It’s six months since the United States graced us with its most engrossing show yet, but while we might have grown accustomed to Donald Trump as president he still manages to surprise on a regular basis.
On Thursday this week, the Washington Post published leaked transcripts of Trump’s private conversations with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. There’s plenty of juicy titbits in there, but one thing that caught my eye (as well as the eye of sub-editors everywhere) was Trump’s claim that he is ‘the world’s greatest person’. Even for a man known for hyperbole and narcissism, that is some claim.
It’s also unfair to Trump since it’s taken out of context. While on the phone with Turnbull, Trump tries to wriggle out of an existing deal to resettle refugees in the US. Trump says:
Malcolm, why is this so important? I do not understand. This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country.
The US has a proud history of equivocal language but by any standard that last sentence is a mess. Headline writers, perhaps disingenuously, took it to mean Trump was trying to say two things: first, that he is the greatest person in the world; and second, that he doesn’t want to let refugees into the US.
But, if I could speak for the US president for a moment, perhaps what he meant to say was that he, more than anyone, wants to keep refugees out of the US. So why didn’t he just say that?
The transcript doesn’t include the hesitations and, er …, you know, pauses that are an inescapable part of spoken language, so we can’t tell if Trump stumbled over that sentence or not. Perhaps he was reaching around after ‘I am’, trying to find the words he wanted, perhaps he started — almost as if it were a habit — with ‘I am the greatest’, and then paused to work out how to finish the sentence1. Perhaps, as some of the long rambling paragraphs in the transcript suggest, he was shooting from the hip, talking without too much thought2.
What we do know is that when you’re the president of the United States and you have what amounts to a 3,000-word conversation with a foreign leader, someone on the internet will find at least a few of your words to complain about.
It’s been his habit for a few years at least. When he announced his campaign for the Republican nomination in June 2015, Trump said he would be ‘the greatest jobs president that God ever created’.
It’s pretty clear Trump isn’t listening, perhaps because he’s exhausted (‘I spoke to Putin, Merkel, Abe of Japan, to France today’). Again and again Turnbull has to explain that the refugees are economic refugees held, not because they’re bad, but because Australia wants to deter people-smugglers. Trump doesn’t pay attention: ‘I guarantee you they are bad’, ‘That is why they are in prison right now’, ‘Does anybody know who these people are?’, ‘What is the thing with boats? Why do you discriminate against boats?’ Amy Davidson Sorkin covers this in more detail over at the New Yorker.