Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law, told journalist Bob Woodward that one of the best ways to understand Donald Trump is to study Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kushner paraphrased the Cheshire Cat’s philosophy: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
Wednesday was one of those days when to have a seat in the White House briefing room felt like stepping through the looking-glass into Blunderland, where the mad hatter has an authoritarian streak a mile wide.
Trump careered from touting miracle vaccines to building supreme court suspense, from insulting a female member of the British royal family to abruptly departing for a mysterious “emergency” phone call. But first, there was the small matter of kneecapping American democracy.
Perhaps it was not chance that the president, ever eager to generate media outrage, gave the first question to Brian Karem, who describes himself on Twitter as a “Loud Mouth” senior White House reporter at Playboy. “Will you commit to make sure there’s a peaceful transferral of power after the election?” Karem asked.
All of his 43 predecessors would have said yes, presumably. But Trump replied: “We’re going to have to see what happens, you know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
Karem shot back: “I understand that, but people are rioting. Do you commit to make sure that there’s a peaceful transferral of power?”
Still Trump refused to commit. “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation. The ballots are out of control. You know it. And you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else.”
Later, Karem remarked on Twitter: “This is the most frightening answer I have ever received to any question I have ever asked. I’ve interviewed convicted killers with more empathy. @realDonaldTrump is advocating Civil War.”
And Julian Castro, who served in Barack Obama’s cabinet, tweeted: “In one day, Trump refused a peaceful transition of power and urged the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice to hand him an election if the results are contested. This is fascism, alive and well in the Republican Party.”
Trump was also questioned about the failure of a grand jury to bring charges against Louisville police for the killing of Breonna Taylor during a drug raid gone wrong.
The president declined to offer his own perspective or comfort for millions aggrieved by another case of racial injustice. Instead he read a statement from Daniel Cameron, the attorney general of Kentucky, a loyal supporter who last month delivered a prime time address at the Republican national convention.
“I think he’s a star,” said Trump, also noting that the governor has called in the National Guard and suggesting that, when in doubt, there’s always the strategy of mindless optimism: “It’ll all work out.”
Another reporter asked about Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, urging people to vote in remarks that some interpreted as supporting Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Trump said: “I’m not a fan of hers - and she has probably heard that – but I wish a lot of luck to Harry because he’s going to need it.”
The attempt at humour hovered awkwardly in the air like a coronavirus particle.
Speaking of which, the president was ruminating on Covid-19 when he called his latest adviser, Scott Atlas, to weigh in from the podium. Trump then told reporters: “I have to leave for an emergency phone call.”
Karem and others demanded to know the nature of the emergency. Trump said only: “I have a big call, a very big call.” Could it be Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin? One wit on Twitter quipped that it was probably just Lou Dobbs of Fox Business.
Atlas has the kind of combative swagger that appeals to Trump. He denied media reports that he has clashed with coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx. He claimed Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, “misstated something” when he told the Senate that 90% of the population remains susceptible to Covid-19.
Jim Acosta of CNN queried: “Americans hear one thing from the CDC Dir & another thing from you, who are we to believe?”
Atlas responded: “You’re supposed to believe the science and I’m telling you the science.”
Indeed, earlier Trump had claimed, “Our approach is pro-science. Biden’s approach is anti-science” – words to remember when he heads to Florida on Thursday for the latest of his packed, nearly mask-free campaign rallies in Wonderland.