Trump Has the Opposite of a Poker Face

by Neil H. Buchanan

No one who has been paying even a little bit of attention to Donald Trump could have been surprised by his abject failure of leadership after the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville this past weekend.

Trump's White House staff includes people who have built their careers by fomenting racist hatred, and Trump has enthusiastically embraced their themes and resentments.  He had no inclination to criticize a part of his base that he has actively courted.

There has already been an outpouring of excellent commentary regarding Trump's contemptible evasions.  Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, posted a blizzard of insightful blog entries, including one in which she decried "Trump's moral idiocy."  (On the other hand, some nominally respectable right-wingers are now busily trying to create false equivalence between Trump and Barack Obama.)

But by far the best responses thus far have come from the political comedian John Oliver, whose opening segment on his HBO show on Sunday night (August 13) offered a string of brilliant comments.  Two lines were especially devastating.

First, after showing a clip of David Duke praising Trump, Oliver dead-panned: "I've got to say, David Duke and the Nazis really seem to like Donald Trump, which is weird, because Nazis are a lot like cats: If they like you, it's probably because you're feeding them."

Then, Oliver showed a clip from earlier in the day in which Trump failed to respond to repeated opportunities to control and undo some of the damage of his earlier condemnation of violence "on many sides, on many sides."  After Trump's last failure to respond, Oliver said: "He had one last shot before the buzzer on the racism clock hit zero, and he threw an air-ball so far away it landed in the Third Reich."

Michael Dorf did a fantastic job of imagining the speech that Trump could have delivered under these trying circumstances -- not the speech that Dorf would want Trump to give if Trump were suddenly to become a progressive pluralist, but simply one that expresses "sentiments that are appropriate to the gravity of the occasion but also consistent with the views that President Trump's least objectionable supporters attribute to him."  Like all of us, however, Dorf knows full well that Trump could never deliver such a speech.

I suspect that I will find myself writing directly about those topics soon, but I want to use this column to put Trump's far-too-late, scripted attempt at damage control in the context of his tendency to say things in a way that cannot be adequately captured in written transcripts.

To put the point simply, Trump has the opposite of a poker face.  No matter the words coming out of his mouth, it is always obvious what he actually means.

But first, a bit of context.  One of the remarkable aspects of the Trump Administration has been the endless parade of examples of legal principles that he is willing to violate.  Law professors will -- assuming that the world survives Trump's presidency -- spend the coming years and decades exploring what we were forced to learn about obscure things like the Emoluments Clause.

More broadly, law students will also be taught the many ways in which Trump violates and threatens the rule of law.  With the benefit of hindsight, it will be important to learn lessons from Trump's shameless violations of once-sacrosanct norms, which will require us to devote attention to creating formal legal limitations on presidents in the future.

As important as all of that is, however, there is a much more mundane legal concept that Trump inadvertently demonstrates over and over again.

The law goes to great lengths to respect the assessments of juries (and judges who are acting as triers of fact), because we know that the people who watch and listen to testimony are assessing the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses, not just listening to their words.

This is why appellate courts do not exclusively rely on "the cold record," that is, the transcripts of a trial.  Judges on courts of appeal are legally required to give deference to findings of fact by juries, specifically because the jurors actually saw the witnesses testify and are thus able to draw conclusions about who is lying and who is believable.

There are limits to appellate courts' deference, of course, but the argument in favor of taking juries' assessments of the factual record seriously is strongest in the context of assessing credibility and demeanor.  Body language, facial tics, and so on provide important guidance to finders of fact.

As I noted above, Trump seems to be incapable of saying things with any conviction when he does not believe what he is saying.  Even in the few instances when he has been deemed "presidential," he was merely able to deliver speeches from a teleprompter.  His big achievement each time was in stopping himself from going off-script with narcissistic or outrageous asides.

Even those rare moments of self-discipline, however, did not show Trump actually caring about what he was saying.  He seemed desperate to finish those speeches, and it was obvious to anyone watching that he would rather not have been forced to go through the exercise.

But Trump's inability to "fake it" can be seen not just when he is forced to sound like an adult and deliver a policy speech.  Three examples will help to illustrate the point.

First, almost everyone will recall one of Trump's first major controversies after he became a candidate, when he said that Senator John McCain is not a hero, despite McCain's bravery and patriotism during his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.  Most people remember Trump's dismissive insult: "I like people that weren’t captured."

What many people do not remember is that Trump tried afterward to claim that he actually did call McCain a hero.  And he did -- but not really.  As PolitiFact explained shortly thereafter, "Trump literally said McCain 'is a war hero' five times."  So how can we say that Trump was lying when he later tried to defend himself by hiding behind those words?

The exchange with Trump's interviewer, even on the cold record, is actually pretty damning.  After the interviewer insisted that McCain is a war hero, Trump says, "He’s not a war hero."  The interviewer then repeats that McCain is a war hero, at which point Trump says:
"He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured. So he’s a war hero …  He’s a war hero, because he was captured, okay? I believe, perhaps, he’s a war hero."
Again, that is plenty bad.  Trump is obviously repeating the interviewer's words in order to disagree with them and diminish them.  But it is only in watching the video that it is obvious just how much Trump did not agree that McCain is a war hero.

The shrugs, the waving of the hands, the dismissive tone and bored look on his face all make Trump's views clear.  Only someone who watches that performance can get a true sense of what was happening.  The words that came out of Trump's mouth were not the full story.

Second, Trump was briefly mocked earlier this year after he was interviewed in the Oval Office by CBS's John Dickerson.  At one point, Dickerson tossed Trump a softball, recalling George W. Bush's hokey line about how that office has no corners in which a president can hide.

Trump started blathering about "a certain openness" to the room, "but I've never seen anybody out there actually, as you could imagine."  Dickerson then tried to help, saying: "But he-- what he meant was it's-- all comes -- back to you."

The reason that Dickerson's comments were halting, as shown on the transcript, is that Trump interrupted him with "Sure.  Sure."  Then, when Dickerson was done, Trump rambled onward: "Sure. It does. But I think that's true anyway. But it does, there's no question."

Again, there is nothing in the cold record here that makes Trump look good, but just how bad he comes off can only be appreciated by actually watching him struggle.  When Dickerson started to try to steer Trump away from his embarrassing inability to understand the point of Bush's comment, Trump was backtracking even before Dickerson made his point.  One can practically see Trump thinking, "Uh oh, he seems to be correcting me.  Better act like I know what he's talking about."

I have no doubt that Trump's supporters and spinners would refuse to admit any of this, saying that these are all matters of perception and opinion.  But my point here is that a person whose mind is even a little bit open would offer a much worse assessment of Trump's comments (both regarding McCain and the ovalness of the oval office) based on visual observation than she would from reading the transcripts alone.

And that brings us to the third example, which is Trump's far-too-late attempt to tamp down the firestorm that his non-reaction to Charlottesville created.  Finally, Trump actually named the "KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups" and used words to condemn them.

But again, the video of the speech gives observers an entirely different feel.  As The Post's Rubin pointed out, it was obvious to anyone watching that this was pathetically bad theater:
"He read from a teleprompter. Speaking from his heart would have been impossible, given his obvious lack of passion and willful blindness over the past couple of days.  ...  He did not apologize for his moral obtuseness. This was the weakest statement he could have gotten away with, 48 hours too late."
As usual, the political satirist Andy Borowitz captured it best.  Under the headline, "Man in Hostage Video Forced to Recite Words Not His Own," Borowitz described Trump as "an American man woodenly reciting words that were not his own," and said that Trump's "robotic performance indicated that he was reading a prepared statement under duress" and that "his facial expressions and body language convinced experts that the act of reciting the prepared text was an extraordinary ordeal for him."

Finally, Borowitz quoted an imaginary psychologist's assessment of Trump: "He did not seem to understand what he was saying.  At times, he appeared to be reading these words phonetically."

Trump is famous for his word salads and for contradicting himself (sometimes in his next sentence).  This allows his defenders to find things that he has said to prove that some criticism or another is false, but all it really proves is that Trump has no ability to control what he says.

But the most important thing to remember is that Trump does firmly believe some things, many of which are so bad that he is occasionally forced to disavow them.  When he does so, however, he makes it obvious to anyone who is watching that even he cannot believe what he is saying.