For all of the disputed details and allegations of unethical reporting, the columnist Michael Wolff's new book, Fire and Fury, quickly focused Washington on the question of President Donald Trump's acuity and mental health, with aides and allies portraying Trump as inattentive, uninformed and constantly craving media praise.
The White House, of course, pushed back ferociously, arguing that the book was full of lies; on Twitter, Trump boasted that he was a "very stable genius" and later called Wolff "mentally deranged." To Trump's point, if you're familiar with Wolff's history dating back to the New Republic – not to mention the fact that Steve Bannon was a primary source – there's reason to consider the book's more salacious details suspect.
But the underlying proposition – that Trump was simply not up to the job – rung true enough. Indeed, a poll released last week showed that a majority of Americans consider questions about Trump's mental fitness perfectly legitimate.
And the president's own actions over a period of about 18 hours last Thursday only underline the need to take those questions seriously. Throughout the day, the president put on display four defining characteristics of his personality and his presidency: ignorance, narcissism, racism and mendacity.
That morning, as he does, Trump awoke and began watching Fox & Friends, the dimwitted right-wing gabfest that seemingly subs for actual briefings or, you know, reading a newspaper. And on Fox & Friends that morning was a Trump ally named Andrew Napolitano, talking about the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was due for a vote in the House that day. "I'm scratching my head," Napolitano said. "I don't understand why Donald Trump is in favor of this."
Forty-seven minutes later, Trump decided he in fact wasn't in favor of the program, which his own team was pushing: "This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?" he tweeted.
Republicans panicked. House Speaker Paul Ryan called and spent 30 minutes on the phone explaining the different between foreign and domestic surveillance, according to the Washington Post. Chief of staff John Kelly also intervened to impress upon the president how important the reauthorization was.
And, an hour and a half later, Trump was back on board, tweeting that "today's vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land," because he definitely knew that beforehand. (With top Democrats' help, the reauthorization cleared the House without the additional security checks that a bipartisan coalition of civil-liberties-minded lawmakers wanted.)
Soon thereafter, Trump gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal, in which he claimed to have a good relationship with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un (the president argued that he really said he would have a good relationship with Kim), complained about the media's treatment and boasted of his own greatness.
"I was always the best at what I did. ... So I was successful, successful, successful. I was always the best athlete, people didn't know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did and then I run for president, first time – first time, not three times, not six times. I ran for president and lo and behold, I win. And then people say, 'Oh, is he a smart person?' I'm smarter than all of them put together, but they can't admit it." (Trump ran for the Reform Party presidential nomination in 2000, so this wasn't actually his first time.)
Later that day, Trump was in a meeting with legislators who had been working on a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump had ended. There, discussing immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African nations, Trump asked, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Instead, he suggested the U.S. seek immigrants from, say, Norway.
It goes without saying that Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries do indeed have difficulties, many of which owe to centuries of Western oppression and colonialization.
And while the president's vulgarity made its way to the front page of the Post, that's not the issue here. What matters is that the president said he wants white immigrants (Norway) but not black and brown ones (Haiti, El Salvador).
And his racism could upend any immigration deal. Rather than making headway on a compromise that would continue DACA, fund more border security and change the diversity lottery and chain immigration systems – Trump priorities – the president threw a wrench into talks, both with his language and his later insistence that a DACA deal include funding for his ridiculous border wall.
At midnight, the president was still up and still on Twitter. He announced that he was not going to London for a state visit because "I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for 'peanuts,' only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon – NO!"
Basically everything he said there was a lie. The decision to move the embassy was made by the Bush administration because it was impossible to retrofit the existing building with needed security measures. And misgivings about the embassy were certainly not the reason Trump wasn't going. Rather, his visit was to be met with waves and waves of mass protests. He's very unpopular in the U.K., and he can't bear to face it.
Trump can complain about Michael Wolff and the press coverage of Fire and Fury all he wants. But so long as his actions serve as evidence of the correctness of the book's basic premise, all those questions about the president's temperament and ability won't go away.