Donald Trump and the Telltale Cough
“These people are so incredible,” Donald Trump said to George Stephanopoulos, of ABC News, as they drove away from an event in Iowa, past a crowd that stretched out along the road. “Look—crying. So cute!” The two men were cocooned inside “the Beast,” the Presidential limo that, Stephanopoulos informed the viewers, can, as an evasive maneuver, create its own oil slick. The interview was one of a series, conducted in Iowa and the White House, that aired in a “20/20” special on Sunday night. Snippets had been released over several days, beginning with the news, last week (covered by my colleague John Cassidy), that Trump said that he would gladly receive dirt about another Presidential candidate from a foreign power. (“It’s called oppo research.”) There was also a glimpse of a redesign of Air Force One—it will be painted red, white, and blue, and take on more of a resemblance to Trump’s own plane—and Trump’s acknowledgement that he had recently received a briefing about an uptick in U.F.O. sightings reported by Navy pilots. “I want them to think whatever they think,” he said. “Do I believe it? Not particularly.”
And there was the cough. Stephanopoulos had been asking if Trump would release his tax returns and other records subpoenaed by congressional committees. The answer, basically, was no, but Trump said, “At some point, I hope they get it, because it’s a financ”—here, there was a sound of off-camera coughing—“it’s a fantastic financial statement. It’s a fantastic financial statement. And let’s do that over, he’s coughing in the middle of my answer.” Stephanopoulos agreed to the do-over, and fingered the cougher, Mick Mulvaney, who is Trump’s acting chief of staff. A hurried shifting of camera angles ensued, but Trump couldn’t let it go.
“If you’re going to cough, please leave the room,” the President said. “You just can’t, you just can’t cough. Boy, oh, boy.” Trump’s expression took on a hardness, as if he regarded the cough as a willful act of insubordination. He was now looking into the camera, like a television pitchman who has momentarily forgotten why anyone would want to buy what he is selling but remains convinced that they will, because they must. He continued, “I look forward to—frankly, I’d like to have people see my financial statement, because it’s phenomenal.”
One can speculate about whether Trump really has a problem with people coughing in his presence, or whether he just likes keeping his staff guessing as to what he’s going to decide the next problem is. There were, needless to say, other ways that Trump might have handled the interruption—for example, by asking if Mulvaney was O.K. As it was, Trump’s response suggested that he operates under the assumption that people do not have much reality beyond their relation to him. He may also have assumed that his flash of contempt would be edited out of the final cut.
Trump had two main messages in the interviews: first, that he is respected, cheered, saluted, and loved. The people crying by the roadside were the ones “that couldn’t get in” to his events. The second message: that his enemies are everywhere—indeed, no President has ever been so persecuted. “Although, they do say Abraham Lincoln was treated really badly. I must say, that’s the one. If you can believe it, Abraham Lincoln was treated supposedly very badly. But nobody’s been treated badly like me.” The comparison of his experience to what Lincoln “supposedly” faced is a matchless historical atrocity in too many ways to count.
Trump told Stephanopoulos that his basic problem with members of Congress is that “they have their own views, you never know, exactly, but they have their own views”—as if this were news, and a shock. When Stephanopoulos interjected that this was the essence of democracy, Trump said, “Yeah, I guess.” The Presidency has accentuated the extremes in his temperament: the narcissism and the sense of persecution. In the White House, he can amplify his voice in ways that he’d scarcely dreamed: he bragged to Stephanopoulos about controlling the news cycle, and world leaders have to at least hear him out. But this is a democracy, and so many other people have a voice, too.
In the Beast, Stephanopoulos told Trump that his team had talked to people who “voted for you, they’re proud of you, they’re going to vote for you again, most of them.” But these people had also said that they didn’t like Trump’s tweeting—the insults, the derision, the childish bullying. “Well, you know what? I’ll bet they do like it,” Trump said. “They may tell you that, but I’ll bet they like it, you know? We’ve gotten great poll numbers recently. Tremendous poll numbers.” (He had told Stephanopoulos that reports that some of his internal numbers were bad were false; later, his campaign conceded that they were not, and some of Trump’s pollsters were fired.) “And a lot of people don’t want to talk about it, but they’re all Trump voters. They’re going to be Trump voters.” And they can cheer and cry and in the streets. They can even pretend that they want him to be kinder—they can think whatever they think. They just better not cough.