Donald Trump's five revealing words

Two recent interviews with President Donald Trump, one on Axios on HBO and another on Fox News Sunday, provide a lesson on how to fact-check the President in realtime. CNN's Daniel Dale breaks it down.

Posted: Aug 11, 2020 8:01 AM
Updated: Aug 11, 2020 8:01 AM

These five words may be the most un-Trumpian thing Donald Trump has ever said: "It is what it is."

He said it in an interview with Jonathan Swan, of Axios, who asked how Trump could argue that the Covid-19 pandemic was "under control" since "1,000 Americans are dying a day." Trump responded, "They are dying, that's true. And you have — it is what it is. But that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can. It's under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us."

"It is what it is" is a phrase that football coaches lean on after their teams embarrass themselves on the field. President George W. Bush reportedly said it, too, when he was informed, wrongly as it turned out, that he was in danger of losing the 2004 election to John Kerry.

But not Trump. In a long career -- in real estate, reality TV and the White House -- Trump has reached often for exaggeration and falsehoods to convince people it is what it isn't.

At another point in the Axios interview, more in character, he praised his administration for doing a "great job" on Covid.

"This was not Trump's first failed interview," wrote Jill Filipovic. "Nor did it break entirely new ground in laying bare his inability to grasp basic concepts, his disregard for American lives, his narcissism and pettiness. But the interview did reveal a new set of outrageous and alarming moments from the man who, regrettably, is in charge." For example, Trump proved reluctant to praise John Lewis, the civil rights hero who died last month, and instead carped about Lewis not attending his inauguration.

"When it comes to literal life and death national security issues Trump continues to cling to a transparent and jaded ignorance-is-bliss card," Samantha Vinograd pointed out, after the President defended his failure to act on allegations that Russians put bounties on the heads of US soldiers in Afghanistan. He said the intelligence never reached his desk. "Purposely staying unintelligent and uninformed is the most un-American thing a president can do," said Vinograd.

Trump's reluctance to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin mystifies his former advisers, wrote CNN's Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto. They've told him "that Putin is aware of Trump's admiration for him and has sought to exploit it. They see the results in Trump's near mimicry of Kremlin talking points, on everything from election interference, to bounties on US troops in Afghanistan, to his understanding of Europe."

The mystery of Dr. Birx

At key moments, Dr. Deborah Birx has been the face of the White House's effort to fight the coronavirus. Widely respected for her years of work on HIV/AIDS, Birx has lately been the target of criticism from some medical experts and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She even drew fire from President Trump, after she acknowledged the "extraordinarily widespread" nature of the pandemic in the US. A fellow expert on infectious disease, Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, wrote, "All of her work shows Birx to be a sophisticated physician-scientist with genuine interest in the health of vulnerable and underserved populations."

But he argued that as response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Birx has made "a real hash out of the entire effort, with a series of poor decisions -- changing hospital data reporting protocols for coronavirus patients to cut out the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and report directly to Health and Human Services, painting a rosy picture of the problem and of the President's engagement and still developing no national plan for testing, tracking, opening schools and businesses."

Still, Birx could do the US a service by speaking out publicly about what has gone on behind the scenes, Sepkowitz wrote. "The cruelest trick of Trump and his group is this: they rely on the decency and the sense of historic order of those whom they destroy to keep their secrets secret."

What's killing us

America's poor performance in the pandemic isn't only the result of an inept response from the government, wrote Dr. Akash Goel, Michel Nischan, Dr. Bill Frist and Tom Colicchio. The food system is killing us. "Among the most significant risk factors for hospitalization and death in Covid-19 are the presence of diet-related chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and obesity. America's starting point? Nearly three out of four American adults are overweight or obese."

One of the biggest Covid-related questions facing Americans right now is whether to send children back to school. Biologist Erin Bromage said his are going back but acknowledged that the decision is made easier by the fact they attend private school in an area where community transmission of the disease is low.

"Make no mistake," he advised parents, "if there is community transmission in your local area, once schools resume there will be infected children and staff within those school walls. And once they are in the school, you are relying on the mitigation efforts the school has put in place -- masks, physical distance, ventilation and filtration of air, outdoor teaching -- to stop within-school transmission."

On mask wearing, Dean Obeidallah offered a simple parallel to those who refuse. "Cigarette smoking has been banned in various states and countless municipalities across the nation for the simple reason that smokers have no right to kill me or my family with their second-hand smoke. The same philosophy must also apply to wearing a mask to protect others from Covid-19: No one has the right to kill anyone else with their 'second hand' germs."

Veep search

There's one thing Joe Biden doesn't lack in his search for a running mate: advice.

Each of the likely candidates has enthusiastic backers. For Jen Psaki, the ideal choice is former national security adviser Susan Rice. "She is not only smart as hell, she is funny, outspoken and has a fiercely loyal group of women around her," wrote Psaki, who worked with Rice in the Obama administration. "Susan gives hugs, isn't phony, and won't be bamboozled by Vladimir Putin or Mitch McConnell."

Van Jones wrote, "Sen. Kamala Harris appears to be the front-runner -- and for very good reasons. ... She is tough, smart and experienced -- having already served ably in local, state and federal office." Jones argued that Biden should pick a Black woman, and he listed five others along with Harris, "all of whom would make outstanding candidates and vice presidents."

Biden is said to be evaluating candidates on a variety of factors, but to David Gergen, the supreme question is this: "If history calls, will his vice president have the capacity and talent to become a first-class president?"

In 2008, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain shocked the political world with his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his running mate. That is the kind of surprise Joe Lockhart said Biden should avoid at all costs. Biden's "pick needs to be designed to maintain the structure of the race rather than changing the dynamic. The very last thing he needs now is to spring a surprise on all of us."

For more on the 2020 campaign:

John Avlon: Kanye West's bizarre 'campaign' is designed to help Trump

Alice Stewart: It just became a lot less likely that a Democrat will win a Senate seat in Kansas

Baoky Vu: The Asian American voters who could help Trump win a second term

Neil Makhija: Indian Americans have a stake in the Biden VP pick

Paul Begala: What Trump would have to do to win

Julian Zelizer: The best way to check Trump is to vote him out of office

Devastation in Beirut

As white smoke billowed out of a warehouse Tuesday at the port of Beirut, an enormous explosion, captured on video as a gigantic red flash, decimated the area, killing at least 158 people, wounding more than 5,000 and forcing half of the city's population out of their homes. The blast was attributed to a huge cache of ammonium nitrate stored at the port.

"Everything that could go wrong in Lebanon has," wrote Frida Ghitis. "The blast came in the midst of an epic economic collapse and a global pandemic, with political factions fighting each other as the people, growing hungry, have alternated between despair and rage ...

"Perhaps the shared anger over this event can bring the Lebanese together to push back against the incompetent and the greedy, the functionaries, politicians, and outside players, who have hijacked their country and created conditions for the Lebanese people's never-ending tragedy; admittedly a monumental task."

Where is Congress?

Democrats and Republicans remained far apart last week on the outline of a new pandemic relief bill. The jobless rate in July, although modestly lower than in June, was 10.2% -- a number slightly higher than the peak of the Great Recession. But there was no agreement in Congress on extending any portion of the $600 a week in extra aid for the unemployed. On Saturday, Trump signed executive actions that could provide additional aid and defer payroll taxes for some workers, but they face serious hurdles.

Among the hardest hit industries is restaurants, John Avlon noted: "Independent restaurant owners face an economic apocalypse." The industry employs "11 million Americans, with an economic impact that is felt up and down the supply chain, from farmers to fishermen," he wrote. Often barely eking out a profit pre-pandemic, restaurants faced closure at the beginning of the crisis, and now, in many cases, are trying to survive on takeout or outdoor dining. Restaurants are backing legislation to create a $120 billion federal grant program.

"Once the weather turns cold, the outdoor seating work-arounds will no longer be operative -- and without a vaccine, many will be forced to close their doors forever," Avlon wrote. "Those closed storefronts will make our communities less safe and less distinctive."

When the pandemic began, several large grocery chains initially gave their workers hazard pay, since they were more likely than most people to be exposed to the coronavirus. Sen. Kamala Harris and Marc Perrone, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, wrote, "Given the seriousness of this pandemic, and the essential jobs they do, the time has come to reinstate hazard pay for all of America's grocery workers."

100 years later ...

August marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote and will be celebrated on Women's Equality Day, August 26.

Today it's viewed widely as the long-delayed but almost inevitable political empowerment of more than half the population. So, it's surprising to read, as Nicole Hemmer recounted, that more than a few of the activists opposing suffrage were women.

"The women who opposed women's right to vote have often been left out of the story of suffrage," Hemmer wrote. "Talk of women's interests, like the interest of other marginalized groups, often trades in flat stereotypes, treating all members of the group as though they think, and vote, the same. But as the anti-suffragist women show, women have been shrewd political actors, understanding -- and protecting -- their sources of power in unexpected ways."

What drove these activists? "They made the patriarchy work for them by setting up shop in the informal spaces of political power: the organizations, charities and associations that allowed them to expand their dominion over the private sphere into issues like public education and public health. They feared that, were women given the vote, they would lose their place of privilege and influence in these areas."

Hemmer sees echoes of the anti-suffrage women in the activists, led by Phyllis Schlafly, who fought off the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, a story told in the recent FX series, "Mrs. America."

Don't miss:

Sen. Dick Durbin: Amend the Constitution to protect voting rights

Errol Louis: How Pete Hamill became a legendary journalist

Jennifer Harvey: Changing one word in church could radically transform America

Elie Honig: The news Trump really didn't want to hear


Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates

In a piece for CNN Opinion, Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates expressed concern about students like Fortunate Ayomirwoth, who lives in a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. Her school has been closed since the pandemic erupted, they wrote. While Fortunate does chores and cares for four younger siblings, she hopes "there will be enough food to eat. Since her mother lost her job, money has been tight -- and for Fortunate, her window of opportunity feels like it, too, is getting tighter."

"We know from past crises, like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, that adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries are particularly at risk of being overlooked and left behind," noted Obama and Gates. "During a crisis like this one, adolescent girls face a heightened threat of physical and sexual violence, early and forced marriage, and unintended pregnancy on top of sustained economic hardship."

"Even a temporary disruption to girls' education could have devastating long-term impacts. Unless we act, the pandemic could trap a generation of girls in a cycle of poverty -- and shortchange the world of the talents and ideas these girls have to offer."

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