There was a moment during United States President Donald Trump’s press conference on Wednesday afternoon when – in addition to more defensive rambling than usual – the president almost sounded wistful about a time when he felt the world still loved him.
“I used to be the king of getting good press,” said Trump, the 73-year-old former reality-show TV celebrity, beauty pageant producer and real estate mogul. He’s been a lot of things over the years. Most of them involved being in the public eye, whether playing the casino high-roller as the paparazzi crowded the party or, later, attracting attention with highly charged, high-profile chatter on politics and U.S. affairs.
That was before he entered the political arena himself, successfully gaining the Oval Office in 2016 and now running for reelection. Many U.S. voters still support him – his average national approval rating is just shy of 45 percent in recent polls – while millions more still find it hard to believe he ever happened. Worse still, as many U.S. leaders and diplomats have noted, it’s hard to explain to the global community how Trump could reflect the will of the American majority at such a pivotal moment on the planet. He doesn’t, but that’s a quirk of the U.S. electoral system that seemed perilous then and remains so today.
Now, in addition to the other challenges, Trump is facing impeachment. Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the opposition party’s Speaker of the U.S. House, finally agreed to a formal impeachment investigation that rests on a specific case but is the latest in a series of provocations – depending on one’s view of Trump.
Yet there was the U.S. president, chief of one of the great world powers, standing at the podium at the U.S. mission to the United Nations where he had spent the day meeting with heads of state attending the UN General Assembly. It was on this world stage, after Trump’s meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and the impeachment linked to Kiev, that Trump mourned the loss of his stardom.
Not, mind you, the irrevocable damage done to U.S. relationships with both allies and adversaries alike. Not the feverish nationalism or the cruel, sometimes fatal, Trump anti-immigration policies. Not the U.S. withdrawal from nearly every cooperative international agreement, from the UN Global Compact on Migration to the Paris Agreement to the Iran nuclear deal with all its potentially catastrophic outcomes.
Not the rollback of U.S. environmental policy and the disregard for evidence-based climate policies with which the rest of the world must live too. Not the calloused way in which Trump manages everyone from “friends” in his unstable revolving-door administration to enemies he routinely mocks on Twitter.
So many things that it might be possible to regret a few years into his first term – so many things on Wednesday alone – and the U.S. president lamented instead the loss of the media’s gaze of adoration.
With that, naturally, Trump attacked the media again. He insisted their reports are “fake news,” and that concerns over Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky concerning political rival and former U.S. vice president Joe Biden are all a politically motivated hoax intentionally timed to obscure his achievements.
“That was all planned, like everything else it was all planned,” Trump said. “The witch hunt continues but they’re getting hit harder this witch hunt because when they look at the information, it’s a joke.
“Impeachment?” an unrepentant Trump asked. “For that? When you have a wonderful meeting or you have a wonderful phone conversation?”
At the same time, the White House released notes from the call that confirm parts of the impeachment discussion are true. While the notes were made public and open to widely different interpretations, U.S. officials tasked with managing the investigation received full copies of the whistleblower complaint that touched off the crisis.
They demand to know the degree to which it was Trump’s goal to interfere with the U.S. political process as the U.S. heads to 2020 elections, and do so with the assistance of a foreign government. They want the truth about other parties to Ukraine developments, including U.S. attorney general William Barr. It’s likely they’re scrutinizing the ways, if any, that this new case connects to previous investigations in the Trump orbit.
Zelensky, for his part, reiterated his new administration’s dual focus on ending corruption and enhancing U.S. cooperation; they’re both worthy goals for Ukraine, but not at additional cost to the already-fragile international trust in Washington under the Trump administration. Not when he publicly pines for the golden days of Trump applause while, apart from seeming melancholy, he doesn’t appear as if he understands what’s wrong.
Many Americans speak of how “embarrassing” Trump is, but his leadership in the global community – at a time fraught with conflict and climate change and economic crisis – isn’t so much embarrassing as it is dangerous. Whatever is true about the allegations that the U.S. president has betrayed his own nation, whether in foreign affairs including the new Ukraine case or at home with domestic policies, the idea that Trump holds the U.S. office communicates a cultural weakness to the world that won’t go away when he does.
Trump is making the U.S. less safe in far more ways than his Zelensky phone call. U.S. lawmakers are right to question – again, seriously this time – any evidence that bears on his fitness for the office. No more evidence should be needed, though, beyond Trump himself, the cornered U.S. president who insists the whole thing is a “hoax” and blames the press who once loved him for inventing “fake news.”
In so many ways, Trump is telling them himself that he has to go.
Image: White House