Tim Naftali: Time interview reads like someone opened the portal into Donald J. Trump's brain -- like in the movie Being John Malkovich -- in the form of what -- for the want of a better description -- is a stream of consciousness talk with the 45th President of these United States.
Editor’s Note: The former director of the Richard Nixon library, Timothy Naftali is a CNN presidential historian who teaches intelligence history and national security policy at NYU. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Thanks to the energy of Time magazine’s Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer and the self-absorption of our President, someone opened the portal into Donald J. Trump’s brain – like in the movie “Being John Malkovich” – in the form of what for the want of a better description is a stream of consciousness interview with the 45th President of these United States.
When Woodrow Wilson introduced the concept of the presidential press conference, he stipulated that they should be off the record and that the president would not be quoted directly. FDR was first to loosen those restrictions somewhat, but it was not until the advent of live televised press conferences in the 1950s that some spontaneity and much more transparency were introduced into presidential utterances.
This Trump interview is an argument for perhaps a little less spontaneity in presidential statements, for the sanity of the Republic.
You have to read it for yourself. Highlighting it would suggest a logic and flow that it didn’t have. I have read it, and here’s what I can tell you: It is crystal clear that Americans elected a man who is happily, though defensively, living in his own reality.
All presidents are, to a certain extent, defensive. And when a scandal looms like a cloud over the White House, as the Russia hacking matter now does, presidents are understandably even more defensive. Think of JFK after the Bay of Pigs, Nixon during Watergate (though his last public speech as president was unscripted and therefore very revealing of his hyperactive id), Reagan after Iran Contra, Clinton about Whitewater and Lewinsky.
But presidential efforts at self-explanation, especially at critical moments, usually involve briefers, speechwriters, editors and the president himself is usually accustomed to thinking in sentences, if not paragraphs. Nixon, Carter and Reagan, for example, kept daily diaries.
The Time interview reflects none of these things. It is Trump, raw, uncut, unplugged and, some might conclude, a little unhinged. The public saw that only a few times with Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon. With this President, it is almost a daily occurrence.
I can’t capture all of what the interview includes, but here’s some of what it doesn’t:
Remorse for branding the Cruz family as accessories to the JFK assassination: nope, the President says he was just repeating something he read in a “newspaper story.” But the problem is not that apparently inside the Trump-portal the National Enquirer is a newspaper worth a presidential citation – let’s not get too elitist, OK?
The problem is that our President can seriously cite “a picture of Ted Cruz, his father, and Lee Harvey Oswald, having breakfast” and not understand that in not having rejected that canard in the first place, he is revealing himself to have no common sense.
Embarrassment for citing a nonexistent event in Sweden? Nope. He claims riots that occurred in Sweden days after he made his statement confirms that he was prescient.
Indeed, the President thinks of himself some kind of latter-day Nostradamus, a seer, who is driven by unfailing instinct. “I’m a very instinctual person,” he said, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” He repeatedly reminded Time that he predicted that the Leave side would prevail in the Brexit vote.
Regret for imprecise comments about the US commitment to defending its NATO allies? Are you kidding? The President wants us to know that when “Germany was over here” – Trump either forgot Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name or he believes that the entire country visited the Oval Office – he told her/it that “you have to pay your NATO bills, and they don’t even dispute it, OK?” The President does not seem to know that German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen subsequently denied that Germany owed any money to NATO.
On the wiretapping Trump Tower allegation, he simply can’t retreat from the idea that Obama was spying on him. The news that House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes may have sent him some kind of a lifeline – it didn’t – works its way through this interview, and apparently the presidential brain, like some kind of earwig. Six times he mentioned the fact that Nunes had a press conference.
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This trip through the President’s brain might seem amusing if did not reveal the enormous cost of presidential self-absorption. He only mentioned Wednesday’s terrorist attack in London once – and only as a distraction from the public paying attention to the Nunes press conference on the wiretapping matter. “Now probably obliterated [the import of Nunes’ statement],” Trump said, “by what’s happened in London.” You can see clearly what mattered most to him.
On social media, there is a lot of sharing of the President’s final sentence fragments. Focusing on those last comments is but a reminder that for this President the fact he won legitimates every instinct he has ever had and he is not yet prepared to be challenged, on practically anything. “Hey look, in the meantime, I guess, I can’t be doing so badly,” he told all of us through Time. “Because I’m president, and you’re not.”