The Donald Trump presidency ended, in a way, on Nov. 7. That was the day that media outlets called Pennsylvania, and thus the 2020 election, for Joe Biden. It was also the day that Trump tweeted his campaign would be holding a press conference at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, only to follow up with a clarifying tweet that he meant “Four Seasons Landscaping,” a business located on the outskirts of the city near an adult bookstore and a crematorium. Yes, the campaign later claimed there was a reason why they booked this particular venue. So, yes, we don’t know for sure that the campaign actually meant to hold its event, at which Rudy Giuliani made luridly dishonest and fantastical claims about voter fraud, at the Four Seasons Hotel, only to book the completely unrelated landscaping company by mistake. But we know.
When the story of this era is told many years from now, students and history enthusiasts will learn about Trump’s lies, corruption, self-enrichment, and abuse. What they may not grasp—and what even now is hard to comprehend—is just how stupid it was to live through. The president told the nation to inject bleach during a pandemic; his team altered the projected path of a hurricane on an official document, with a Sharpie, to help the president save face after an erroneous tweet. There were the dishwashers that had to be run 10 times. The blank pages that the White House pretended were important documents. A long, long time ago, Trump declared himself a “very stable genius.” By now, that phrase feels almost normal. But seriously: What?
For almost five years, we have been collecting such stories with quick notes to our future selves—notes that, when we looked through them last month after Trump lost his reelection bid, read less as presidential history than the diary of a lunatic. We had to go back and make sense of them all, matching our mad scribbles to events that actually happened in the real world. And now we bring them to you.
Critics sometimes alleged that the president’s bad tweets and Borscht Belt schtick were calculated distractions from his controversial policies and criminal personal conduct. We do not think that was the case with the following moments. They are the most absurd of the period’s tragicomic phenomena, the smallest dumb experiences of a big, dumb time to be alive. They are the most baffling pronouncements, grievances, and excuses of a president who never, ever did the homework—the deepest cuts of America’s mush-brain years. We share them here not so you may remember them, but so that you might—finally—feel free to forget just a little bit about the past four years.
“His idiot doctor”
Dec. 14, 2015: In December 2015, amid questions about what CNN described as Trump’s “self-avowed lack of an exercise routine and his indulging diet,” his campaign releases a statement from a doctor that purports to establish his physical bona fides. Despite Trump’s previous promise to release “a full medical report,” Dr. Harold Bornstein simply attests in a short letter that Trump’s lab work is “astonishingly excellent,” that his “physical strength” is “extraordinary,” and that Bornstein believes, “unequivocally,” that the candidate would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Bornstein, who looks like his picture goes next to the entry for “quack doctor” in the Big Book of Sitcom Character Tropes, later tells CNN that Trump dictated the letter. —BML
“George Papadopoulos listing a Model U.N. thing he may not even have actually done on his résumé”
March 21, 2016: With its candidate taking heat for having almost no familiarity with any subject related to the job of governing the United States, the Trump campaign releases a list of its alleged “foreign policy advisers,” including an individual named George Papadopoulos, to the Washington Post. The Post immediately notices that the top item in the “Honors and Awards” section of Papadopoulos’ LinkedIn page is a claim to have participated in a 2012 Model United Nations event in Geneva, i.e., a conference for college students. In 2017, after Papadopoulos is convicted of lying to federal agents investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, the Post follows up and finds out that the organizers of the Geneva event have no record of Papadopoulos’ participation. —BML
“The British airplane sexual assault witness guy”
Oct. 14, 2016: Shortly after the publication of the Access Hollywood tape, the New York Times reports that a woman named Jessica Leeds says Trump groped her on an airplane in approximately 1980. The Trump campaign subsequently arranges for the New York Post to interview a British man named Anthony Gilberthorpe, who would have been about 18 at the time of the alleged assault. Gilberthorpe—who, in the years after this flight, said he went “trawling” the streets of Blackpool to hire underage boys for sex acts with Tory politicians—says he remembers being seated across the aisle from Trump and Leeds and that he recognizes Leeds in the news because he has a “photographic memory.” He claims to recall specifically that Trump did not do anything inappropriate to Leeds and says moreover that she was flirting with Trump and told fellow passengers, when Trump went to the bathroom, that she “wanted to marry him.” —BML
“Michigan Man of the Year”
Nov. 7, 2016: At a speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump says that he was once named “Michigan Man of the Year,” a claim he goes on to repeat numerous times throughout his presidency. In 2019, CNN’s Daniel Dale reports that Trump may be referring to an invitation he received to give a speech in Michigan at something called the “Oakland County Lincoln Day Dinner” in 2013. No award was presented at the dinner. —BML
“Former professional golfer Bernhard Langer voter fraud”
Jan. 25, 2017: During a meeting with lawmakers, the newly inaugurated president says that German professional golfer Bernhard Langer was prevented from voting in 2016 because there was a long line of suspicious Latin American individuals ahead of him. Follow-up reporting reveals that Langer is not an American citizen and did not attempt to vote in the election at all; according to Langer, he heard a similar story from a friend and relayed it to someone who then told it to “a person with ties to the White House,” which would mean that Trump had been told the (obviously false) anecdote fifth-hand. —BML
“Frederick Douglass getting recognized”
Feb. 1, 2017: At remarks celebrating Black History Month, Trump ad-libs that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The remark, and its present tense phrasing regarding a figure who died in 1895, has never been explained. —HG
“U.S. aircraft carrier that White House declared deterrent to North Korea sailing in opposite direction”
April 12, 2017: Fox Business broadcasts a recorded interview in which Trump tells the network’s Maria Bartiromo that the U.S. is “sending an armada” toward North Korea, a claim around which the administration builds a narrative about its tough, no-nonsense stance toward Kim Jong-un’s country. On April 13, NBC News reports that the U.S. is prepared for a preemptive strike on the isolated dictatorship. Two days later, however, the Navy posts a photo of the aircraft carrier and associated ships that purportedly make up the armada heading south through the Sunda Strait, 3,500 miles away from North Korea. Defense News reports that the ships, which never got anywhere near North Korea, are “taking part in scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean.” Trump is subsequently swayed by Kim’s flattery campaign into essentially dropping all objections to the North Korean nuclear program. —HG
“Exercise depletes the body’s reserves of energy”
May 1, 2017: The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos reports that Trump “considers exercise misguided, arguing that a person, like a battery, is born with a finite amount of energy.” This echoes reporting by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, who wrote in a 2016 biography that Trump stopped working out after college and once told an employee that training for an Ironman race would kill him. Intuitive but obviously wrong, the Medieval-style “battery theory” foreshadows more consequential medical assertions that would later be made by the president about a specific kind of virus being no worse than the flu, disappearing in summer heat, and being vulnerable to the injection of bleach into the body. —HG
“Fake phone call from Boy Scouts”
Aug. 2, 2017: Trump tells the Wall Street Journal that a discursive, partisan speech he gave to a crowd of Boy Scouts at the organization’s national jamboree was, according to a call he received afterward from “the head of the Boy Scouts,” “the greatest speech that was ever made to them.” The Boy Scouts respond in a statement, “We are unaware of any such call.” —HG
“Local milk people”
Aug. 3, 2017: The Washington Post publishes a transcript of a phone call between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Trump shortly after the latter became president. The conversation touched on an agreement Barack Obama had made to accept refugees detained by the Australian government, about whom Trump said: “I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.” Speculation about the meaning of “local milk people” ultimately arrives at the fact that many refugees in the U.S. work on dairy farms. —BML
“Kept saying Thad Cochran was in the hospital when he wasn’t in the hospital”
Sept. 28, 2017: Trump says at least six times over the course of a day that Republicans would be able to pass a bill to eliminate the Affordable Care Act were it not for a senator who is in the hospital. White House reporters determine that Trump is referring to Sen. Thad Cochran, of Mississippi, who is recovering at his home (not a hospital) from a urological procedure—and who, crucially, would not have provided a winning vote for the repeal bill (which never passed), even if he had been present. —HG
“Not sending the $25,000 check he promised to the father of a dead soldier until three months later when the Washington Post asked him about it”
Oct. 18, 2017: The Washington Post publishes an interview with the bereaved father of a deceased soldier who says Trump personally promised during a condolence call to send him a $25,000 check but never followed up or delivered any money. (The Post was looking into the subject because Trump was engaged in a public feud with a different bereaved family that had been offended by comments the president made in a different call.) The man subsequently receives a check dated Oct. 18, which was the day the Post contacted the White House about the story. —BML
“Fox tricks Trump into opposing his own FISA bill”
Jan. 11, 2018: Trump complains angrily on Twitter that the House is about to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA—a reauthorization that his administration has repeatedly endorsed. Forensic scrutiny by the watchdog group Media Matters reveals that shortly before the president’s tweet, the Fox & Friends morning show had run a segment critical of FISA for having allegedly been used to tap Trump’s phones during the Obama administration’s conspiracy to frame him for Russia-related crimes. Less than two hours after his original tweet, Trump sends a follow-up in which he pretends to have previously ordered changes to the bill to address his concerns and endorses its passage. —BML
“Telling the stock market it had made a mistake by declining”
Feb. 7 2018: LOL. —BML
“German dad (dad’s not German)”
July 12, 2018: Trump, in Europe for a NATO summit, says that his father was “from Germany,” a claim he goes on to reiterate at least twice more during his administration while in the presence of Europeans, at one point stating specifically that Fred Trump was “born in a very wonderful place in Germany.” As is well-established in the public record, Fred Trump was born in New York City. Fred Trump’s father was born in Germany—but this, too, is a subject that Donald Trump had lied about publicly, writing in The Art of the Deal that his father’s family was from Sweden in what was apparently an effort to keep the Trump name from being associated with Nazism. (Oops.) —HG
“Voter ID to buy cereal”
Aug. 31, 2018: At a rally in Tampa, Florida, Trump makes the case for voter ID laws by appealing to the ubiquitous use of photo IDs in American life and claims that “if you go out and buy groceries, you need a picture on a card—you need ID.” He would repeat the claim at least twice more. —HG
“Wettest from the standpoint of water”
Sept. 19, 2018: From the White House lawn, Trump delivers an analysis of Hurricane Florence, which killed dozens of people in the Carolinas, as “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen, from the standpoint of water.” —HG
March 6, 2019: At an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board meeting, the president calls Apple CEO Tim Cook “Tim Apple.” The year before, he had called Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson “Marillyn Lockheed.” —HG
June 7, 2019: Triggered by an innocuous rhetorical question about NASA posed by Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto, the president describes the planet Mars, on Twitter, as something “of which the Moon is a part,” by which he means that missions to the moon are to be used as preparation for a mission to Mars. He adds that he believes NASA should focus its efforts on subjects such as “science.” —BML
“Airports during the revolutionary war”
July 4, 2019: Trump celebrates the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by praising how George Washington’s Continental Army “took over airports” during the Revolutionary War. —HG
“Kidney has a special place in the heart”
July 10, 2019: Trump signs an executive order related to kidney disease and thanks an audience of nephrologists like so: “You’ve worked so hard on these things, you’ve worked so hard on the kidney. Very special. The kidney has a very special place in the heart. It’s an incredible thing.” —BML
“Windmills cause cancer”
Aug. 2, 2019: Trump says he has heard that the noise generated by windmills causes cancer. (There is no known, or even alleged, link between wind turbines and cancer.) —HG
“White House claiming they had to give G-7 to Doral because one of the other sites would have required oxygen masks”
Aug. 26, 2019: The White House announces that a nationwide search has determined that the G-7 international summit, which the U.S. was set to host in 2020, can be held most effectively at the Trump National Doral resort near Miami. Trump later explains that Doral stood out from other contenders because of its ample parking and because its ballrooms are “among the biggest in Florida.” Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney claims at a press conference that one of the other potential U.S. sites for the summit was situated at such a high altitude that participants may have had to use oxygen tanks to breathe (?). (The White House later backs down from the decision, and the summit is ultimately canceled because of COVID-19.) —HG
“Trump just said there are people in line for his rally and they are soaking wet”
Sept. 9, 2019: During what is ostensibly a discussion with reporters about hurricane refugees from the Bahamas, the president begins describing supporters of his who are allegedly already standing in line for an upcoming rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, going on at some length about how the supporters waiting in line are “soaking wet.” The weather in Fayetteville at the time is clear and sunny. —HG
“She’s got a son”
Sept. 11, 2019: In the Oval Office to promote an anti-vaping initiative, Trump explains first lady Melania Trump’s interest in the subject: “She’s got a son, together, that’s a beautiful young man, and she feels very very strongly about it.” The boy in question, Barron Trump, is also his son. —HG
“You know what the crime is”
May 11, 2020: During a right-wing revival of the 2017-era theory that Barack Obama helped frame several people in Trump’s orbit for having connections to the Russian government, the president refers to “Obamagate” on Twitter as “the biggest political crime in American history.” He subsequently has this exchange with Philip Rucker of the Washington Post at a press conference:
RUCKER: You appeared to accuse Obama of “the biggest political crime in American history, by far,” those were your words. What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing and do you think the Department of Justice should prosecute him?
TRUMP: Uh, Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on and if you look at now all of this information that’s being released, and from what I understand that’s only the beginning. Some terrible things happened and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again, and you’ll be seeing what’s going on over the coming weeks. And I wish you’d write honestly about it, but unfortunately you choose not to do so.
RUCKER: What is the crime exactly that you’re accusing him of?
TRUMP: You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.
In summary: What’s the crime? “Obamagate.” —BML
“Making up that he was throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium because he was jealous of Fauci”
July 23, 2020: Hours before Dr. Anthony Fauci throws the ceremonial first pitch before the Washington Nationals game on MLB’s latest-ever opening day, Trump, in a fit of apparent jealousy, says that he has been asked to throw out the first pitch before an Aug. 15 Yankees–Red Sox game in the Bronx. After reporters determine that the Yankees have not made such an offer, Trump and his aides say that he will in fact be busy on the day in question with activities that have a “strong focus on the China virus.” He ultimately spends the weekend of the 15th at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. —HG
“A man who loves the interior”
Aug. 4, 2020: Trump introduces Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt by asserting that Bernhardt is “a man who loves the interior.” —HG
Sept. 29, 2020: Asked at his first debate with Joe Biden whether climate change was helping cause forest fires on the West Coast, Trump says the following: “In Europe, they live—they’re forest cities, they’re called forest cities. They maintain their forest. They manage their forest. I was with the head of a major country—it’s a forest city. He said, ‘Sir, we have trees that are far more, they ignite much easier than California. There shouldn’t be that problem.’ ” (During a previous outbreak of forest fire, the president had claimed Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told him that Finland prevents forest fires by raking the forest floor, something which Niinistö denies having said. It is possible, but not certain, that the comments derive from a belief that the real ecological concept of “forest management” involves sweeping and cleaning up in the way one might “manage” a real-estate property.) —BML
“Kiss them all”
Oct 12, 2020: One week removed from his hospital stay for COVID-19, the president pays tribute to Jim Morrison by telling a crowd in Florida he feels “so powerful” and wants to “kiss everyone in that audience.” Ha-ha, so goofy! And that was basically the last thing he said, and no one ever had to worry about him again. —HG