As President Donald Trump continues the struggle to recover from his case of COVID-19, he sent entirely mixed messages on Tuesday that left some questioning whether he retained full control of his faculties.
First, as I reported earlier, Trump torpedoed negotiations with congressional Democrats over a potential stimulus bill on Tuesday afternoon, saying that he would wait until after the election until trying again. This was, as I argued, a major blow to his own hopes for re-election, but the move itself could be coherently explained on ideological or tactical grounds, even if they're not compelling or persuasive.
But just a few hours later, he seemed to completely reverse himself in a one-word tweet:
Here's the big problem with this tweet: Trump had just rejected Congress's efforts to provide help to the economy that Fed Chair Jerome Powell is advocating in the tweet that he is calling "True!" Not only that, he's rejecting the congressional help for precisely the reasons Powell said — in that very tweet — that we shouldn't be concerned with. Trump blasted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for asking for too much money. But that's exactly what Powell says shouldn't matter — "there's a low risk of 'overdoing it,'" as the tweet said.
People responded to the one-word Trump tweet with bafflement and dismay about the president's mental condition.
It's easy to make jokes about, but it's actually not funny at all and is genuinely concerning. The president is still battling COVID-19, a brutal infection that can take a serious toll on the mind and body. This along has led to some to suggest he cede power to Vice President Mike Pence until he is out of the woods. On top of that, the president is taking a group of drugs to treat his disease, including a steroid that has potential effects mood. Again, we don't want to be glib about this. It's very serious, and the president shouldn't be accused of mental instability easily or out of pure partisan sniping. But it was hard to make sense of the president's incongruous opinions on the highly significant matter before him: potentially trillions of dollars of economic recovery funds.
Hayes Brown of BuzzFeed suggested that Trump's point could make sense if you "remember that Trump was always pushing the GOP to spend more. It wasn't about the bill being too big, it was that he didn't want money spent anywhere that it might help Democrats, like in big cities or blue states." And that interpretation was bolstered by a subsequent tweet, sent about forty minutes later:
Even so, the explanation still doesn't make much sense. Even on this reading, Trump clearly didn't get Powell's point, which is that we should be willing to spend a lot of money to support the economy and that the costs of delay or insufficient spending are worse than the possibility of waste. And this interpretation doesn't completely erase concerns about his mental condition, because he genuinely seems unable or unwilling to grasp Powell's point. But this may just reflect Trump's more typical, if still deeply concerning, way of processing and conveying information.
Brandon Wall, also of BuzzFeed news, agreed with Brown's reading, saying: "Yes, I reckon this is the answer to everyone's confusion. I'm not saying it makes sense to so publicly nuke stimulus talks right before an election, but this is the thought process, erratic as it may be."
Another possibility, suggested by Chris Hayes, is that Trump may not be sending these tweets. Or perhaps he sent the "True!" tweet but not the other. That may be possible, and may explain the apparently disordered thinking, but it raises yet another terrifying possibility: Why are conflicting messages coming from the president's tweets? Foreign leaders read these tweets, and sometime the president issues military commands from Twitter. There should be no ambiguity about who is speaking from his account.