Donald Trump fixed reporters with a hard gaze and declared: “I’m a very nonpolitical person, and that’s why I got elected President.”
Like much of what Trump says, his comment required a large helping of salt, since it came in a session in which his considerable, instinctive and often cynical political prowess was on full display 14 days before the midterm elections.
With reporters and lawmakers huddled around his Oval Office desk Tuesday, Trump floated conspiracy theories, boasted about his achievements, bent facts, teased future announcements and dipped into a well of racial and cultural prejudice.
Such behavior is more often displayed by autocratic leaders who rule in personality cults than by more cautious and conventional politicians who operate in democratic systems, but it also explains how Trump has bullied much of Washington into submission.
With a chatty intimacy that tempted his audience into his confidence, Trump dominated the Oval Office, coming across as a president increasingly bullish about himself and at ease in wielding his power.
“I’m not worried about anything,” he said.
Including a later photo-op at a meeting with military leaders, Trump has now chewed the fat with reporters 12 times in 11 days, and conducted a blizzard of interviews with radio and television stations.
With his spokeswoman Sarah Sanders and political strategists confined to the wings, the President has seized control of the midterm election campaign, and it looks as if the GOP will rise or fall depending on how voters react.
Trump’s virtuoso flexing of his significant but often diabolical political skills came on a day when he had no campaign rally. So he just manufactured a moment to add more fuel to the rhetorical blaze he has ignited over immigration.
’No proof of anything’
The caravan of desperate migrants from Central America might be more than 1,000 miles and many days from the US border in Mexico, but that is not stopping the President from whipping it into the perfect political storm.
The now-famous column is becoming the 2018 equivalent of then-FBI director James Comey’s late reopening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which dominated the final few weeks of the 2016 presidential race.
Then, Trump used the issue to hammer home his theme – that his Democratic foe was corrupt, a liar and unfit for office – in the process papering over his own character liabilities and drowning out her attacks.
Two years on, Trump is using the caravan in a similar shock and awe assault on the airwaves, bolstering his dark claims that a human tide of outsiders from Central America is laying siege to US borders, bringing crime, violence and even terrorism.
Pictures of massing migrants bolster his theme, even though he rips them out of context and ignores reporters on the ground who are able to show that his claims that the column includes “Middle Easterners” are likely false.
Many in Clinton’s camp believe, in retrospect, that the blanket coverage of the email issue stalled her momentum and helped Trump’s late surge to victory.
It’s unclear if the caravan holds the same potential for Trump this time around. But it helps him reach voters who sincerely believe that other politicians have done nothing as their wages are undercut by undocumented migrants and their jobs have disappeared.
And the spectacle of the march means the President will likely have the opportunity to loudly tout his extreme take on immigration, an issue on which he has built his political career, every day until the midterms November 6.
It also allows him to fold in other themes that animate the Republican base, which he needs to come out in near 2016 numbers to stave off Democratic gains.
That’s one reason why he has stoked fear and played into prejudice about “Middle Easterners” – code for Muslims – who he hints, without providing evidence, are in the crowd, coming America’s way and may be bent on terrorism.
Ever eager to please, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at the President’s shoulder, explaining that it was “inconceivable” that such people were not in the column, placing the burden of proof on those who doubt the claim.
But pressed by CNN’s Jim Acosta, Pence was not quite as adept at shading truth as the President, who jumped in and said some “real bad ones” from the Middle East had been intercepted at the border recently.
Pence, who has spent the last two days defending Trump’s claims on the caravan, then got a reminder of how treacherous life can be on the President’s team. The vice president was promptly crushed as Trump reversed a rhetorical bus over him.
“There’s no proof of anything. There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be,” Trump said, before deftly switching the conversation to a debate about the size of his crowd at a rally in Texas on Monday night.
Sticking a knife in with a smile
The President also unsheathed another skill common to other accomplished politicians: his use of humor to twist a knife, in this case in the unfortunate Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who had effectively been held captive after a photo-op to sign a water infrastructure bill.
After Pence said the caravan was financed by leftists, Trump turned to Carper and teased: “And the Democrats maybe?”
On Trump’s face was the grin of a man who knows he has power over others and can make outrageous claims and get away with it.
If his rising approval rating and dominance of the agenda in the days running into the midterms with a campaign based on fear and untruths help Republicans hang on to the House and perhaps increase their Senate majority, a comment by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at the CNN CITIZEN conference in New York on Monday will look prescient.
“The more time I spend with him working with him, the more I realize I don’t bet against his instincts,” Kushner said, despite polling and historical data that suggest Trump could be heading for a bloody nose in two weeks.
“He’s a black swan. He’s been a black swan all of his life,” Kushner said, suggesting there was something unpredictable and unexplainable about his father-in-law’s talents.
However, despite dominating his immediate circle and delighting his base, Trump is a politician with an approval rating in the mid-40s who could end up constrained by a Democratic-led House next year, a scenario that could have been brought on largely part by his extreme behavior and fear-based leadership.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, one Democrat who’s itching to take on Trump, hinted Tuesday at the possibility that Americans will reject the President when he said: “This President is more like George Wallace than George Washington!” – referring to the late populist firebrand and former Alabama governor.