President Donald Trump loves division, except when he’s the one under attack.
Then he goes all kumba-do-what-I-say.
“I hate to see anything that divides,” said the man who ran one of the most divisive campaigns in one of the most divisive elections in history, when he was asked about his view on the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether his own aides were involved in Russian efforts to swing the 2016 election.
Thursday, under the most intense fire of his fire-filled presidency, Trump tried a defense of saying he had nothing to do with the offense, and that it’s all a ruse by a small number of entrenched politicians who were trying to shake him from his great goal of bringing the country together—“whether it’s Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America,” he said.
It also gave him cover to sneak in a few more punches along the way.
Standing in the East Room of the White House at a press conference with the Colombian president, Trump went on to bash Obamacare and anyone who doesn’t believe in his border wall. He also took time to point out the differences between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the “much more successful Trump campaign.”
Then he seemed to catch himself, dourly chiding people who won’t just get along with him, as what will be the last images most people see of him before he takes off on a nine-day foreign trip, the first of his administration, which will have few public events. That vacuum will be filled by the chaos he’ll be leaving behind, and that will continue while he’s away.
Politics stopped stopping at the border years ago, and there’s no way Trump’s opponents (he likes the word “enemies,” which he used again Thursday amid his dirge about division) will pause their attacks on him just because he’s overseas.
And there’s no way he’s going to arrive at any of his stops seen as a unifying statesman—an above politics leader of the United States. Foreign leaders, and the crowds who’ll be gathering in the streets, see what’s in the news. They know he’s under fire. They know he’s weakened. They know Republicans in Congress are quietly making jokes about a President Mike Pence. They know Democrats are bubbling with impeachment talk, or questioning his sanity—“I’m not a psychologist, but there’s something strange going on with Mr. Trump,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said during a CNN town hall on Tuesday night.
Many of those divisions are of Trump’s making, too. He starts in Saudi Arabia, which he’s attacked in the past, and where he’ll give a speech that’s being written by the same aide who wrote his Muslim ban. Then he’ll go to Israel, which he may have just sold out to the Russians on their intelligence gathering, but where he’s already scrapped a stop to the historic site of Masada, constricted his visit to the Holocaust Museum there to 15 minutes, had his national security adviser suggest that the Western Wall isn’t part of Israel and appears to be backing out of his promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Next up, Rome to see Pope Francis, who’s sideways criticism of him last year for attacking Mexican immigrants Trump called “disgraceful.” Then, a series of meetings for NATO and the G7, which he spent the last year degrading, in addition to swiping at several of the leaders whom he’ll be seeing.
Plus, he’ll spend the NATO part of the trip in Brussels, the city he called “a disaster” in his response to the terrorist attacks there last year.
Thursday, Trump tried to practice statesmanship. He congratulated the Colombian president on the Nobel Peace Prize he won last year for making peace with the rebel FARC, though he oddly then added, “Thank you very much.”
In November 2013, he tweeted about Obama, “Can Oslo retract prize?”
He kept his face mostly frozen as his counterpart delicately didn’t endorse his border wall proposal, then jumped in with, “That was a long a very diplomatic answer to your question. Walls work. Just ask Israel.”
And he took a sharp turn from America First, demanding payment for American intervention and security around the world, fitting a demandingly dovish geopolitics into Thursday’s go-along-with-me-to-get-along spirit.
“There’s nothing tougher than peace,” he said. “And we want to make peace all over the world.”
The special counsel appointment “hurts our country terribly, because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country,” Trump told ABC’s David Muir in an interview at the White House recorded before the press conference. “It also happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the Electoral College being slanted so much in their way. That’s all this is. I think it shows division, and it shows that we’re not together as a country.”
For Democrats, it’s the pot calling the kettle orange.
“That’s like a dog complaining that all the fire hydrants are wet,” said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.).
“He ran the ugliest, most divisive presidential campaign in memory,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “In less than four months, he’s already divided Americans more than any president before him. To say his comment today rings hollow is a massive understatement.”
Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez took issue with some of what Trump brought up at the press conference, including the border wall and his plan for “the biggest tax cut in the history of our nation,” which would include massive cuts to the wealthiest.
“Walls divide us. Economic inequality divides us. Family-shattering deportations divide us,” Perez said.
“Everything that Donald Trump stands for is divisive, but he’s about to learn a harsh lesson about unity as the American people continue to come together and speak out.”
That’s not the selective solipsism the president prefers.
“I think it’s totally ridiculous,” Trump said of the Russia probe, “Everybody thinks so.”