A new Great American Pastime has emerged over the past couple of years. Move over, baseball; hello, imagining how Donald Trump is reacting to the day’s incredibly damning news in the hours before he tweets about it.
Obviously, in my mind’s eye, the president is screaming, but questions such as “where?” and “at whom?” vary each time. If the news is especially negative–one of the classics like, say, Rod Rosenstein appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russia probe last summer–I like to envision an assortment of besuited men forcefully restraining the screaming president from grabbing his phone. It’s a mental image that provides cold comfort during bleak times.
The longer it takes Trump to tweet about the bad news, the more feverish the anticipation, and often, the more fiery the eventual tweetstorm. Except for today.
Tuesday marked perhaps the most catastrophic news day for Trump during his entire 578-day term. In the same late afternoon hour, a jury found Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort guilty of eight out of 18 fraud charges, while Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen simultaneously pled guilty to eight criminal charges, implicating Trump himself as a co-conspirator. In legal terminology, that is what’s known as “a spicy meatball.” Surely, Trump would have something interesting to say about it online once he got all the screaming out of his system. (Luckily, the president had one of his regularly scheduled rallies to scream at that night.)
Meltdown-watch began in earnest at around 8:45 p.m., after Trump tweeted his thanks to the crowd at his rally, a crowd with a surprisingly liberal stance toward un-indicted co-conspirators. It took 12 hours for the president to finally tweet out some sort of acknowledgment of the previous day’s extraordinary events. When he did, however, it was not what anyone was expecting.
If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2018
The last thing I thought would happen this morning was a legitimate cackle at something Donald Trump tweeted, at the expense of himself no less. His deadpan joke completely undercut all the imagined fury I’d attributed to Trump and projected instead a person at peace with the mess he is in. Sure, on the surface it’s an exculpatory joke–(“This is all my bad lawyer’s fault, not mine”)–but look one layer deeper and it suggests real vulnerability–(“My bad lawyer couldn’t get me out of a jam and now we’re both fucked”).
Vulnerability is something Trump is not exactly known for, beyond his constant pitiful whining about how unfairly the fake news media treats him. It was refreshing to see. I am as physically incapable of having empathy for Donald Trump as he is of having it for anyone other than himself; however, for the first time in years, I at least regarded him as an actual human being.
I was not alone either. Some of Trump’s many, MANY detractors had to hand it to him as well.
I guess it was bound to happen. Someday, somewhere, among the thousands of hateful, garbage, terrifying, dangerous, achingly stupid tweets, there was eventually going to be one that made me lol for real. https://t.co/Y41i7HNFwu
— Rebecca Traister (@rtraister) August 22, 2018
Not gonna not throw this a like https://t.co/Rc9sQdh4Su
— Priyanka Aribindi (@priaribi) August 22, 2018
To be fair to Trump, this is an objectively funny tweet. https://t.co/9QGNDy2EqK
— Jon Bershad (@JonBershad) August 22, 2018
Trump’s Cohen tweet seemed to be everything the infamous ‘covfefe’ tweet almost was, until Trump ruined his relatable screwup by forcefully insisting he was in on the joke. Whether Trump composed it himself or merely approved it, the tweet had to have some intentionality behind it. What was it meant to signal? A begrudging acceptance of Trump’s dire legal situation? The extremely, hopelessly late turning of a new leaf?
Of course, it was neither of those things. Comedian Patton Oswalt got it right when he instantly disregarded the tweet’s amusement factor and called it for what it was: the opening salvo in a symphony of garbage.
He’s tweeting. HE’S TWEETING. Here we go!!!!! https://t.co/M0QOc1cTCy
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) August 22, 2018
Within minutes, Trump tweeted praise for newly convicted criminal Paul Manafort, who didn’t “break” under pressure and who was only convicted of SOME of the crimes he was charged with, as well as skepticism about whether what Michael Cohen admitted to doing should even count as a crime–and finally a dig at Barack Obama for good measure. Next, he tweeted praise for someone kissing his ass on Fox & Friends, status quo fully restored.
I can’t stop thinking about the tweet, though! Of all the ways to approach the most disastrous news cycle of his presidency, Trump (or a digital surrogate) chose ironic humor that I had to admit was kind of funny. Suddenly I viewed a historically terrible person and president in a drastically different light than usual. Obviously, some people find Donald Trump funny. It’s part of the reason he got elected. Some of his old interviews with Howard Stern and David Letterman even reveal a decent command of comic timing and the ability to play to a crowd. Humor and cruelty are incompatible, though. The only way to find humor now in the man who wanted the exonerated Central Park 5 to be executed (or pick any example from his apocalyptic presidency) is to not find him cruel, which says a lot about you. Most of the time, Trump deploys “humor” exclusively as a vehicle for cruelty.
For a hot second there, though, one of Trump’s jokes was not in the service of bashing Crooked Hillary or John McCain’s service record or a disabled reporter. Nor was it one of his emphatic pronouncements with dark undertones that Sarah Huckabee Sanders later tries to retcon into intentional jokes. For one brief moment, Donald Trump seemed not to be punching down, but instead taking a much-deserved swing at himself for getting into what could be a presidency-ending predicament.
Then the moment passed and it was like it never happened at all.