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Thirty minutes before the Labor Department dropped a report showing the unemployment rate in America had reached levels unseen since the Great Depression, President Donald Trump called into Fox News.
Coaxed on by friendly hosts, he fell into an old routine. It was as if the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t raging, as if more than 75,000 Americans weren’t dead, well over a million more infected, tens of millions of more stripped of their jobs and livelihood.
He talked about “dirty politicians and dirty cops,” railed against Rep. Adam Schiff and former FBI director James Comey, said those who had carried out the “total hoax” that was the Russia investigation would hopefully “pay a big price in the not too distant future.” The interview came one day after the Justice Department dropped its criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn even though he had admitted lying to the FBI and one day after the release of dozens of transcripts from the Russia investigation. That allowed Trump to plunge back into the world in which he feels most comfortable — surrounded by perceived personal enemies, rather than a pandemic and economic crisis he is unable to get under control.
Trump was in his element. “I love to watch it — step by step, day by day, thousands and thousands of pages,” he said. “Sleepy Joe was involved in this also, very much,” he said, referring to Joe Biden, his likely challenger in the November election. He flung around personal insults — Comey was “dumb as a rock” and a “sick guy,” Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, “very weak and very sad.”
When the hosts of Fox and Friends pivoted to the coronavirus, after 20 minutes of this, the president sighed and his voice fell flat. He sounded bored. “Our country is getting back to work. We’re opening up,” he said, and then swerved back to where he really wanted to be, playing victim of a huge plot carried out by a team of losers that only he was nimble enough to destroy. “It’s a much smarter enemy than the enemy we just discussed,” he said. “This is a very brilliant enemy and it happens to be invisible.”
Trump is trapped, and trying to create a reality where he is all-powerful and in control. When the Labor Department released its report at 8:30 showing that unemployment had skyrocketed to 14.7% in April with 20.5 million jobs lost, Trump tried to shrug it off like it was no big deal. “It’s totally expected,” he said. “There’s no surprise.” No words of comfort, no acknowledgment of what is really going on. “Those jobs will be back and they’ll be back very soon,” Trump said, although there is no evidence that either statement is true.
Trump is keenly aware of the potential effects of an economic disaster on his reelection prospects and made sure to throw bones to his base. He voiced support for Shelley Luther, a Texas stylist who was briefly jailed for violating a stay at home order to reopen her salon and is now being built up as a hero for those pushing for a quicker lifting of those orders, appearing on Sean Hannity Thursday night. “She’s an incredible representative for a lot of people who want to do the same thing,” Trump told Fox and Friends. “They want to get back to work.” He also dabbled in conspiracy, saying he “can see some of that” when people say some are supporting the lockdowns because “it will hurt me in the election the longer it takes to open up.”
Although there has been widespread evidence that organized groups, including some with links to the Trump administration, have been behind many of the anti-lockdown protests around the country, Trump turned it around to make it appear as though he was listening to voters. “The people are going to force it,” he said.
The interview veered further and further away from the pandemic and the economy and the unemployment report — into Venezuela, where two Americans were arrested for alleged involvement in a coup plot (“nothing to do with it,” Trump said), former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, two former allies of whom saw their “Bridgegate” convictions overturned by the Supreme Court on Thursday. Anywhere but the stark human tragedy currently unfolding in the country.
Toward the end, the Fox hosts threw Trump a softball softer than all the other softballs they had lobbed at him during the nearly hourlong interview. Sunday is Mother’s Day, and did he have a message for moms? How would he be marking the day with Melania, his wife, mother to his youngest child?
“We’ll be together,” he said. “I’m going to Camp David — meeting, a big meeting, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” He went off on how he had rebuilt the military. The hosts tried again: Did he have a message for moms?
“Well, all I can say is, 'Happy Mother’s Day,'” he said. “I had a great mom, I loved my mom, and she loved me which, I must tell you, probably not easy to do but she was so good to me. She was so good. I couldn’t do any wrong, which was a big problem, maybe that’s why I ended up the way I ended up, I don’t know, I couldn’t do any wrong in her eyes.”
“I miss my parents,” he said. And no one quite knew what to say. “Yeah, so do I — miss my parents,” host Steve Doocy chimed in. And then it was time to go.