Donald Trump started off precisely on-message.
Strolling to the end of a White House driveway on Wednesday ahead of his departure for a veterans event in Kentucky, the president began speaking while still walking toward a crowd of waiting reporters. “So the economy is doing very, very well,” he said.
With fears of a recession stirring and public confidence in the health of the economy dropping for the first time in Trump’s presidency, it was a sound message to project to a skittish nation. But that was as good as it got.
What followed might have swept away all previous Trumpian benchmarks for incoherence, self-aggrandizement, prevarication and rancor in a presidency that has seemed before to veer loosely along the rails of reason but may never have come quite so close to spectacularly jumping the tracks.
Over an ensuing half-hour rant, Trump trucked in antisemitic tropes, insulted the Danish prime minister, insisted he wasn’t racist, bragged about the performance of his former Apprentice reality show, denied starting a trade war with China, praised Vladimir Putin and told reporters that he, Trump, was the “Chosen One” – all within hours of referring to himself as the “King of Israel” and tweeting in all caps: “WHERE IS THE FEDERAL RESERVE?”
Leaving aside those who were left merely gape-jawed, the performance inspired reactions from new expressions of doubt about Trump’s fitness for office to evocations of “the last president I know of who compared himself to the Messiah”.
(That turns out, according to Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes, to be Andrew Johnson (1865-9), whose articles of impeachment cited his “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues”.)
After the news conference, the hashtag #25thAmendmentNow was the top trending item on US Twitter, referring to a constitutional proviso by which cabinet members and the vice-president can band together to remove a president deemed unfit.
Soon after the ill-fated driveway news conference got under way, Trump faced a question about his decision to cancel a meeting with the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, who had rejected a proposal floated by the Trump administration to purchase Greenland as “absurd”.
Calling Frederiksen “nasty” – his preferred insult for women in politics – Trump described his wounded pride at the way his offer had been rejected.
“I thought it was a very not nice way of saying something,” Trump said. “Don’t say ‘What an absurd idea that is’ … You don’t talk to the United States that way, at least under me.
“I thought it was not a nice statement, the way she blew me off.”
As Trump continued his attack on Denmark on Twitter from onboard his airplane, the world below struggled with the rest of the wild, wild things he had just said, including an attack on another group: Jews who vote for Democrats.
In response to a news conference on Monday by the Democratic representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib criticizing their exclusion from Israel, Trump had questioned the “loyalty” of Jews who support Democratic politicians. Accusations of “dual loyalty” have been used in the past in an attempt to undermine and marginalize Jews living outside Israel.
Asked about the “loyalty” charge on Wednesday, Trump said: “I have been responsible for a lot of great things for Israel,” mentioning the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and his opposition to Iran.
“I will tell you this, in my opinion, the Democrats have gone very far away from Israel,” Trump continued. “In my opinion, if you vote for a Democrat you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel. And only weak people would say anything other than that.”
“I haven’t heard anybody say that, just the opposite,” Trump said.
Trump then embarked on an increasingly breakneck tour through the hills and valleys of a personal political landscape whose map, if it existed, was private to him, although his route was provisionally signposted by questions shouted by the media.
“We wiped out the Caliphate, 100%, I did it in record time,” he said of the fight against Isis.
“I am the least racist person ever to serve in office, OK? I am the least racist person,” he opined.
And, of course, his journey included a visit to his old favorite stomping ground: reality TV.
“I made a lot of money for NBC with The Apprentice, and I used to like them, but they are so biased,” he said. “You are so obviously biased and that’s why the public doesn’t believe you.”
His dislike for the media was on familiar display.
“The fake news, of which many of you are members, are trying to convince the public to have a recession,” he said. “‘Let’s have a recession!’”
But then – as he discussed his trade war with China – came a new twist as Trump bestowed upon himself a new title certain to launch a million Twitter memes.
“This is a trade war that should have taken place years ago … somebody had to do it. I am the Chosen One.”
That last line echoed a tweet the president had sent earlier in the day, in which Trump quoted the conspiracist Wayne Allyn Root, who in the past has said that violence including the murder of a peace activist at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was “probably paid actors & infiltrators hired by Soros”.
“The Jewish people in Israel love him,” Trump quoted Root as saying on Wednesday, “like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God.”
His putative status as the reincarnated Christian savior was not among the many topics Trump touched on Wednesday. At the end of the news conference, Trump walked toward his helicopter and headed for Kentucky.