No one ever accused Donald Trump of being a silver-tongued devil. While some politicians can beguile you with their eloquence and turn you around with their persuasive logic, Trump relies on simple declarative statements blurped out using his alarmingly limited vocabulary.
Yet Trump's presidency is being undone by his big mouth.
Just look at the blizzard of problems he has created for himself in the last week or two. He fired FBI Director James Comey, which might have been controversial but not catastrophic, had he not told NBC's Lester Holt that he did so with Russia on his mind ("When I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should've won.'"), which was pretty darn close to an admission that he obstructed justice. We also learned that according to memos Comey wrote at the time, Trump asked him to back off the investigation of the disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. "I hope you can let this go," Trump supposedly said.
Then he got together with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, and once again couldn't keep his mouth shut. Not only did he tell them a version of what he told Holt ("I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," he said. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."), but he also passed on to them highly sensitive information the United States got from an ally concerning a source that had infiltrated deep into ISIS. Apparently, he just couldn't keep his mouth shut.
These are of course just the latest in Trump's long line of statements that were atrocious or disastrous in one way or another. Often they seem motivated by an intense desire to impress whomever he's talking to, whether it's the Russian foreign minister or Billy Bush. But they also stem from a lack of verbal self-control, as though the president is incapable of thinking before speaking. As one anonymous source told CNN, briefing Trump for sensitive meetings presents a unique challenge. "You can't say what not to say," the source said, "because that will then be one of the first things he'll say."
As a result, his aides and defenders spend an enormous amount of their time constructing an ever-shifting linguistic analysis to explain why Trump's utterances are not as appalling as they appear. Their defenses run from He's the president so he can say whatever he wants to That's just the way he talks, so no biggie. The latter is a handy explanation for why none of his promises from the campaign trail need to be kept: Sure, he said he'd build a wall and Mexico would pay for it, and prosecute Hillary Clinton, and take on Wall Street, and label China a currency manipulator, and reform Washington. But that was just talk! It's not like we can hold him responsible for the things he says. That's not to mention all the times Trump's absurd utterances (I had the biggest inaugural crowd in history! Obama tapped my phones!) have sent them into comical contortions as they try to explain that he isn't actually the liar and fabulist everyone knows him to be.
Those who work for Trump are slaves not only to his ignorance and his impulses, but to his mouth, where all the products of his strange mind come pouring forth. Every once in a while they manage to tame it, convincing him to stand in front of a teleprompter and read the words they have composed for him—but it never lasts. They managed it over the weekend, as he delivered a speech in Saudi Arabia that was notably free of his usual vicious rhetoric about Islam and Muslims (see how low the bar has been set). But we've been through this before. How many times did Trump successfully read a speech, to praise about how presidential he was becoming, then within a day or two say something ugly or shocking to an interviewer or on Twitter? The next one is coming, have no doubt.
Let's not kid ourselves: It was Trump's ugly, undisciplined mouth that got him to the Oval Office. We expect politicians to be good talkers—after all, that's a big part of their jobs—but we don't want them to be too polished, too practiced, too careful about what they say. We want "authenticity," the sense that the things the politician says aren't something he's practiced a dozen times before, but the spontaneous product of an admirable mind. Trump gave the voters a funhouse-mirror version of that ideal: a guy who'd say anything, no matter how stupid or offensive, because he either couldn't help himself, didn't know any better, or just didn't care.
Against all odds, it worked, at least enough to get him an Electoral College victory. But now there could be actual legal consequences to what comes out of his mouth, even including impeachment. Trump's supporters, we were told what seems like eons ago, took him seriously, but not literally. That's what his defenders still want us to do. But it's getting too late for that.