President Donald Trump may be historically unpopular. He may be under the shadow of a sprawling federal investigation that has already led to guilty pleas from some of his top associates. And he may be facing increasing questions about a $130,000 payment to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an extramarital affair.
But on Friday, before diehard supporters at the National Rifle Association convention in Dallas, Trump found silver linings wherever he could: in tough questioning of the special counsel’s team by a federal judge, in praise from rapper Kanye West and, once again, in reliving his 2016 election victory.
“We have great love going on,” Trump told the crowd, which repeatedly interrupted his speech with long ovations. “We had a great time and I think we’re doing better now than ever before.”
For Trump and his diehard supporters, reality is not about to get in the way of having a good time. A spate of mass shootings went unmentioned as Trump instead said looser gun laws in France could have prevented a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris (gun deaths in France are significantly less common than in the United States). In Trump’s telling, and the crowd’s appraisal, job growth consistent with the last half decade is instead a historic departure that could never have been predicted. Polls that underestimated Trump’s support in 2016 were actually a deliberate attempt at “suppression.” And a years-long federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that has led to multiple indictments is nothing more than a “witch hunt.”
As if those contrasts with reality were not enough, Trump made some more directly.
“These are real patriots, they really are, and they don’t get the kind of adulation but really they do,” he said at one point.
“Your Second Amendment rights are under siege, but they will never, ever be under siege as long as I am your president,” he declared at another.
If the apparent contradictions bothered people in the crowd, they did not show it, repeatedly cheering on the president, bursting into “USA!” chants and delivering the occasional shout of “We love you!”
“That’s his fix,” said Rick Tyler, the former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. “It’s like an addiction and he’s always looking for the next fix, and the next fix is who can adore me and who can praise me, and big crowds can do that.”
“But it was a colossally bad week,” Tyler added, “and that’s saying a lot because one seems to follow the next.”
Indeed, even in an administration as chaotic as Trump’s, the first week of May stood out. Chief of staff John Kelly’s standing in the West Wing is under increasing scrutiny after a report that he called Trump “an idiot.” And Trump’s newest addition to his legal team, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, added fuel to the Stormy Daniels controversy by contradicting the White House position that Trump had not known about secret payments to the adult film actress.
Then there is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The New York Times earlier this week published a list of questions the special counsel’s office might ask Trump if he sits for an interview, underscoring the extent of Trump’s potential legal jeopardy. On Wednesday, one of Trump’s main Russia lawyers announced he’s leaving the position.
But in all that, Trump found a silver lining.
The president began the speech by seizing on news that a federal judge had raised questions earlier in the day about the scope of the special counsel’s investigation in a hearing on charges against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman who has been indicted on charges of money laundering, tax fraud and other crimes.
“He’s a good person. He is,” Trump assured the crowd. “I really believe he is a good person.”
Trump also praised the judge, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis, for questioning Mueller’s motives in prosecuting Manafort.
Trump went on to tout recent job growth — the unemployment rate continued its downward trend and hit 3.9 percent on Friday, the lowest in nearly two decades — and even gloated about support from Kanye West.
“Kanye West must have some power because you probably saw I doubled my African-American poll numbers. We went from 11 to 22 in one week,” Trump said, referencing a recent Reuters poll. “Thank you, Kanye. Thank you.”
The speech was the type of scattershot address typical for Trump, a style that often leaves political analysts scratching their heads and Trump supporters cheering.
“Watching President Trump at [the NRA convention] and it’s painfully obvious to me that while it might drive the DC political/media types crazy, he is most effective politically when he’s riffing, having fun and being himself,” Andrew Surabian, a former White House official, wrote on Twitter. “Campaign Trump is a winning Trump.”