was still President. It was deemed the best fiscal decision. Refitting the existing embassy to modern standards would have been more costly than replacing it. And the sale of the prior embassy must have generated more than “peanuts.” The new embassy includes all the upgrades, updates, and security features the prior embassy lacked. And it was funded “entirely by the proceeds of the sale of other U.S. Government properties in London, not through appropriated funds.”
Ignore Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and all the other magician’s assistants parading around the stage waving props. Ignore the shiny objects tossed in the air as a distraction. Even ignore the booms, and bangs, and flashes of light. Focus on the magician at all times. Whether businessman, candidate, or President, Donald J. Trump always has something up his sleeve. He calls for our attention, drawing us over, barking that he wants to show us a trick. Usually, what he has up his sleeve is matches, and by now, we should all be tiring of getting burned.