GOP's lackluster frontrunner: Trump seems awfully low energy lately

From saying he's a "legitimate person" to dodging a debate, Trump dishes out weak sauce — even by his low standards

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 29, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

By his own measurements, Donald Trump should be flying high these days. He's the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, up 28 points in average polling over his closest contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Approximately one million candidates have entered the race, ensuring that any anti-Trump contingent that develops will split the vote, making it easy for him to sail into the nomination. It's 2016 again.

Sure, he's under federal indictment for stealing classified documents, after facing another set of indictments from the Manhattan district attorney for campaign fraud, but according to Trump's own bluster being arrested for his various crimes only makes him more popular. (Left unspoken is that appeal is limited to the GOP base and no one else.) He's not wrong that it helps both his fundraising and his polls within the GOP, because Republicans are apparently a pro-crime party these days, but only as long as the criminals are white. 

But looking at Trump these days, it's hard not to notice that his usual fake-it-til-you-make-it bombast, honed from decades of being a con artist, is faltering. It hardly seemed possible that he could do any more fuming on his Twitter knock-off Truth Social. Yet, he's somehow bringing new levels to the phrase "tweeting through it," repeating the same incoherent all-caps talking points about "CLINTON SOCKS" and falsely claiming the Espionage Act of 1917 "has never even been used!" 

I never thought it would be possible, but even Trump is starting to seem a little weary of his own bullshit.

(Trump should have listened to his mentor, disgraced lawyer Roy Cohn, more. Cohn was personally involved in an Espionage Act case in the 1950s, which led to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, on allegations they leaked nuclear secrets to the Russians.) 

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What's really remarkable, however, is how Trump seems so low energy, to swipe his nickname for former governor Jeb Bush, R-Fla. I never thought it would be possible, but even Trump is starting to seem a little weary of his own bullshit. Witness how he spoke on Fox News when asked about a leaked tape showing him bragging about how he stole classified documents. 

Even on paper, his babbling excuses are cringeworthy:

"I don't do things wrong."

"I am a legitimate person."

Seriously, one really should watch the clip because Trump just seems tired.

The other excuses he's been puking up are even lazier. Seizing on the word "plans" during another Fox News interview, for instance, Trump insisted that it's not a classified Iran war plan he was waving around on a tape, but "building plans" and "plans of a golf course." But even the biggest MAGA idiot can hear clearly that Trump is talking about preparations in case the U.S. went to war with Iran. 

Trump then contradicted himself by admitting to ABC News that he was talking about an Iran document, claiming it was just "bravado" but "I didn't have any documents." 

Close Trump observers will note that this is a variation of his "locker room talk" excuse when a tape leaked of him bragging about sexual assault. The jury in the E. Jean Carroll trial found Trump was lying with this deflection. He does sexually assault women, as he bragged about and as the over two dozen other accusers can attest. He's likely lying again with this deflection. Considering how much effort he's gone to in order to hang onto the documents illegally — including allegedly asking his own lawyer to hide documents from federal authorities — odds are that he simply still has the Iran war plans stashed away somewhere. Hopefully in another state, where the feds will find it and can file some more charges against him. 

It's exhausting just trying to keep up with all of Trump's legal problems, so it's no surprise he's tired these days.

Obviously, one reason Trump is barely putting any energy into his dumb excuses is that he believes he doesn't need to, at least to keep his MAGA base on board. He could respond to questions about this case by ripping a giant fart and scurrying away, and they'd all applaud him for "owning" the liberals. But, as the verdict in the Carroll trial showed, his usual grifter tactics tend to fall apart in a courtroom setting. Adding to his troubles is the fact that his behavior in the hoarded documents case is so egregious that even the lightest of media scrutiny showcases the emptiness of his defense, as demonstrated by his faceplant of an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News

Is it any wonder Trump is making noises about skipping the GOP primary debate in August? In 2016, Trump relished the debates as an opportunity to engage in his favorite sport, insulting other people. But these days, he turns into a mess under the gentlest of questioning. A debate is a chaotic environment full of people trying to trip him up. The odds are extremely high that headlines after the fact would center more on his continued tendency to confess publicly to crimes than to whatever childish name-calling he coughs up. 

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Every Trump path to the White House assumes he loses the popular vote and instead grabs the ring through the minority-empowering electoral college. Doing so legally, however, requires more voters than just the MAGA base. He has to capture enough independent voters, a prospect that seems dimmer with this classified documents case dominating the news. Add to it the growing public evidence that the Justice Department will likely also charge Trump for leading a fascist coup, and it's hard to see Trump winning over voters he lost to President Joe Biden in 2020. But of course, Trump's plan was never really to win fair and square. If anything, one gets the impression he'd rather steal it than win outright. Yet any plans for a more successful coup attempt in 2024 were dealt a serious blow this week by the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 Tuesday against the so-called "independent state legislature" theory. This was an idea, championed by Trump's lawyers John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani, that Republican-controlled legislatures in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia could simply throw out the results of a presidential election won by a Democrat and hand their electoral college votes to the Republican candidate instead. 

As retired federal judge Michael Luttig has pointed out during the January 6 House committee hearings, "The independent state legislature doctrine was the centerpiece to Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election." The people who rioted that day were using violence to try to force Congress to accept the preferences of Republican state legislators instead of the voters themselves in determining the outcome of that election. It was clear that there would be another attempt to substitute fake electors for the real ones in certain swing states if Biden won, but that avenue has now been shut down by the Supreme Court. 

Meanwhile, things aren't looking so good for Eastman or Giuliani, either. Eastman is currently in disbarment hearings, which aren't going well for him. Giuliani was forced this week to talk to federal authorities in the grand jury probe of January 6. If Trump is indicted for leading this coup effort, it's quite likely these two major henchmen, Eastman and Giuliani, will be arrested right alongside him. 

It's exhausting just trying to keep up with all of Trump's legal problems, so it's no surprise he's tired these days. Even someone like Trump, who draws surprising amounts of energy simply from being evil, only has so many hours in the day — especially when you spend so many of them to ranting on social media. Like any horror movie villain, however, Trump seems to have endless lives, always rebounding when you think he's down. So it's not over yet. Still, that Trump is struggling to keep up his overconfidence act is a heartening sign. He's worried that this may be his last lap. If so, his loss is America's gain. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Classified Documents Commentary Donald Trump Election 2024 Gop Mar-a-lago Truth Social