Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and spring fellow at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She also was a consultant for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Follow her: @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers
Donald Trump has shown he is capable of temporary moments of sanity.
They typically include scripted remarks, and they last for about 24 hours – or less. Just a few minutes into his speech at a rally in Phoenix Tuesday evening, the clock ran out. And it quickly went off the rails.
It wasn’t just a speech lacking structure, or focus, or message. It was an unhinged rant from someone who is supposed to be leading our country and bringing us back together after one of the toughest weeks of his presidency.
If the goal was to fire up his base and throw red meat – ranging from attacks on the media to a threat to shut down the government over building a transparent border wall to a wink and a nod about pardoning the divisive ex-Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, a man who was still a birther even after Trump had stopped making the claim – well, they got that job done. But for what?
Even with a slight dip among Republicans in some recent polls, President Trump’s biggest challenge is not to fire up his base or to worry about his re-election campaign in 2020.
He has no legislative legacy-building accomplishments under his belt – beyond his former friend Sen. Mitch McConnell successfully pushing through Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. And for the first time in modern American history, there are legitimate questions, prompted by no one other than Donald Trump himself, about whether the President of the United States sympathizes with white supremacists.
The words President Trump used in his Afghanistan speech on Monday night were a dramatic improvement from last week (putting aside the fact that no President in modern history has ever felt the need to begin a prime-time address by disavowing racism because the country he leads had doubts.) Still, at Fort Myer on Monday, Trump appealed to the country to be unified.
That was never going to mend the hurt and anger from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, because words alone rarely do, and they didn’t even calm the fears many people in the country have about the sitting President’s racial bias – because we know Trump well enough now to know that a one-off set of scripted remarks rarely represents his overall point of view and thinking. But it was a small step in the right direction.
No surprise he took a flying leap in the other direction in Phoenix on Tuesday night, and delivered a speech that was all about division.
He spent several excruciating minutes reading from his own statements of last week and defending them. It was the media’s fault – not Donald Trump’s, he said. It was as if he was not aware that there is a record, a well documented one, of what was said last week, when he suggested that there was fault on “many sides” for the violence and that there were “very fine people” associated with the white supremacists as well as the counter-protesters.
And because that wasn’t enough – and because alienating the African-American community last week was not enough – he decided to raise the possibility of pardoning former Sheriff Arpaio, a man who has been accused of racially profiling Latinos.
I am not a Trump supporter. But I found myself rooting for him at the beginning of the speech to read the teleprompter, to stick with the message of unity, to swallow his bile and recognize as a human being that this moment required something bigger than he typically was capable of delivering.
Instead, my jaw was on the floor, like many people watching. I guess I should stop being so surprised.