There is a theory among some supporters of President Trump that the chief executive’s public comments and tweets are all part of a grand strategy aimed at tripping up his opponents. When he reaches for his phone to, say, disparage the city of Baltimore because he’s angry about how a congressman from Maryland is investigating his daughter, this theory holds that the tweet is simply another gear in Trump’s enormous, carefully planned lib-owning machine. It’s not just that Trump saw a broadcast on Fox News and reacted. If not three-dimensional chess, it’s at least savvy movements of various chess pieces.
Trump himself is not an adherent of this philosophy.
During a brief press gaggle on Wednesday, Trump was asked to explain the strategy behind criticizing that congressman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).
“There’s no strategy. I have no strategy. There’s zero strategy,” Trump said. “All it is, is I’m pointing out facts.” He bashed Baltimore some more. “So, there’s no strategy. It’s very simple. And Elijah Cummings is in charge of it, and he ought to take his Oversight Committee” — the committee that subpoenaed information from Ivanka Trump — “and he ought to park them in Baltimore and find out what happened to the $15 billion and a lot of other money.”
So there’s that.
It’s easy to understand why Trump supporters would be willing to believe that his actions are deliberate and thoughtful. It’s more complimentary to believe that Trump isn’t simply riffing off a cable news broadcast and, instead, is executing a clever plan. At its extreme, Trump supporters have wandered outside the bounds of rationality, embracing the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Trump’s actions are all centered around uncovering a giant pedophilia ring.
The president has tried to foster a sense of his own intentionality. After he accidentally sent a tweet referring to “press covfefe,” he had then-press secretary Sean Spicer claim that Trump knew exactly what he was doing and, later, tweeted a challenge to his followers.
If anyone has figured out the true meaning of covfefe, they have so far kept it to themselves.
Last month, pollsters with YouGov, in partnership with the Economist, asked Americans whether they believed that Trump put careful consideration into the things he says or whether, instead, they believed that the president spoke without thinking very much.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans said that they thought Trump just sort of said stuff. But Republicans were about equally likely to say he was deliberate as speaking off the cuff — and a majority of Trump voters picked the “considers carefully” option.
Questions like this, dealing in an either-or option, miss some possible nuance. Obviously Trump sometimes is saying things that have been planned in advance. He does, after all, give speeches from teleprompters every now and again. One can read the question as though it applies just to prepared statements, if you really want to. But that takes quite a bit of wanting.
Democrats are probably overly willing to think Trump just sort of does stuff without meaning to. Republicans are probably too willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But as for the idea that he’s playing chess against wily political opponents? Trump himself says that he isn’t.
Unless, of course, that was a carefully considered response meant to throw his opponents off the scent. Check and mate.