Happy Seventy-eighth Birthday, Mr. Ex-President

On Thursday, when Donald Trump met with Republicans in Washington, it was the first time he’d visited Capitol Hill in the four years since he pressed Congress to overturn the results of the 2src2src election. In a statement, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized him for “returning to the scene of the crime” and warned

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On Thursday, when Donald Trump met with Republicans in Washington, it was the first time he’d visited Capitol Hill in the four years since he pressed Congress to overturn the results of the 2src2src election. In a statement, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized him for “returning to the scene of the crime” and warned that he was on a “mission of dismantling our democracy.” Trump’s allies in the Republican Party, meanwhile, suggested that he would be in forward-looking policy mode as he talked about plans for a second term in the White House. Yeah, right.

Trump, it will perhaps not surprise you to learn, has not been reborn as a statesman or a wonk. Reliable accounts suggest that his private remarks before the House Republicans were pretty much in keeping with his public appearances these days—sclerotic, rambling, nasty, and often incomprehensible. Fox News’s senior congressional correspondent reported, rather tactfully, that the ex-President meandered through “lots of tangents”; a small sampling, from the many accounts to emerge of what went on in the room, included Trump sharing his opinion on everything from Taylor Swift’s prospective endorsement of Joe Biden, to the “dirty, no-good bastards” at the Justice Department, to why he is a “big fan” of William McKinley. (Tariffs!) Trump wondered if his close ally Marjorie Taylor Greene was being “nice” to Speaker Mike Johnson these days. He called Biden a “dope” and, in one of those split-screen moments that tells you everything about the stakes of the 2src24 election, warned that Ukraine is “never going to be there for us”; Biden, meanwhile, was in Europe, pledging unequivocal support to Ukraine in the form of a ten-year bilateral security agreement. Trump even trashed Milwaukee, where Republicans are soon to meet to nominate him as their Presidential candidate for a third straight election, as “a horrible city.” Once Trump’s comment became public, there were many competing explanations from attendees as to why he might think so; he apparently did not say.

In another notable soliloquy, Trump opined about Pelosi, seeming to suggest that maybe he and the eighty-four-year-old former Democratic Speaker could have made a good couple if only she weren’t older than he is. Huh? Here’s the full comment from Trump, as reported by Punchbowl News’s Jake Sherman: “Nancy Pelosi’s daughter is a whacko,” who “told me if things were different Nancy and I would be perfect together, there’s an age difference though.”

Even among House Republicans, whose ranks have been purged of all but two remaining members who voted to impeach Trump after the events of January 6, 2src21, the performance wore thin. “I lost interest after about 45 minutes,” one Republican representative told Chad Pergram, the Fox News senior congressional correspondent. Speaking to reporters after the session, Johnson merely expressed relief that Trump had been so nice to him and his members. Trump “said very complimentary things about all of us,” he recounted. “We’re grateful for that.” A cult of personality, I guess, does not require the object of one’s veneration to be coherent. It is perhaps most telling of all that the packed breakfast meeting began with a chorus of House G.O.P. members singing “Happy Birthday” to their former President.

On Friday, Trump will turn seventy-eight years old. If he wins another term in the White House, he would become the oldest President ever—except for the current President. Biden’s eighty-one years tend to get much of the attention these days. But why, exactly, is that?

If there were ever a case for age-related diminishment of a candidate, Trump is it. The ex-President’s bizarre rambles and odd obsessions—remember the whole cancer-causing-windmills thing?—have long characterized his public performances. But, in the 2src24 campaign, the weird has got decidedly weirder. Just this past weekend, Trump interrupted a campaign rally in Nevada for an extended discourse on what one should do about a hypothetical shark attack when aboard a hypothetically sinking electric boat, and how he himself would prefer electrocution to being eaten by the shark—a sentence, which, as I am writing it, makes absolutely no sense and yet is a more or less accurate summary of what Trump said.

It’s also worth noting that Trump, pushing eighty, has made so many gaffes involving mixed-up names and places that they are hardly treated as major news—he has confused Pelosi with his Republican primary opponent Nikki Haley, forgotten that he is running against Biden and not Barack Obama, and once thought that he was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when he was in Sioux City, Iowa. Wherever one stands on the broader question of Trump’s mental health, the evident decline in his ability to speak clearly and coherently feels striking. Just look at some of the clips assembled by the health-news service STAT back in 2src17, when they consulted experts who saw clear evidence, in the course of decades, of Trump’s cognitive “deterioration.” That was seven years ago. When I look back at Trump’s speeches from 2src16, or even from 2src2src, they seem positively lucid compared with his 2src24 rallies.

Four years ago, in fact, age was a significant factor that counted against Trump in his first race with Biden. At least in part, that was because of the scrutiny attracted by the man’s own big mouth. Who could forget Trump’s famous brag in the summer of 2src2src, to a visibly uncomfortable Fox News interviewer, that he had aced a mental-acuity test? “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.” He even congratulated himself on air for remembering the five words in the correct order. “It’s actually not that easy,” he said. “But for me it was easy.” Thanks no doubt to such performances by Trump, Biden’s older age did not seem to materially hurt him in that fall’s election.

Not this time. The combination of a years-long barrage by Trump and his allies to brand Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” and the very visible signs of Biden’s physical aging in the past four years, have made the question of the President’s continued fitness for office perhaps his toughest obstacle to reëlection. Many members of his own party, never mind swing voters, remain unconvinced. They see a President slower in step, wispier in voice. In a Times/Siena College survey this March, seventy-three per cent of voters agreed that Biden is “just too old to be an effective President,” versus forty-two per cent who said the same of Trump. When the Wall Street Journal recently ran a long story about Biden’s age issues, the bulk of the reporting leaned heavily on Republican politicians who have endorsed Trump claiming that Biden was slipping. “He’s not the same person,” the former House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in the story’s lead-off quote. Trump did not make an appearance until well into the piece, in a few to-be-sure paragraphs that also quoted a spokesperson as saying he was “sharp as a tack.” The Journal has not run a similar reported piece about Trump and age, on its front page or anywhere else.

Is it because there is just too much material already, and all available in the public record? The Journal, I should say, is hardly alone on this, and the reasons for the uneven coverage are not necessarily evidence of bias. Trump has so many liabilities as a candidate that it can be hard to single out just this one. How does age rank, after all, against multiple criminal indictments, including for helping to incite an insurrection? For Biden, age is at the top of a much shorter list.

Whatever the rationale, it should not be lost on anyone that deflection has long been one of Trump’s favored tactics for dealing with just about any vulnerability. “He can’t put two sentences together,” Trump complained of Biden earlier this year, on the very same day that he confused Haley and Pelosi. His evident delight in mocking Biden as a doddering old fool has inspired a robust marketplace of Republican imitators, who post clips of Biden’s every halting stutter or blank stare as proof of his senescence, while ignoring the many miscues of their own leader. Among the many political lessons that the right has learned during the Trump era in politics, one of the most successful—and pernicious—is this: With Trump, don’t defend the indefensible; simply pretend it does not exist.

No wonder House Republicans kept the birthday celebration for Trump on Thursday morning private. I say: Bring out the cake, strike up the band, let him blow out the candles in public. Trump loves it when he’s the center of attention, and I can think of no better subject for the public’s attention than the fact that Trump is getting another year older. ♦

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