Jurisprudence

Trump’s Photo-Op With the Orphaned El Paso Baby Was the Smallest Moment of His Presidency

First lady Melania Trump holds a 2-month-old baby as she and President Donald Trump pose for photos and meet members of the Anchondo family.
First lady Melania Trump holds a 2-month-old baby as she and President Donald Trump pose for photos and meet members of the Anchondo family on Wednesday at the University Medical Center of El Paso.
Andrea Hanks/the White House

It took a tiny baby to reveal how small Donald Trump really is.

The president’s trip to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, this week, ostensibly undertaken to comfort the mourners and the injured in the wake of two horrifying mass murder sprees that left at least 31 people dead and many more injured, went terribly, terribly wrong. The Washington Post observed on Thursday that inside the White House, the trip was generally seen as “not ideal,” in the words of one senior administration official.

Having pledged to spend the trip unifying the nation, President Donald Trump opted to comfort the grieving by attacking Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley for misrepresenting his reception at a hospital in Dayton, something neither of them actually did. He also spent Wednesday morning tweeting conspiracy theories about the Dayton shooter. Trump was evidently fuming on the return trip to Washington that video of his consolation and empathy tour had not been released fast enough; that he wasn’t getting “credit” for his compassion, prompting Dan Scavino to tweet that he was greeted as a “ROCK STAR.” Then, independent video surfaced Thursday of Trump comforting medical staff in an El Paso hospital by bragging about his crowd size at a February rally. “That was some crowd,” Trump said. “We had twice the number outside. And then you had this crazy Beto. Beto had like 400 people in a parking lot, and they said his crowd was wonderful.”

The cherry bomb on top was a photo from first lady Melania Trump’s Twitter account that appeared to feature a grinning president with a 2-month-old infant who was orphaned during the El Paso shooting. The baby’s parents were both killed trying to protect him.

Five of the eight El Paso victims who were still in the hospital reportedly declined to meet with the president, and three were physically unable to. It appears baby Paul was brought back to the hospital by White House staff for the photo-op.

That’s the president, grinning and giving a thumbs-up, as the orphaned child is held out like a trophy. If words weren’t inclined to fail, ghoulish and surreal might serve. This child has no parents because a shooter spouting Trumpist talking points about foreign “invaders” went to El Paso to kill them. And while the president refused to speak to reporters, who were scolded by the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, in a statement saying that the visits were all “about the victims” and not a “photo op,” hours later, Trump released a campaign-style video of his triumphal comforting tour.

It is clearly a horrifying spectacle of degradation when even consummate soulless showman Anthony Scaramucci is forced to say that the trip proved to be a “catastrophe” for the president, who was incapable of demonstrating the requisite quantum of “compassion” and “empathy” to win the reality show seal of approval. But for all its failures as a television event, Trump’s failure served to remind us how truly small he really is. And maybe that is enough.

Trump is really only good at one thing: being on television. Any event that can be engineered to look like a scene from The Apprentice can be fudged to his advantage. Stadium rallies, press availability from inside the Oval Office, even canned speeches read from a teleprompter can be salvaged; so long as he is essentially only producing a simulacrum of presidenting, he can shift along. But reality confounds him. Take him out from behind the oceans of fawning MAGA hats and put him next to a real survivor of sexual violence, and all the grinning and preening tricks fail him. Put him next to actual heads of state discussing actual international policy, and he sulks and mopes. Oh, he can pull off the photo-op; this is a man made of photo-ops. But time and time again, when he is called on to deal with real people—not glassy superfans but genuine human beings whom he allegedly serves as president—he fails to meet the occasion. The consummate reality-TV president is unerringly confounded by reality.

It’s not simply that an injured baby had to be returned to a hospital so that a grinning president could throw a Fonzie-style thumbs-up for the Twitter fans—that’s gross, yes, but it misses the point. The point is that this president, who understands only ratings and adulation and crowd size and “getting credit,” is seemingly incapable of subordinating all that to the moment. This was a moment in which grieving Americans wanted nothing more than for him to show up and be with them. The “catastrophe,” with all due respect to the unparalleled wisdom of Scaramucci, is not that he failed to show the requisite “compassion” or “empathy” for the cameras. Neither Donald Trump, nor his wife, nor his handlers and enablers, will ever understand that the real catastrophe isn’t how he appeared on television or Twitter. The real catastrophe is that Americans are dead and dying and their president is mass-producing a television show about his presidency, with their personal tragedy as a set choice.

Trump cannot function in reality. He lives in a hall of mirrors with his made-for-TV family, as the national security apparatus, the national intelligence apparatus, the foreign service, and foreign policy detonate all around him. And on the rare occasion on which he is called to step out from behind the glass panopticon that he has built, he fails, spectacularly, because that which really matters can’t be tweeted or reduced to a campaign video.

Americans will soon have to choose whether or not they want to live forever in Donald Trump’s reality—the one in which words don’t matter, and everything is a ratings game, and proximity to the famous and the beautiful is the epitome of a life well lived. If that is the only value left, Donald Trump’s is indeed the presidency perfected. For those of us who still live in reality, the photo-op with the orphaned baby is proof positive that Trump’s is not a big life, or a real life. It’s just smallness, refracted a million times over, which is nevertheless impossibly small.