Donald Trump’s curious tendency to defend himself against charges that were never leveled against him raises a serious question about how his mind operates.
Is he a clever rhetorician who has mastered the art of deflecting and diverting, or is he mentally or emotionally incapable of seeing reality when the subject at hand is himself?
Examples of Trump’s phantom vindications abound, but two are enough to show the now-familiar pattern.
Earlier this year, Trump defended his lie about having been illegally wiretapped by President Obama by pointing to news reports that conversations with or about some of his closest associates had been captured incidentally in routine, entirely legal surveillance of foreign agents by U.S. intelligence agencies.
No matter that those revelations did not even come close to supporting Trump’s false claim that Obama had wiretapped him. No matter that the Director of the FBI put the lie to Trump’s wiretapping claims in testimony given under oath to Congress. No matter that the revelations about communications between Trump insiders and Russian agents tended to confirm, not to diminish, the seriousness of the Russia story.
Pay no attention to any of that. According to Trump, his lies about Obama wiretapping him had been vindicated, and the Russia story had been exposed as fake news. The real story according to Trump was the legal surveillance conducted by the U.S. intelligence community, not the damning information that was collected by that surveillance.
The most recent example of Trump launching an utterly non-responsive defense to charges that were never made against him occurred during Trump’s visit to Israel earlier this week. During his visit, Trump proclaimed triumphantly that he “never mentioned the word or the name Israel” in his Oval Office meeting with the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister. Based upon nothing more than this pronouncement, Trump boasted that he had slain yet another fake news dragon. “So you have another story wrong,” Trump scolded.
The problem with this narrative, of course, is that there never was any such story. Nobody ever accused Trump of mentioning Israel in his Oval Office conversation with the Russians.
Rather, the story about Trump’s meeting with the Russians was that he had blurted out, without any advance consultation or deliberative process, the highly-classified information that the United States had obtained sensitive and ominous intelligence from an agent of one of our allies embedded within an ISIS cell.
Although subsequent reporting revealed that the source of this information was most likely Israel, no news stories ever said that Trump had mentioned Israel during his meeting with the Russians. And neither Trump nor his National Security Advisor, who was present during Trump’s Oval Office conversation with the Russians, has denied that Trump did, in fact, pass highly classified information to the Russians.
Nor has the White House denied that the information Trump passed to the Russians included the name of the city in which the intelligence was obtained, a vital bit of information that could lead to the exposure and execution of a friendly agent. Not to mention the distrust of a crucial ally.
In other words, by denying the phantom charge that he had mentioned Israel, and failing to deny the real charge that he had recklessly blurted out highly classified intelligence to an adversary, Trump effectively confirmed the story as it was reported by the press.
And yet, Trump boasted that he had exposed “another wrong story.” Exactly the opposite of what he had just done.
So, what’s going on here? Is Trump an evil genius, or maybe just a tricky guy, cleverly using diversion and misdirection to worm his way out of a bad narrative? Or does he really believe this stuff?
Sadly, all appearances point to the latter. It appears that Trump is either mentally incapable of making even the simplest of distinctions between truth and falsehood, or that he is so wedded to the illusion of his own infallibility that he is incapable of processing any reality that might tend to deflate that illusion. Or some mixture of the two.
Just try to understand Trump’s Israel statement as a calculated, strategic diversion, and you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t pass the giggle test. Trump’s statement was such a blatant non-sequitur that it was laughed out of serious consideration the moment the words flew out of his mouth. Virtually every news agency, whether left, right or neutral in its orientation, immediately pointed out that Trump was defending himself against a charge that nobody had made against him. Even Bibi looked nonplussed.
If this infantile stab at a defense had undergone even the most casual advance vetting as a potential strategic ploy, any half-bright person would have concluded that Trump’s statement would be universally seen as an admission, not a denial of his casual recklessness during the Oval Office meeting with the Russians.
So, the argument that this was part of a clever strategy of diversion doesn’t ring true, at least not for me.
If this is strategy, it is certainly high on the list of the dumbest, most ineptly executed strategies every employed by a President.
On the other hand, everything from Trump’s immature, impulsive nature, to his tendency to approach issues emotionally instead of rationally, to the widespread reporting that he is genuinely perplexed and furious that nobody is buying his side of the Russia story seems to support a different explanation:
That he is seriously deluded, and lacking in sufficient mental facility or moral clarity to entertain any reality in a light that doesn’t reflect glory on himself.
Trump’s fury at what he sees as an unfair reluctance to accept his feckless attempts to explain the inexplicable seems all too real to me. Just look at his facial expressions and his body language. They lend more than a little credence to the dozens of White House sources who depict Trump as a low-rent King Lear, raging against the storm generated by his own foolishness and vanity.
I‘m not a shrink, and I don’t have the ability to diagnose whatever mental or emotional disorders Trump may have.
But that boy ain’t right.
Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilipRotner.