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Commentary: None of Trump’s prior roles — scion, mogul, POTUS — prepared him to play innocent

President Trump at a news conference Wednesday
President Trump at a news conference Wednesday dominated by questions of impeachment.
(Shawn Thew /EPA-EFE/REX)

It was a slap seen round the world.

Visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinisto swatted away the hand of President Trump on Wednesday when he patted the Scandinavian leader on the knee during a news conference.

The former reality TV star, who once said his fame allowed him to grab women by much more than the knee, had failed to dazzle his counterpart — or succeed in even the most basic of bro gestures.

Trump’s mojo leaked from the room like air from a flubbery tire as he sought to pump himself back up for a new round of “Fight the Press,” accusing an elected official of treason, targeting journalists (once again) as “the true enemy of the people,” and implying his impeachment would lead to civil war.

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What a difference a week, and revelations that a sitting president had asked a foreign country to help him game an election, makes.

Gone was the crudely charming, flippant entertainer who blasted his way through the Republican primaries with a confetti cannon’s-worth of insults, deflected tough debate questions like light off a disco ball and rode catchy anthems like “Lock Her Up!” all the way to the White House.

In his place was a scowling, red-faced and desperate politician in deep, deep trouble. Last week’s revelation that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for “a favor” — find dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter — after putting on hold the country’s military aid has spurred an impeachment inquiry. (Trump added fuel to the firestorm Thursday, telling reporters, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with … Ukraine,” before boarding Marine One.)

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Trump bore the weight of that scrutiny atop his slumped shoulders Wednesday as he confronted a press corps that had no interest in talking about Helsinki or our “beautiful” relationship with Finland. As they asked about things that angered Trump (the whistleblower who alerted authorities about the conversation; impeachment) he grew more and more erratic, even by Trump standards.

Trump squinted like De Niro in “Taxi Driver” when a reporter asked about specifics of the phone call, then said: “Are you talkin’ to me?”

Yes, the reporter was, which seemed like pretty easy math since Trump was the only president up there whose shady chat with Ukraine had gone viral.

“We have the president of Finland. Ask him a question!” ordered Trump, repeatedly, eliciting audible gasps from a press pool who’d thought they’d seen it all by now. One thing was clear: They’d all now need to come up with a stronger descriptor than “unhinged.”

The showman who’d spent his whole life chasing fame, whether as the heir to a real estate fortune or the cameo king of films starring real actors, has finally been burned by the limelight. And nothing about his former roles has prepared him for being this out of control.

As owner of the Miss USA pageants, Trump enjoyed portraying the rich playboy surrounded by (very) young women. As the son of a property baron, he was able to play the successful businessman even when he wasn’t (which was more often than not). As the wheeling and dealing casino and hotel mogul, he anointed himself the king of Atlantic City. And as the puff-chested boss on “The Apprentice,” he harnessed all of his skills as a performer to create a TV catchphrase: “You’re fired!”

Trump has always been tailor-made for reality TV. Self-centered? Check. Able to call attention to himself for no discernible reason? Check. Bizarre sense of style culled from a bygone era that never happened? Check.

Cutting jokes and knowing smirks were his thing. And once he hit the campaign trail, he used those ratings-grabbing traits to knock his opponents off balance.

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But it’s now Trump who’s struggling to keep his footing.

His new problems are too big to be papered over by tired nicknames and verbal camouflage, but he tried Wednesday when he called House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff “Shifty Schiff” and said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi liked to “pass out subpoenas like cookies.” And the gaslighting technique that worked so well for him on his rise to power — “I know you’re crooked/racist/old, but what am I?!” — made him look weak and scared in the new context of impending impeachment.

His superpower — his ability to feint, to adapt, to at least seem the confident performer, even under duress — may be useless in this post-whistleblower world: Unable to weaponize the transcript of the phone call, Trump looked more like one of his victims than the victor when he listlessly commented about the scandal last week.

By calling the president a whistleblower, Stephen Miller took Trumpian doublespeak past the point of absurdity and revealed its duplicitous truth

And on Wednesday, Trump finally devolved from a B-list performer into a rogue actor, with dangerous implications. He accused Schiff of a crime punishable by death, denounced the journalists before him as “corrupt” and implied that “spies” like the whistleblower should face capital punishment.

President Niinisto stood near-motionless at the other lectern, likely wondering what the hell he’d done to deserve a place on that stage — and if it might be cooler in the molten core of hell.

Even the White House’s unofficial PR shop, Fox News, had to admit “the rhetoric” was angrier and that “it feels like things have changed.”

Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” put it another way when he commented about the president’s presser on MSNBC. “We’re in a scary place,” he said of the president’s state of mind. “In the darkest days of Watergate, when Richard Nixon was walking the halls, talking to the oil portraits and drinking heavily, [Secretary of Defense] James Schlesinger made sure that he had the nuclear codes safe. Richard Nixon’s mental state was far superior, I think, than Donald Trump’s mental state we saw today.”

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Perhaps it’s his latest act — in the role of an embattled president who’d rather start a civil war than concede his own indiscretions — but if Trump’s current performance is any indication, he may come completely undone before this show’s renewed.


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