Annals of Normalization: The Trump-Times Meeting
A woman I had dinner with the other night said to me that the atmosphere in this country since the Persian Gulf war is like that at a party in a beautiful home, with everybody being polite and bubbly. And there is this stink coming from somewhere, getting worse all the time, and nobody wants to be the first to mention it.
— KURT VONNEGUT, Letter to the editor, New York Times, March 27, 1991
On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump visited the offices of The New York Times for an on-the-record interview with some of the paper’s top reporters, editors and columnists. The meeting was widely covered, both in the paper and elsewhere, as suggesting that the Trump was “moderating” some of his more extreme views on topics like torture and that he had an “open mind” about other issues, like climate change. His tone was “less defiant,” the Times headlined.
In the annals of normalization, the process by which Trump’s visibly erratic behavior and bizarre political views become accepted as normal, the Times-Trump meeting and the resulting coverage should be Exhibit A.
Jon Schwarz of The Intercept has already shown how the editors and reporters in the room for the meeting fell down on their jobs, posing “vague, easy to answer questions,” making little effort to follow up on Trump’s responses, and failing to ask about a host of critical topics, like the fact that his pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, thinks “fear of Muslims is rational” or inquiring into whether he would support an investigation into the charge, made by the current NSA director, that a foreign nation-state hacked the emails of Americans in order to influence the election. I won’t dwell on that here.
I have a slightly more charitable and simultaneously considerably darker interpretation of how the people in the room with Trump behaved. I think the reason they didn’t ask tougher questions isn’t just because the culture of a Times editorial board meeting is deferential. I think people were afraid to talk about the elephant in the room, which is Trump’s stunning lack of mental competence. That was on display from the very beginning of the meeting, when Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger invited the president-elect by asking “if you have anything you would like to start this off with…”
Here is the Times transcript of what followed. Pay close attention to how Trump’s mind wanders from his initial intention, which was to improve his relationship with the press, to self-aggrandizing and fantastical talk about his campaign. And imagine being in the room, listening to him ramble, trying to make sense of his train of thought.
TRUMP: O.K. Well, I just appreciate the meeting and I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special. Always has been very special. I think I’ve been treated very rough. It’s well out there that I’ve been treated extremely unfairly in a sense, in a true sense. I wouldn’t only complain about The Times. I would say The Times was about the roughest of all. You could make the case The Washington Post was bad, but every once in a while I’d actually get a good article. Not often, Dean, but every once in awhile.
Look, I have great respect for The Times, and I’d like to turn it around. I think it would make the job I am doing much easier. We’re working very hard. We have great people coming in. I think you’ll be very impressed with the names. We’ll be announcing some very shortly.
Everybody wanted to do this. People are giving up tremendous careers in order to be subject to you folks and subject to a lot of other folks. But they’re giving up a lot. I mean some are giving up tremendous businesses in order to sit for four or maybe eight or whatever the period of time is. But I think we’re going to see some tremendous talent, tremendous talent coming in. We have many people for every job. I mean no matter what the job is, we have many incredible people. I think, Reince, you can sort of just confirm that. The quality of the people is very good.
REINCE PRIEBUS, Mr. Trump’s choice for chief of staff: [inaudible]
TRUMP: We’re trying very hard to get the best people. Not necessarily people that will be the most politically correct people, because that hasn’t been working. So we have really experts in the field. Some are known and some are not known, but they’re known within their field as being the best. That’s very important to me.
You know, I’ve been given a great honor. It’s been very tough. It’s been 18 months of brutality in a true sense, but we won it. We won it pretty big. The final numbers are coming out. Or I guess they’re coming out. Michigan’s just being confirmed. But the numbers are coming out far beyond what anybody’s wildest expectation was. I don’t know if it was us, I mean, we were seeing the kind of crowds and kind of, everything, the kind of enthusiasm we were getting from the people.
As you probably know, I did many, many speeches that last four-week period. I was just telling Arthur that I went around and did speeches in the pretty much 11 different places, that were, the massive crowds we were getting. If we had a stadium that held — and most of you, many of you were there — that held 20,000 people, we’d have 15,000 people outside that couldn’t get in.
So we came up with a good system — we put up the big screens outside with a very good loudspeaker system and very few people left. I would do, during the last month, two or three a day. That’s a lot. Because that’s not easy when you have big crowds. Those speeches, that’s not an easy way of life, doing three a day. Then I said the last two days, I want to do six and seven. And I’m not sure anybody has ever done that. But we did six and we did seven and the last one ended at 1 o’clock in the morning in Michigan.
And we had 31,000 people, 17,000 or 18,000 inside and the rest outside. This massive place in Grand Rapids, I guess. And it was an incredible thing. And I left saying: ‘How do we lose Michigan? I don’t think we can lose Michigan.’
And the reason I did that, it was set up only a little while before — because we heard that day that Hillary was hearing that they’re going to lose Michigan, which hasn’t been lost in 38 years. Or something. But 38 years. And they didn’t want to lose Michigan. So they went out along with President Obama and Michelle, Bill and Hillary, they went to Michigan late that, sort of late afternoon and I said, ‘Let’s go to Michigan.’
It wasn’t on the schedule. So I finished up in New Hampshire and at 10 o’clock I went to Michigan. We got there at 12 o’clock. We started speaking around 12:45, actually, and we had 31,000 people and I said, really, I mean, there are things happening. But we saw it everywhere.
So we felt very good. we had great numbers. And we thought we’re going to win. We thought we were going to win Florida. We thought we were going to win North Carolina. We did easily, pretty easily. We thought strongly we were going to win Pennsylvania. The problem is nobody had won it and it was known, as you know, the great state that always got away. Every Republican thought they were going to win Pennsylvania for 38 years and they just couldn’t win it.
And I thought we were going to win it. And we won it, we won it, you know, relatively easily, we won it by a number of points. Florida we won by 180,000 — was that the number, 180?
TRUMP: More than 180,000 voted, and votes are still coming in from the military, which we are getting about 85 percent of.
So we won that by a lot of votes and, you know, we had a great victory. We had a great victory. I think it would have been easier because I see every once in awhile somebody says, ‘Well, the popular vote.’ Well, the popular vote would have been a lot easier, but it’s a whole different campaign. I would have been in California, I would have been in Texas, Florida and New York, and we wouldn’t have gone anywhere else. Which is, I mean I’d rather do the popular vote from the standpoint — I’d think we’d do actually as well or better — it’s a whole different campaign. It’s like, if you’re a golfer, it’s like match play versus stroke play. It’s a whole different game.
But I think the popular vote would have been easier in a true sense because you’d go to a few places. I think that’s the genius of the Electoral College. I was never a fan of the Electoral College until now.
SULZBERGER: Until now.
TRUMP: Until now. I guess now I like it for two reasons. What it does do is it gets you out to see states that you’ll never see otherwise. It’s very interesting. Like Maine. I went to Maine four times. I went to Maine 2 for one, because everybody was saying you can get to 269 but there is no path to 270. We learned that was false because we ended up with what, three-something.
PRIEBUS: I’ve got to get, we’ve got to get Michigan in.
TRUMP: But there is no path to 270, you have to get the one in Maine, so we kept going back to Maine and we did get the one in Maine. We kept going to Maine 2, and we went to a lot of states that you wouldn’t spend a lot of time in and it does get you — we actually went to about 22 states, whereas if you’re going for popular vote, you’d probably go to four, or three, it could be three. You wouldn’t leave New York. You’d stay in New York and you’d stay in California. So there’s a certain genius about it. And I like it either way. But it’s sort of interesting.
But we had an amazing period of time. I got to know the country, we have a great country, we’re a great, great people, and the enthusiasm was really incredible. The Los Angeles Times had a poll which was interesting because I was always up in that poll. They had something that is, I guess, a modern-day technique in polling, it was called enthusiasm. They added an enthusiasm factor and my people had great enthusiasm, and Hillary’s people didn’t have enthusiasm. And in the end she didn’t get the African-American vote and we ended up close to 15 points, as you know. We started off at one, we ended up with almost 15. And more importantly, a lot of people didn’t show up, because the African-American community liked me. They liked what I was saying.
So they didn’t necessarily vote for me, but they didn’t show up, which was a big problem that she had. I ended up doing very well with women, which was — which I never understood why I was doing poorly, because we’d go to the rallies and we’d have so many women holding up signs, “Women for Trump.” But I kept reading polls saying that I’m not doing well with women. I think whoever is doing it here would say that we did very well with women, especially certain women.
At the beginning of this 15-minute soliloquy, Trump seems coherent. He dislikes critical press coverage, and he hopes the Times will be kinder to him. But then he starts talking about how the numbers in the election are getting better for him — when in fact Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is steadily increasing — and then he goes completely off the rails recalling the supposedly massive crowds at his rallies.
There was never any Trump event where 20,000 people came and 15,000 had to wait outside. (His pattern of exaggeration is carefully debunked here, by the Washington Post.) As for the Michigan rally that ended the campaign, which Trump believes had 31,000 people? The reported capacity of the hall in Grand Rapids where he held that final event is 4,200 people, according to the city fire chief. And by the time he spoke, people were already leaving, according to this report in the Times.
Trump’s magical, meandering thinking continues as he rambles from his imaginary crowd sizes to the poll numbers he thinks he got. The national exit polls show he received just 8 percent of the African-American community, not “close to 15 points.” And when Trump says he did “very well with women,” the fact is that he only got 42% of the overall women’s vote.
So, in the first 15 minutes of Trump’s meeting with the Times’ top brass, he offers a completely unrehearsed word salad, reminiscing about things that didn’t happen. And then the meeting continues without anyone blinking and saying, excuse me sir, nothing you just said makes any sense.
This is Trump’s reality distortion field. And even on their home turf, surrounded by colleagues, no one at the Times had the gumption to really puncture it.
A final note about the ongoing process of normalizing Trump: It was just a week ago that he announced that he was appointing Breitbart.com chairman Stephen Bannon to be chief strategist in the White House, triggering widespread protests. Since then, Bannon has disappeared from public view, and Trump’s team has pushed out a few Cabinet nominations that have been welcomed as increasing his team’s “diversity.” No one should be fooled by this.
And yet, at the Times, Trump got to say this about Bannon, followed by a critical and unremarked upon statement from Reince Preibus, the incoming White House Chief of Staff who is supposedly the sane one at Trump’s side.
TRUMP: I’ve known Steve Bannon a long time. If I thought he was a racist, or alt-right, or any of the things that we can, you know, the terms we can use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him. First of all, I’m the one that makes the decision, not Steve Bannon or anybody else. …And if he said something to me that, in terms of his views, or that I thought were inappropriate or bad, number one I wouldn’t do anything, and number two, he would have to be gone.Now, I’ll tell you what, I know him very well. I will say this, and I will say this, if I thought that strongly, if I thought that he was doing anything, or had any ideas that were different than the ideas that you would think, I would ask him very politely to leave. But in the meantime, I think he’s been treated very unfairly….
PRIEBUS: We have never experienced a single episode of any of those accusations. It’s been the total opposite. It’s been a great team, and it’s just not there. And what the president-elect is saying is 100 percent true.