The real first sign that Thursday was going to be a particularly tumultuous day for Donald Trump came at the start of what was billed to be a West Virginia roundtable about tax reform.
“This was going to be my remarks,” Trump told his West Virginia audience while holding up a copy of prepared talking points. “It would have taken about two minutes, but, to hell with it. Reading off the first paragraph, I said, ‘This is boring.’ Come on. Tell it like it is.”
What followed next had nothing to do with tax reform. The president proceeded to resurrect his own conspiracy theory about why he trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes in the 2016 election.
“In many places, like California, the same person votes many times,” Trump said. “You’ve probably heard about that. They always like to say, ‘Oh, that’s a conspiracy theory.’ It’s not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people.”
No credible evidence has been presented to support Trump’s voter fraud claims, and he quickly moved on to another highly charged assertion. Referencing his incendiary campaign launch, during which he portrayed Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” Trump appeared to concoct another unverifiable story.
“Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough,’ and I used the word rape,” Trump said before referencing an annual symbolic caravan of Honduran immigrants in Mexico. “And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.”
It was unclear what news report the president might be referring to. Although some Honduran immigrants have fled their home country because of violence, including rape, no recent news stories about rape and this year’s caravan could be sourced.
After the West Virginia event came to an end, the president returned to Washington aboard Air Force One, but wasn’t done grabbing headlines. The president surprised reporters on the plane by taking questions after making an appearance in the main cabin.
“Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?” a reporter asked the president.
“No,” Trump responded.
“Then why did Michael Cohen make it?” the reporter asked about the president’s personal lawyer, “if there was no truth to her allegations?”
“You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” Trump replied. “Michael’s my attorney, and you’ll have to ask Michael.”
Another reporter then asked Trump if he knew where Cohen got the money to make the payment.
“No,” Trump said. “I don’t know.”
His denial was the first time the president had spoken publicly about Daniels, who alleges she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and was paid $130,000 in hush money during the presidential election.
As night fell on Washington, the president had one more surprise up his sleeve, making an announcement sure to roil the stock market and the nerves of congressional Republicans seeking reelection in 2018.
“In light of China’s unfair retaliation, I have instructed the USTR to consider whether $100 billion of additional tariffs would be appropriate under section 301 and, if so, to identify the products upon which to impose such tariffs,” Trump said in a statement.
Trump’s own chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, had spent much of the last two days trying to assure investors that a full-blown trade war with Beijing was not in the offing, but news of possible new tariffs sent Dow futures plummeting Thursday night.
If anything, each subsequent, self-inflicted headline served to obscure the one Trump had made hours earlier. When looked at in retrospect, however, some historians will no doubt be tempted to ask why the president didn’t simply stick to his original script in West Virginia.
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