At the White House on Monday afternoon, Donald Trump was ensconced in patter standard for this president—“a fake whistleblower,” “a political witch hunt,” “loser” Mitt Romney—when he out-of-the-blue announced he’s taking an antimalarial drug he has touted as a possible coronavirus treatment but increasingly has been shown to lead to heart problems and even death as the Food and Drug Administration and other public health authorities have cautioned against its use.
Reporters seemed stunned. “You’re taking hydroxychloroquine?” one asked. “Why, sir?” asked another. Subject experts, too, quickly expressed alarm, pointing to “serious hazards” and calling it “crazy” and “highly irresponsible.”
Nobody should have been surprised. “L’Affaire Hydroxy,” which raged into Tuesday, is merely the latest instance in a lifelong pattern of behavior for Trump—and landed as a tidy distillation of a handful of his most foundational traits.
He has a knack for creating confusion and distraction when he needs to alter news cycles and scramble storylines. And he has a showman’s instinct for grabbing attention. But what his surprising announcement reveals most clearly is his steadfast, decades-long aversion to expertise. Trump’s deep-seated outsider mindset engendered a willful disregard for advice that often got him into trouble—financial, reputational and otherwise. In the end, though, whether it was his ill-conceived airline, his debt-saddled casinos or his professional football misadventure, Trump’s failure to heed warnings from even his most trusted advisers often served to enhance his celebrity with a sufficient portion of the public that doesn’t take the time to parse the particulars.
“It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles” — Trump in 1984
“He thinks he’s the smartest guy on the planet,” former Trump Shuttle president Bruce Nobles told me Tuesday. “He really does.”
“It’s like when he used the Sharpie on that hurricane map,” said former Trump Organization executive vice president Barbara Res, referring to the episode last year in which Trump cartoonishly used a marker to alter a map of the path of a storm and then fought about it for a week rather than admit the smallest of mistakes.
And now with hydroxychloroquine? “He’s going to prove that he was right,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump political adviser, “when everybody else said he was wrong.”
“Allll about the base,” Republican strategist and Trump critic Rick Wilson told me in a text on Tuesday.
“He’s got to tell those people, ‘Of course I’m taking hydroxy,’” former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci explained. “‘They’re telling you it doesn’t work, but I’m telling you it does. I am your chief of the red tribe of Trump.’”
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Experts? Who needs experts? “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” Trump said in 1984, telling a reporter he wanted to negotiate with the Soviet Union about the threat of nuclear war. “I think I know most of it anyway.”
As the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the fledging, second-tier United States Football League, Trump “didn’t know whether a football was pumped or stuffed,” in the words of an official from the team from Michigan—but he nonetheless dismissed the suggestions of the coach that he hired while drafting and trading players and inking ill-considered contracts. He also, and even more disastrously, wanted to compete directly with the bigger, better, richer National Football League by playing games in the fall instead of the spring, and he didn’t want to wait—even after outside consultants penned a report recommending that the USFL stick with the spring slate, and slow, steady growth. Trump, however, convinced enough of his fellow owners it was “bullshit.” And the decision he drove to challenge the NFL in court did more than just tank. It killed the league for good. That was in 1986.
A couple years later, shunning the guidance of his two closest, most trusted attorneys, a manic, acquisitive Trump bought the Eastern Airlines Shuttle for $365 million—a sum industry analysts and even the airline itself considered excessive. Trump renamed it the Trump Shuttle. The result was a debt-beset debacle.
In Atlantic City, in the ’80s and through the ’90s, Trump flouted the counsel of outside analysts like Marvin Roffman, in-house advisers and his own executives who told him he was growing too much, too fast and with too much debt. Instead of combining and streamlining the efforts of his three casinos and leaning on the principles of economies of scale, Trump, in effect, turned his casinos on each other, fostering conflict within his own ranks and earning a reputation among industry watchers for a management style defined by chaos. One dubbed it “disorganized crime,” according to David Cay Johnston’s book Temples of Chance. Trump wanted to do what Trump wanted to do. “You just couldn’t talk to Donald,” one of his higher-ups said at the time. “He would not listen to advice from his executives.”
In every one of these instances, Trump paid a price, at least in the short term—multiple corporate bankruptcies and very nearly personal financial ruin. Ultimately, though, he was stalled but not stained—and definitely not stopped. The headlines, no matter what they said, still made him more and more famous. And what often exasperated his staffers and minders and critics in the circles of the social and financial elite also didn’t lose him any fans.
“It’s worked for him,” granted Nobles, the Trump Shuttle president. “You can’t argue with the man’s success.”
The spotlight, after all, led to “The Apprentice,” which led to his turn toward politics, which led to the Oval Office.
He frequently cites his smarts—“Donald Trump’s very, very large brain,” as he once put it. A self-styled expert on topics ranging from technology to the weather to all types of medical matters, Trump is especially attuned, too, to what his base craves. The base wanted hydroxychloroquine from the start. And the base wants it still. And Trump is well aware. “It’s what every pitchman has always done,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus once told me. “Tell the people what they want to hear.”
“I’ve received a lot of positive letters and it seems to have an impact,” he said Monday in the White House. “And maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, you’re not going to get sick or die. This is a—a pill that’s been used to a long time—for 30, 40 years on the malaria, and on lupus, too, and even on arthritis, I guess, from what I understand.”
He said he’d been taking it for about a week and half.
“And I’m still here,” he said. “I’m still here.”
Not everybody who’s known him through the years thinks he’s telling the truth.
“Not a chance,” said Res, the former executive vice president. “I don’t think he would subject himself to any potential harm. He wants everyone to think he’s taking it and to think everything he has said all along about it has been right. That’s what he wants. That’s why he’s saying he’s taking it.”
Louise Sunshine, though, another former Trump Organization executive vice president, thinks he is. I asked her why. She’s known Trump for almost 50 years. Because one of his West Wing valets tested positive for the virus, she said. Because the vice president’s spokeswoman tested positive.
“Because,” Sunshine said, “he’s scared.”
“Whether he’s taking it or not,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me Tuesday evening, “I think he has two goals here. One is to distract. And in addition to distraction, he is also a very desperate man who’s trying to control something he can’t control—the coronavirus and its economic effects—and there’s a clock ticking in the back of his mind. And he said in the earliest stages of this that it’ll be like a miracle. It goes away. And so now he’s buying into miracles, and he wants other people to buy into it, too.”
Trump, in O’Brien’s estimation, is taking hydroxochloroquine, or is saying that he is, for the same reason he’s refused so far to wear a mask. “It involves,” O’Brien said, “conceding to expertise.”