TheNewYorker.com – Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things you can’t back up factually?” Bill O’Reilly asked President Donald Trump, in a pre-Super Bowl interview in the White House. The President had said, for example, that there were “three million illegal aliens who voted” in the 2016 Presidential election. O’Reilly tilted his head with the air of a man who expected that the two of them were about to make quick work of any misunderstanding about Trump’s relation to the truth. The President just shrugged.
“Many people have come out and said I’m right,” Trump said. “You know that.”
“I know,” O’Reilly said, as if conceding the tediousness of the whole fact enterprise. “But you’ve got to have data to back that up.”
Trump launched into a couple of disconnected sentences about dead people and dual-state registrations and “illegals”—the group he has blamed for Hillary Clinton receiving almost three million more votes than he did. With the Super Bowl about to begin, he could have cited a frequently made analogy: that she might have prevailed in passing yards, but he got the score on the board. Instead, sitting with O’Reilly, he demonstrated again that he would rather disparage the integrity of the entire American electoral process and raise suspicions about minorities than concede to reality. As he often does, he did so in the supposed name of confronting hard truths. “We can be babies,” he said, or we can join “a lot of people” and come out and declare that the situation was bad and that Trump was correct. O’Reilly stopped him.
“But the data has to show that three million illegals voted,” O’Reilly said.
“Forget that. Forget all of that,” Trump said, and made a gesture toward setting up an investigative commission, which Vice-President Mike Pence would lead. That seemed to satisfy O’Reilly, who moved on to when Americans could expect a tax cut.
Urging on forgetfulness and other forms of willed oblivion has become a favored Trump injunction. On Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, he addressed reports that he had abruptly and angrily ended a call with Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister of Australia, by saying, “When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.” His anger at Turnbull had been provoked by a rude encroachment on Trump’s own forgetfulness: Turnbull had reminded him that the United States, under President Obama, had signed a deal to take twelve hundred and fifty refugees who had tried to reach Australia. Either the terms of the deal or the general principle that he might be expected to keep America’s promises appear to have been news to Trump—and news of a disturbing sort. He tweeted about the terribleness of it all. Why were the Australians, or anyone else, trying to get in the way of his executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim nations, and all refugees, from entering the country? Why did judges, in particular, think that they had something to say?
Judges, in fact, have a lot to say; an intense legal battle about the executive order is already under way. (The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town has a look at one of the lawyers involved.) On Friday, Judge James Robart, a Ninth Circuit District Court judge, based in Seattle, stayed Trump’s executive order. Trump responded by calling Robarts a “so-called judge”—just a constitutional pretender, no one to worry about. (The Seattle Times noted that Robarts is a Republican appointee with “vast legal credentials,” who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.) Or maybe Trump meant that the Constitution was nothing to worry about, since it seemed odd to him that judges might judge him. In one of a series of tweets, he wrote, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” The ad-hominem nature of the attack is striking. But perhaps even more remarkable is that the President is urging members of the public to blame the entire court system—their system, the one that guards their rights against overreaching executives and gives them a place to have a voice—if “something” happens.
One judge seems legitimate to Trump: the one whose name he has put forward for the Supreme Court. During their interview, O’Reilly said that he thought that the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, to fill a vacancy created by the Senate Republicans’ decision to forget about Merrick Garland, had gone very smoothly. But about the immigration ban, he said, “Not so much.”
“I think it was very smooth,” Trump said, as if he hardly knew what O’Reilly was talking about. “We had a hundred and nine people, out of hundreds of thousands of travellers, and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.” A hundred and nine is one estimate of the number of people detained as a result of the order. It is not the number of people who have had visas revoked (somewhere between sixty and a hundred thousand, by the government’s own admission); or of those who could be affected in the future; or the cost to our values if a single sentence of the Constitution is trampled upon. But Trump told O’Reilly that his own Secretary of Homeland Security thought that it was going well, and that that should be enough proof. O’Reilly moved on to the perfidy of Iran: “Don’t you think we’re on a collision course with that country?” (A few minutes later, O’Reilly added, “California and the U.S.A. are on a collision course”—suggesting a unified theory of political supercolliders.) He also asked Trump how he’d deal with Putin. When Trump said that he thought he might work something out with Putin, O’Reilly acknowledged the discomfort that an increasing number of Republicans feel about the two men’s affinity, exclaiming, “But he’s a killer!”
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think—our country’s so innocent?” Or, he also seemed to be asking, that the President should be so innocent? Babies.
Trump has suggested that there is a way to penetrate his forgetfulness about all his obligations, foreign and domestic, at least for a fleeting few minutes: be his friend. This method is not entirely reliable, in terms of actually getting him to keep a commitment, but it may get a person a shout-out. For example, on Thursday, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that, out of personal “respect” for Turnbull, if not for diplomatic agreements, Trump might “study” the refugee deal. Friendship also formed the substance of his answer to what O’Reilly seemed to regard as his toughest question: Who would win the Super Bowl?
They’d see, Trump said, “but, you know, you have to stick up for your friends, right?” By that, Trump meant, “I like Bob Kraft. I like Coach Belichick. And Tom Brady is my friend.” This was reason enough for him to predict that the New England Patriots would prevail over the Atlanta Falcons—an organization that he referred to vaguely as “a fantastic team” with a “great,” and also unnamed, quarterback—by eight points. They won by six. As Trumpian predictions go, this one, given the Patriots’ record, wasn’t much of a stretch. That’s not to say that Trump had studied the matter.
“You don’t need data on that,” O’Reilly said.
“I need no data on that,” Trump replied, forgetting, perhaps, that there was ever a moment, on any point, when he thought that he did.
Image Source: slate.com