What I Learned when Donald Trump Tried to "Correct" the RecordRoundup
tags: presidential history, Donald Trump
Julian E. Zelizer is a history and public-affairs professor at Princeton University. He is the editor of the forthcoming book The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.
As an academic historian, I never expected to find myself in a videoconference with Donald Trump. But one afternoon last summer—a day after C-SPAN released a poll of historians who ranked him just above Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan, our country’s worst chief executives—he popped up in a Zoom box and told me and some of my colleagues about the 45th presidency from his point of view. He spoke calmly. “We’ve had some great people; we’ve had some people that weren’t so great. That’s understandable,” he told us. “That’s true with, I guess, every administration. But overall, we had tremendous, tremendous success.”
I am the editor of a scholarly history of Trump’s term in the White House, the third book in a series about the most recent presidents. A few days after The New York Times reported on the project, Trump’s then-aide Jason Miller contacted me to say that the former president wanted to talk to my co-authors and me—something that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama had done. For someone who claimed indifference about how people in our world viewed him, Trump was spending an inordinate amount of time—more than any other ex-president that we know of—trying to influence the narratives being written about him. My co-authors and I weren’t the only people he reached out to. According to Axios, Trump conducted conversations with more than 22 authors, primarily journalists, who were working on books chronicling his presidency.
But if anything, our conversation with the former president underscored common criticisms: that he construed the presidency as a forum to prove his dealmaking prowess; that he sought flattery and believed too much of his own spin; that he dismissed substantive criticism as misinformed, politically motivated, ethically compromised, or otherwise cynical. He demonstrated a limited historical worldview: When praising the virtues of press releases over tweets—because the former are more elegant and lengthier—he sounded as if he himself had discovered that old form of presidential communication. He showed little interest in exploring, or even acknowledging, some of the contradictions and tensions in his record.
The former president sat at a wooden desk in his Bedminster Golf Club with an American flag beside him. Over the first 30 minutes, with a single sheet of white paper in front of him, Trump reminisced about his underappreciated negotiating talent in handling the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, and the leaders of China, North Korea, and Russia. “Nobody was tougher on Russia than me,” he maintained. With regards to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Trump recounted how he had compelled other allied nations to pay higher dues after decades when they had not paid their fair share. Many of Trump’s anecdotes came back to how he had talked—or intimidated—powerful actors into doing things that no other president would have been able to. The former president claimed that he had reached a tentative deal with the South Korean government to contribute more to its own defense. (In telling the story, he imitated the accent of South Korean President Moon Jae-In.) The historic deal, Trump alleged, was scuttled once Joe Biden became president, after the 2020 election was “rigged and lost.”
He seemed to measure American politicians primarily by how they treated him. Even many of those elected officials who criticized him in public sang a different tune, he insisted, when the television cameras were off. Trump vented about governors who continually expressed during private meetings how impressed they were with his COVID policies (“I hope you can get the tapes,” Trump said) yet proceeded to “knock the hell out of me” in public: “So unfair.”
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