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The President of the United States Is Unwell

Wednesday's press conference revealed a president not in control of his faculties.
September 26, 2019
The President of the United States Is Unwell
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It is difficult to view Donald Trump’s remarks at the U.N. during his Wednesday press conference as anything but an unmitigated disaster.

Trump was rambling and often incoherent. He veered from subject to subject, often without finishing his thoughts. At some points he was nonsensical. At others he was either lying or confused.

Strip away your political preferences for a moment. Put aside whether or not you like Trump, or think impeachment is a good thing or a terrible thing. Forget who you want to vote for in 2020. I cannot understand how anyone could watch that performance and not be concerned that the president of the United States has full control of his faculties.

If you haven’t watched the video, you should. But the transcript is damning, too. Some examples:

Here he is reaching for words and not being able to finish sentences:

We think we’ll make this little announcement to you because—important. You know the so-called whistleblower? The one that didn’t have any first-class, or first-rate, or second-tier information, from what I understand. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.

What he clearly means is “first-hand” information, but he can’t find the words. Then he says that this is all “from what I understand”—he’s the president of the United States. If he doesn’t have the definitive understanding on the level of remove of the whistleblower’s information, this is a problem. Why will the press “have to figure that out for yourself”?

By the way, he means “yourselves.” I don’t mean to nitpick slips of grammar, except that this sort of thing happens constantly throughout Trump’s remarks. I’m prepared to stipulate that despite having attended an Ivy League college, Trump has never been great with the technical niceties of the English language. If you dislike Trump, call this bumbling. If you like him, you call it being “plain spoken.” Whatever it is, it seems to be getting worse.

Here he is confused about the relative state of the U.S. and Chinese economies:

Our economy is the strongest in the world. We’re the largest economy in the world.

Had my opponent won, we would be second right now because China was catching us so rapidly, we would’ve been second by this time. And unless somebody does a very poor job as President, we’re going to be first for a long way, because we’ve picked up trillions and trillions of dollars in value and worth of our country, and China has lost trillions and trillions of dollars, and millions of jobs, and their supply chain. And they want to make a deal.

Some of this is true: America does in fact have the largest economy in the world and our economy has grown by trillions of dollars since 2016. Some of it is not. China’s economy has not lost “trillions and trillions” of dollars. It has continued to grow, adding trillions and trillions of dollars. In fact, its pace of growth since 2017 has been more rapid than America’s.

Here Trump is talking about meeting with Boris Johnson:

I met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at length, of the United Kingdom, continuing our discussions on a magnificent, new bilateral trade deal. So we’ll see what happens with respect to Brexit, but I suspect we’ll have a fantastic deal with the UK. It should be much bigger than it has been over the last number of years. Over the last 20 years, frankly. It should be a much bigger deal.

Notice how the word “Brexit” just pops into the middle of his stream of consciousness—as if his synapses know that since he’s saying “Boris Johnson,” he should also say “Brexit,” no matter what the context. And then he gropes for words to describe some “deal” he’s making. But instead of describing what the deal is about—dishwashers? soybeans? English dress shoes?—he spits out a series of random adjectives: “magnificent,” “new,” “fantastic,” “bigger.”

Here Trump is veering from relations with Mexico to “loopholes”:

And Mexico—I have to say, President Lopez Obrador has been outstanding—an outstanding partner. And he’s doing a great job in Mexico. The cartels are way down, and the numbers—our Secretary is here now—the numbers are way down. Way, way down. And we’re doing that without the help of Congress, meaning the Democrats in Congress who won’t give us a single vote to take care of loopholes.

We have loopholes that are so horrible, and it would be so easy to fix. And they know they should be fixed but they don’t want to do because they don’t want to give Trump any credit because it’s all about the election. That’s all they care about. They don’t care about our country; they care about the election.

Look at the repetition on the cartel “numbers” being “down” “way down” “way, way down.” And then abruptly he shifts to closing “loopholes” without the help of Democrats in Congress. Tax loopholes? Trade loopholes? “Cartel” loopholes? Immigration loopholes? Unclear. And then he slips into talking about himself in the third person.

Moving on to impeachment:

So that was all planned, like everything else. It was all planned. And the witch hunt continues, but they’re getting hit hard in this witch hunt, because when they look at the information, it’s a joke. Impeachment? For that? When you have a wonderful meeting, or you have a wonderful phone conversation?

I think you should ask. We actually—you know, that was the second conversation. I think you should ask for the first conversation also. I can’t believe they haven’t, although I heard there’s a—there’s a rumor out they want the first conversation. It was beautiful. It was just a perfect conversation.

What is happening here? Who is the “they” getting “hit hard in this witch hunt”?

When Trump says “you should ask” for the “first conversation,” why should the nebulous “you” (does he mean journalists or the American people watching him?) ask for this conversation? Where is he hearing “rumors” about “they” wanting this “first conversation”? Why didn’t the president of the United States—who has total authority over the release of that transcript—simply release the transcript, too, if he believes it is exculpatory?

Have you ever in your life described a conversation as “beautiful” and “perfect”?

And then there’s his re-litigation of the 2016 election:

And after that person—namely, me—won, and convincingly won at 306 to 223 in the Electoral College—which, by the way, when you run a race, if you’re running electoral—you know, if you go by the College, Electoral College, that’s a much different race than running popular vote. And it’s like the hundred-yard dash or the mile. You train differently.

And I can’t help it that my opponent didn’t go to Wisconsin and should have gone much more to Michigan and Pennsylvania and other places. But that’s the way it is. We won election, convincingly. Convincingly. And then you had the text message on, “Well, if she doesn’t win, we’ve got an insurance policy.” How bad was that? You know the insurance policy? That’s sort of what has been taking place over the last number of years—the insurance policy.

Look at the weird syntax: “running electoral” and “much different race than running popular vote.” Look at the repetition of “convincingly.” And then the sudden swerve to “the text message.”

And maybe you could look past all of that except that Trump also misstates the vote total in the Electoral College. He says he won “306 to 223.” The actual vote was 304 to 227.

Taken individually, any one of these pieces could easily be explained away as a slip of the tongue or a jumbling of memory. You could say that he was just speaking extemporaneously or that his style is different from that of past presidents.

But when you put all of it together—the half thoughts, the repeated words, the references to vague entities, the unfinished sentences, the misleading claims, and the outright factual mistakes—it is difficult to read this as anything other than a man who is not in full control of his faculties.

Just as a point of reference, compare any of those clips above to the brief remarks in the middle of the availability by Mike Pompeo:

Mr. President, I thought I’d start by talking about Iran. We had a productive week. We saw the Europeans take a position with respect to the attacks that took place in Saudi Arabia, making clear this was Iran, just as President Trump and I had been saying, and have now joined us in saying that the existing JCPOA framework is not going to work, it’s not going to solve the world’s problems, it’s not going to create Middle East stability.

Then we had a good set of meetings with our Middle East allies as well. The President joined for a meeting of the GCC where we talked again about how we can help deter. We want peace. We want a peaceful resolution with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We’re hoping we can get that way. In the end, it’ll be up to the Iranians to make that decision, whether they’ll choose violence and hate—and the President said in his speech yesterday to the General Assembly—if their bloodthirst will continue.

We hope that’s the (inaudible). We hope we can get the opportunity to negotiate with them and get an outcome that’s good for both of them, for the United States, to make sure that they never have a nuclear weapon and that they can’t foment their terror with ballistic missiles and in the way they have all around the world. And I think we made real progress uniting the world on that here over these past few days. Thank you.

This is not just a difference of style and tone. Whatever you think of Pompeo, he has a clear grasp on what he is saying and the ability to communicate it. His mind is focused. He understands what words mean and how to explain specific details, which then map reasonably well to reality. His thoughts flow logically from one to another.

Pete Wehner is right: whether or not you like Trump, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could have watched yesterday and not been concerned about the well-being of our president.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.