Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book, “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
He delivered all the tired lines about “fake news” and the “very unfair” investigation into Russian election meddling. Once again, he complained about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and bragged that “I’m president and you’re not.”
In his interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, President Trump was the same man he has always been. And that’s the problem.
Trump refused to take responsibility for his divisive behavior, even denying that he mocked a woman who testified that she was sexually abused by his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when he obviously did. Asked whether he felt any regrets, he could only complain about how he’s been treated. And twice this most immature of men protested that “I’m not a baby.” Once this whine was offered as he confessed, “I don’t trust everyone at the White House.”
Filled with bragging and doublespeak, the Trump interview with Lesley Stahl was a master class in deflection and denial. He found it impossible to give a straight answer about whether he will reinstate the mass separation of asylum-seeking parents and children at the US border with Mexico or whether he will keep his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. When asked about the political strife dividing the nation, Trump vamped a bit and then blamed his political opponents. “I don’t think they want to heal yet,” he said.
The one thing that came through loud and clear was that Trump remains a man of bad character who believes that the American people don’t deserve straight answers and that the ends justify his means. Kavanaugh won Senate confirmation, so humiliating Christine Blasey Ford was okay.
He won’t take action on climate change because doing so would cost large sums of money and the scientists cannot be trusted. Consider this revealing exchange, which exposed Trump’s famous use of “people say” to support the insupportable:
PRESIDENT TRUMP: They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.
LESLEY STAHL: Who says that? “They say”?
TRUMP: People say. People say that in the–
STAHL: Yeah, but what about the scientists who say it’s worse than ever?
TRUMP: You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.
Money was on the President’s mind when he was asked about Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, a journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, who disappeared after entering the Turkish consulate of Saudi Arabia. Turkish officials have suggested he was killed inside the consulate and Trump allowed that, considering that Khashoggi was a journalist, “there’s something really terrible and disgusting about that if that were the case. So we’re going to have to see. We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”
However, he also spoke of pending US arms sales to the kingdom and indicated this might curtail his response.
Just as he put a price on the future of the planet, the President seemed to put a price on Khashoggi’s life, as if commerce can wash away blood.
While expressing concern about the fate of Khashoggi, Trump continued to complain bitterly about the media in his “60 Minutes” interview. But of course this is nothing new. At his rallies, both before and after his election, Trump has whipped crowds into an angry frenzy about journalists. A recent presidential tweet supplied us the themes, in capsule form.
It read: “I just cannot state strongly enough how totally dishonest much of the Media is. Truth doesn’t matter to them, they only have their hatred & agenda. This includes fake books, which come out about me all the time, always anonymous sources, and are pure fiction. Enemy of the People!”
Trump is not the first to attack the press. This tactic is as old as journalism and politics. However, as with everything, he has gone further than anyone else. Previously, terms like “Enemy of the People” have been out of bounds because they are obviously inciting. This danger was noted in August by experts who told the United Nations, “We we are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.” Weeks later the FBI arrested a man who had made violent threats against staff at the Boston Globe. His message had included the words, “enemy of the people.”
Overseas, where many societies lack a long tradition of press freedom, Trump’s words may be seen as a green light for regimes that would repress reporters. In Saudi Arabia, surely some powerful people saw Khashoggi as an enemy. In the Philippines, where dictator Rodrigo Duterte has said reporters are “not exempt from assassination,” Trump chuckled to hear his him say journalists are “spies.” In the two years since Duterte took office, four journalists have been killed in the Philippines. Worldwide, the first year of the Trump administration saw the highest number of journalist killings ever recorded. This year’s total may be worse.
The President is so wishy-washy about Khashoggi that he makes one wonder who really holds the upper hand in the US-Saudi relationship. In the great geopolitical game of the Middle East, Trump sided with the Saudis, and to demonstrate his loyalty pulled America out of the treaty that had ended trade sanctions on Iran (Saudi Arabia’s rival) in exchange for curbs on its production of nuclear materials. Having made his choice, Trump needs the Saudis to influence others in the region on America’s behalf.
The president’s pro-Saudi position was announced soon after he took office when he embarked on his first foreign trip and stopped first in Riyadh, where ministers and members of the royal family had him join a ceremonial sword dance and visit a dark room full of computer operators, where he laid hand upon a glowing decorative orb.
Although the spectacle of Trump dancing and touching the orb caused some consternation, it revealed his long-standing attachment to members of the family that rules the country with absolute power. In the early 1990s, when Trump faced financial difficulty and one of his firms went bankrupt, Saudis helped him by purchasing a giant yacht Trump couldn’t afford and part of the Plaza hotel, which he was running into the ground. In 2001, Trump sold an entire floor in a New York building to the kingdom for $12 million.
In the run-up to the election, Trump created several new corporations to do business in the kingdom. Since his election, Saudis have spent lavishly at his hotels in Washington and New York City.
In light of his history with the Saudis and a moral view of the world that has obviously not changed during his time in the Oval Office, Trump was his usual self on “60 Minutes.” The country is bitterly divided, the planet is ravaged by superstorms that appear to be linked to climate change and an outspoken journalist has disappeared – and the president isn’t prepared to respond. But as he said, he’s not a baby.