Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Low-Energy Trump

The president doesn't have the same strength and vigor he used to.
August 5, 2020
Low-Energy Trump

After this week’s set of briefings at the White House, the Donald Trump presidency looks like it may end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

First Chris Wallace from Fox and then Jonathan Swan from Axios eviscerated Trump in interviews that not only exposed how unprepared Trump is for the long-interview format, but how unfamiliar and unrelatable he remains to facts.

He literally does not appear to understand them.

And his confusion now looks like exactly that: the confusion of a senior citizen who doesn’t quite have a grasp on what’s going on, not the bluster of a bully who is dominating the world around him.

Trump used to have bluster. He’d pick fights with reporters. He’d tell us to sit down, shut up, etc. He was, whatever else you wanted to say about him, high energy.

But lately he can barely muster the get-up-and-go to turn the page on the briefing notes that he pretty obviously hasn’t looked at before lumbering to the podium. Instead of selling his version of reality with a huckster’s showmanship, he’s like a chagrined schoolboy trying to fib his way through the report on a book he didn’t read.

What happened?

Trump is scared.

He’s losing. He knows it. And in his mortal terror, the only place where he can still muster bravado is Twitter. (On Wednesday he tried to take on CNN’s Jim Acosta by tweeting that he was a “fake reporter” after CNN’s chief White House correspondent called into question Trump’s many fictitious claims regarding the coronavirus pandemic.)

But Trump isn’t showing much energy any more in public.

When NPR’s Tamara Keith asked him last week why he had canceled a Tuesday meeting with pharmaceutical representatives Trump seemed to be unaware he had done so. He said the meeting wasn’t set in stone and he’d meet with them the following day. But that was impossible because he was heading out of town.

This wasn’t a “gotcha” question. It was the sort of basic question about scheduling that could be dealt with by anyone who is engaged in their own work. But Trump couldn’t handle it.

He also couldn’t handle a question this week when a reporter questioned why he had said that Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut had been an “attack.”

This was also a simple, predictable question: The president of the United States had labeled a major event as an attack and been contradicted just a few hours later. He had to know that he would be asked about it and should have been ready with an explanation. Instead, Trump made up a meandering story about talking to generals, but surmised it must’ve been an attack because of the size of the explosion. He proclaimed it an attack with such lackluster enthusiasm you’d have thought he was asking for a mulligan on the back nine at his golf club.

The presidency takes its toll on all who hold the office, even, as it happens, the aspirational authoritarians. That’s because even doing the job badly requires a major commitment of time and energy. The good presidents grow into the office and learn how to delegate, make decisions, and surround themselves with smart people they can trust.

Trump has done none of that. There is hardly anyone competent left inside the White House. More and more is delegated to Mark Meadows, his daughter, and her husband and—terrifyingly—these nullities might be the smartest people still on site.

Meanwhile, Trump’s desire to act as his own press secretary, his inability to understand facts or cobble together a coherent policy on any issue, and his penchant for surrounding himself with a combination of young, eager sycophants and incompetent aging sycophants has sapped him of his strength.

How fitting that his final weeks as president have seen the emergence of Low Energy Trump.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.