After turning the south lawn into a convention stage last month, Donald Trump held a surprise press conference-cum-campaign event on Monday at the White House’s front door – where Jackie Kennedy wore black on the day of JFK’s funeral, and where the Obamas greeted their successors on inauguration day.
On a glorious late summer’s day, Trump’s vantage point behind a presidential lectern at the north portico afforded him a view of former president Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square and, beyond that, the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza. Give him a second term in November, and perhaps he’ll install a golden escalator like the one he descended in at Trump Tower to launch his first campaign.
Despite the lofty surroundings, the president dropped all pretense of rising above the political hurly-burly. Over 46 minutes, he branded his Democratic presidential election rival, Joe Biden, “stupid”, falsely accused Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris of peddling anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, and unleashed a torrent of half-truths and non-truths.
But unlike the loyalists on the south lawn for the convention speech, or the devotees who gather at Trump’s increasingly frequent airport-hangar rallies, there was a stony silence from mask-wearing reporters sitting under columns, ornate carvings and a giant lamp on the White House driveway.
The perennial salesman, Trump wanted to use Labor Day to boast about economic recovery. The numbers are “terrific”, he said. “We are in the midst of the fastest economic recovery in US history,” he claimed. Some 10.6m jobs had been added since May, he said, though he did not acknowledge nearly half the jobs lost in the pandemic had still not returned.
Of the recovery, he said: “We have V-shape. It’s probably a super-V.” No mention of the more than 100,000 small businesses that shut down or the unemployment benefits that had expired for millions of Americans. As for his claim about the pandemic – “We are an absolute leader, in every way” – well, no one can dispute that America has the highest caseload (more than 6.2m) or the highest death toll (more than 189,000) in the world.
Biden and Harris “should immediately apologise for the reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric that they are talking right now, talking about ‘endangering lives’”, Trump charged, after Harris said she would rely on the decisions of public health officials and medical experts for news on a Covid-19 vaccine rather than the president.
“It undermines science, and what happens is all of a sudden you’ll have this incredible vaccine and because of that fake rhetoric, it’s a political rhetoric, that’s all that is, just for politics,” Trump said.
He added later: “The numbers are looking unbelievably strong, unbelievably good. So now they’re saying, ‘Wow, Trump’s pulled this off, OK, let’s disparage the vaccine.’ That’s so bad for this country. That’s so bad for the world to even say that, and that’s what they’re saying.”
Yes, the man who said the coronavirus would “just disappear”, suggested injecting bleach as a cure and dismissed the climate crisis as a hoax accused his opponents of undermining science. Perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson should moderate the first presidential debate later this month.
Despite the White House trappings, this was a campaign event in disguise. Biden and the “radical socialist Democrats would immediately collapse the economy”, Trump warned darkly. “You’ll have a crash the likes of which you’ve never seen before.”
Biden wants to demolish the energy industry, he went on ever more fancifully, and will cause more electricity blackouts in California. “He wants to have things lit up with wind.”
There was also a long diatribe about trade. China, he said, “took advantage of stupid people. Stupid people. And Biden’s a stupid person. You know that, you’re not gonna write it, but you know that … If Biden wins, China will own this country.”
After more than 20 minutes of darkness, doom and fearmongering, the president said, rather unconvincingly, “Happy Labor Day, everybody!” and then took questions, trying and failing to get the first reporter to remove his mask (“If you don’t take it off, you’re very muffled”).
Naturally, Trump was asked about the Atlantic magazine’s report that he had disparaged dead soldiers as “losers” and suckers”. Though several former Trump administration officials have said the report chimes with their knowledge, the president described it as a “totally made-up story” and demanded: “Who would say a thing like that? Only an animal would say a thing like that.”
Trump also claimed that he was “taking the high road” by not meeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer to discuss a coronavirus stimulus package. “I don’t need to meet with them to be turned down,” he said.
“They don’t want to make a deal because they think if the country does as badly as possible … that’s good for the Democrats. I am taking the high road. I’m taking the high road by not seeing them.”
Then someone lit the blue touchpaper by asking about the Russia investigation. “They spied on my campaign, and that includes Biden and Obama!” Trump fumed, suddenly animated by the conspiracy theory. “If we did what they did, you would have many people in jail right now.”
And when asked if he would support an investigation into allegations against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the president added: “Yeah, if something can be proven that he did something wrong, always. They’ve been looking at me for four years, they found nothing.
“Four years, think of it. For four years. From the day I came down the escalator, I’ve been under investigation by sleaze. And they found nothing. They found nothing. A friend of mine said you have to be the most innocent, honorable man to ever hold the office of president.”
Trump also spared some venom for Harris, insisting that “she will never be president, although I have to be careful because Obama used to say that about me, so I have to be a little bit careful. But you have to look at her a little bit more closely because obviously Joe’s not doing too well.”
Polling, however, shows Biden continuing to enjoy a steady lead on Trump. Standing at the front door of the White House two months before election day, the president sounded like a desperate man, as if firing a machine-gun in all directions like Al Pacino’s Tony Montana under siege at his luxury mansion in Scarface. The election might go the same way.
Video: Donald Trump mocks Joe Biden for manner of wearing mask (PA Media)