Donald Trump's China syndrome: More proof he can't tell Fox News fantasy from the real world

Trump's unhinged White House trade monologue wasn't simply embarrassing. It's more proof that he's dangerous

Published February 26, 2019 5:18PM (EST)

Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (AP/Susan Walsh)
Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (AP/Susan Walsh)

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Frankly, I’m a little surprised Donald Trump didn’t claim that an “MOU” is the sound cows make -- a very, very tremendous sound the likes of which you’ve never heard, this I can tell youTrump’s rant in the Oval Office last Friday about drafting a “memorandum of understanding” with China in the midst of his unnecessary trade war was a perfect example of this president’s damaging inability to grasp the complexities of negotiating on the international stage.

By now, the myth of Trump as a deal-making wizard has been repeatedly debunked, even if his hardcore fans haven't noticed. Everyone who has negotiated with Trump has either eaten his lunch, or is about to.

This particular scene was a perfect representation of not just Trump’s overall know-nothing incompetence -- his laughable inability to grasp basic concepts necessary for functioning as America’s chief executive. It also illustrated how reality and Trump’s Fox News performance art once again clashed in public, with a Trump adviser desperately struggling to yank the president into the real world.

In case you missed the video, Trump held court in the Oval Office on Friday with the U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, along with a delegation of representatives from China, including Vice Premier Liu He. Unable as always to address the details of the negotiations, Trump went off on a completely unnecessary rant about the nomenclature being used to describe the agreement-in-progress. Trump said he dislikes the term “memorandum of understanding” and wondered out loud whether there will be a second document serving as an official contract.

“I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything. To me they don’t mean anything. I think you’re better off just going into a document,” the president barked while his hands waved back and forth as if he were playing an invisible accordion. At that point, Lighthizer, embarrassed and frustrated by his boss’s tangential dumbness, turned to the gaggle of reporters to inform them that an MOU is, in fact, a binding contract that “lasts as long as it lasts.”

Lighthizer continued, “It’s detailed. It covers everything in great detail. It’s a legal term. It’s a contract.” Simply put: an MOU is the final document, not an intermediate term sheet like the ones Trump may have been given for his role as the host of "The Apprentice."

The Chinese vice premier literally laughed out loud at the rapidly disintegrating meeting while Trump doofus-splained to Lighthizer, “A memorandum of understanding is exactly that: It's a memorandum of what our understanding is.” Is it really, Mr. President? Trump’s definition skills reminded me of that time George W. Bush described “tribal sovereignty” by saying “tribal sovereignty means that: It’s sovereign.” Note to any kids reading this: It's not helpful to define something simply by saying what it is.

Lighthizer, growing exasperated by the wheel-spinning on what to call the document, chose to simply toss out the phrase “MOU” as a way to head Trump off at the pass -- in other words, as a way to end the embarrassment. “From now on, we’re not using the word ‘memorandum of understanding’ anymore,” Lighthizer barked, “We’re going to the term ‘trade agreement.’ All right? ... We’ll have the same document. It’s going to be called a ‘trade agreement.’ We’re never going to use ‘MOU’ again.”

Trump appeared to agree with Lighthizer’s decision but then, as if the previous three minutes had never occurred, the president asked, “How long will it take to put that into a final binding contract?” It was like the punchline from a scene in a 1950s screwball comedy. The so-called author of “Art of the Deal” still couldn’t grasp that his team was indeed drafting a final and binding trade agreement that didn’t have to be folded into a second document. He failed to understand that the MOU is the contract and that, for the sake of the president’s thick skull, it would henceforward be referred to as a trade agreement. I should also note that even though Trump was weirdly obsessed with what to call the thing, the trade talks with China are still a long way from actually being committed to paper -- issue of the cart, the horse and so forth.

For a couple of years now I’ve been repeating the maxim: Trump always makes things worse for Trump. In this case, Trump’s ridiculous obsession with something meaningless could end up killing the trade agreement with China. It turns out, Congress usually isn’t interested in voting to approve MOUs. But as Lighthizer later explained, “If the administration switches to calling it a binding trade agreement, members of Congress will want to vote on it.” Whoops.

Trump does this all the time. Rather than actually, y’know, reading things or understanding the granular details of an issue or policy proposal, Trump almost always bullshits his way around actual knowledge, like an eighth-grader bluffing his way through an essay exam after refusing to study.

This subterranean level of utter incompetence is what the rest of the known universe observes whenever he speaks out loud. In the alternative reality of Fox News, however, Trump is a rock solid political genius. A master deal-maker who “has the best words.” Trump’s the greatest president in history, they say -- the usual unearned superlatives mixed with his insufferable piggybacking onto the successes of others.

Nevertheless, the scene in the Oval Office on Friday was the latest example of Trump’s obvious ineptitude, effectively revealing the dingus behind the curtain. The open meeting with Lighthizer and the vice premier was intended to feed his Fox News base a hamberder-sized helping of Trump’s mighty negotiation skills. Instead, it emphasized how the president is badly and dangerously out of his depth. Once again, what was intended to be more Fox News performance art ended up revealing Trump for who he is: a faker, a poser, an illegitimate leader who fell into the office thanks to mass delusion fed by Russian propaganda.

Recently on Lawrence O’Donnell's MSNBC program, former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe described a briefing with Trump in early 2017 regarding those compounds in Maryland and New York occupied by Russian spies. Ignoring the intelligence about the Russians, Trump instead asked the FBI agents in attendance why we weren't at war with Venezuela. Shockingly, he continued by suggesting that Venezuela has lots of oil, and it’s practically in our backyard. Naturally, the agents, according to McCabe, were both baffled and concerned by Trump’s inexplicable non-sequitur Trump’s fictitious Fox News-based agenda once again clashed with actual information, as with his repeated tweets suggesting that the climate crisis can't be real every time it snows in Washington.

Imagine if your doctor suddenly started acting like a TV doctor, say Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House, M.D. You’d be rightfully freaked out, especially if that doctor was about to cut into your body while he’s zonked on opioids. Trump, with the nuclear launch codes in his pants pocket, has been tethered to the performance art on Fox News for more than two years now, in stark defiance of what’s really happening in the world.

Honestly, it’s a miracle he hasn’t burned the place down yet, but every day that goes by with this unqualified commander in chief’s stubby finger hovering over “the button” is a new opportunity to derp his way into a national catastrophe. It seems less like a matter of if, but a matter of when. Quite likely we’ve only managed to avoid such a catastrophe so far due to the actions of American leaders like Bob Lighthizer, whose feet appear to remain firmly planted in this reality.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.