We’ve reached the stage of the Trump presidency when the secretary of State has to call a news conference to deny that he called the president a “moron” — and then he doesn’t actually deny it.
NBC News originally reported the unflattering way that Rex Tillerson had allegedly described his boss’ mental capacity. CNN then confirmed it. After Tillerson’s news conference, Trump crowed: “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!”
Not quite. Tillerson did deny the report that he had considered resigning this summer and that Vice President Pence talked him out of it. But when asked whether he had called Trump a moron, all he said was: “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.” Translation: He did call him a moron.
This will only add to speculation about whether Tillerson, after a spectacularly maladroit tenure, is on his way out. But while Tillerson was being impolitic, that doesn’t mean he was wrong. This is a classic Washington gaffe, defined by journalist Michael Kinsley as what happens “when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
With almost every word he utters and almost every action he takes, Trump raises fresh questions about his mental fitness for office. Just consider his response to Hurricane Maria, which has caused devastating damage to Puerto Rico.
The president was oblivious to the size of the catastrophe during the four days after Maria made landfall on Sept. 20. He was too busy hanging out at his golf club and lashing out at NFL players for not standing during the national anthem. Not smart — but perhaps understandable. Everyone makes mistakes. What was inexcusably dumb was his next move.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz was “begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying,” and expressing her frustration “with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.” Trump does not take kindly to being criticized by anyone, but he appears to have a particularly short fuse for criticisms from women or minorities. Without evidently giving it much thought, he took to Twitter early Saturday from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to fire back:
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. … Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They … want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more moronic than a president using crude racial stereotypes about supposedly lazy Latinos to criticize hurricane survivors, or picking a needless fight with a mayor after a major disaster. Yet this was the second time this year he has done just that: In June, Trump castigated the mayor of London (a Muslim, by the way) as “pathetic” after a terrorist attack.
Nor did it apparently occur to him to cancel his planned appearance Sunday, while Puerto Ricans were still struggling for survival, at a golf tournament in New Jersey. Dedicating the golf trophy to hurricane victims only emphasized how out of touch he is. It’s as if Marie Antoinette had said, “Let them eat 9 irons.”
Trump journeyed to Puerto Rico on Tuesday to try to dispel that image. Again, it was a comedy of errors. The most widely seen picture from the trip showed Trump throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors as if they were seals receiving fish from a trainer. Trump refused to meet with Cruz, leading to more quotes from her lambasting him. “This terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people, it does not embody the spirit of the American nation,” she said.
Wait. Trump wasn’t done.
At a news conference at an Air National Guard base in Puerto Rico, the president lauded the Coast Guard as “special, special, very brave people.” Then he turned to a man in uniform and asked, “Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?” His response: “Sir, I’m representing the Air Force.”
Mixing up Coast Guard and Air Force uniforms is understandable for a newly elected president with no military experience; it’s less excusable after more than eight months in office.
At this same briefing, Trump also said, in that tone-deaf way of his, “You can be very proud. Everybody around this table, and everybody watching, can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico,” because fewer people died than during Hurricane Katrina. So Puerto Ricans should be proud of the catastrophe engulfing them because other disasters were even worse? It’s like telling New Yorkers that they can be proud that 9/11 didn’t kill as many people as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The real scandal isn’t that Trump’s secretary of State called him a moron. It’s that his job performance lends so much credence to that description.