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The Absentee President

Donald Trump rarely shows up to the West Wing—and when he does, he is too incompetent to effectively fulfill his oath of office.
September 21, 2020
The Oval Office of the White House is seen after renovations including new wallpaper August 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It isn’t just that Donald Trump is crazy.

It isn’t just that he lies.

It’s not just that his administration is filled with chaos.

And it isn’t just that he is “Putin’s puppet.”

There’s another problem we tend to overlook as we react to the president’s bombast, wild claims, misogyny, racism, lies, greed, avarice, and abandonment of all the core principles of our country and his party. We overlook it  because it is so common that it is no longer news.

It is this: Donald Trump rarely shows up in the West Wing, and when he does, he is too incompetent to effectively fulfill his oath of office.

The Marine guard posted outside of Trump’s office when he is in it almoste never appears before noon and is rarely seen in the afternoon. There have been days when Trump has held press briefings where the guard wasn’t outside of the door even as Trump entered the briefing room—indicating that Trump may have walked straight from the residence to the briefing room. No guard on duty outside of the West Wing after a Trump appearance would indicate he walked straight back to the residence.

The image of the hard-working Trump that he and his supporters love to promote is false.

The lack of attendance leads to presidential inaction on key issues. Trump has promised infrastructure and healthcare reform since his first day in office. We haven’t gotten them.

His lack of engagement leads to him reading from notes and using visual aids in his briefings. It is often apparent—sometimes he even points it out himself—that he hasn’t read the prepared material he’s giving us. Thus he misquotes it and often doesn’t seem to understand what he’s saying.

Last Wednesday he was at it again. He used visual aids and misled us about their significance to try and explain away the fact that we lead the world in coronavirus deaths. “And thanks to our lifesaving therapies and treatments—I think this is the best of all, in terms of our great percentages and all the progress we’ve made—the fatality rate has fallen 85 percent since April—85 percent—fatality rate.”

It was like watching the 21st-century embodiment of the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant” as Trump used the equivalent of several “8 x 10 colored glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one” to be used as evidence. But Trump couldn’t sell it because he fumbled through the presentation. He doesn’t do his homework.

His lack of attendance on the job also creates an atmosphere fertile for misinterpretation by his communication staff and allows White House stakeholders to create their own narratives to fill the void. Later, if Trump doesn’t like what’s going on he merely undercuts his underlings. They misspoke, we’re told. Or they didn’t understand. Or Trump doesn’t know them. The wise underling then quickly falls in line with whatever the absent president has said.

That was on display again last Wednesday. Early in the morning a pool reporter tweeted out that an administration official said a couple of staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus. In her afternoon briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to say how many, if any, of the White House staff had tested positive. She said she wouldn’t give out names out of respect for privacy. But no one had actually asked for the names. We just wanted to know how many.

When Trump arrived for his afternoon briefing he at first seemed unaware of the positive tests. “But it’s a small—it’s—last night, I heard about it for the first time. And it’s a small number of cases. Maybe it’s not even cases.”

McEnany then wanted to emphasize that whatever happened did not “affect the event”—the socially distant town hall hosted by ABC News in Philadelphia the night before—and Trump said, “It’s not that was anybody near me.”

Finally they both confirmed that one person who had been at the event in Philadelphia tested positive the previous evening.

That confusion wasn’t the biggest misstep. That was saved for talking about a potential coronavirus vaccine. Earlier that day, Dr. Robert Redfield testified in a Senate hearing that a coronavirus vaccine would not be available to the general public until next summer. Trump said, “No, I think he made a mistake when he said that. It’s just incorrect information. . . . We’re ready to go immediately as the vaccine is announced.”

Trump indicated that the vaccine could be “announced” as early as October, then Dr. Scott Atlas, in the room with Trump, contradicted the president and said that even for “high-priority people” the vaccine wouldn’t arrive until “sometime no later than January. I mean, of course, it depends on when things are approved and the emergency use is given.”

Dr. Redfield also said in that Senate hearing that masks were arguably more effective than a vaccine. Trump, who rarely wears a mask, disputed that. (“Okay, number one, it’s not more effective, by any means, than a vaccine.”)

The message coming out of the Trump White House could not be more muddled. It has been this way all along. Many of Trump’s lies are a symptom of his lack of engagement in the job he’s been elected to perform. The man in charge isn’t there. His pathological lying exists to cover up his lack of engagement. Everything becomes a political debate and Trump must always be right.

Months ago this general malaise led him to give up crafting a credible federal response to the pandemic. So now he blames the individual “blue states” for their response. He further perversely claimed last Wednesday that the “blue states” have had “tremendous death rates. If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at.” And because the death rate in those unnamed blue states is so bad, what does the president want? “We’d recommend they open up their states,” he said.

In Trump’s lazy mind it is easier to talk about blue and red states than the United States. It strikes a chord with his base and reduces difficult problems to a political “us” versus “them” mentality.

At the end of the day, if there is a second term for President Donald Trump, then last Wednesday is a template for just how screwed up the administration can and will be.

If Trump gets a second term and doesn’t have to face another election in his lifetime, does anyone honestly think he’ll spend more time at the office? His speech at the National Archives last Thursday shows where we’re headed: Stephen Miller-driven national policy.

That couldn’t be more hideous. As for Trump, he disengaged long ago and all the chaos and lies are symptomatic of a man who just doesn’t care anymore—or was never really even capable of doing so.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.