For someone whose presidency — if not his public persona as a whole — is predicated on being a "fighter" and a "wartime president," Donald Trump has spent the waning days of his time in office largely out of sight, save for an occasional half-hearted missive on Twitter, wedged between a flurry of random retweets and worn-out catch phrases.
Despite his tough-guy posturing, it's hard to deny that his heart just doesn't seem to be all that into it these days. Sure he's still going through the motions — he's still spouting conspiracy theories about how he lost the election, and insisting that it's not over yet — but the more he protests, the clearer it seems that he's losing interest in keeping up appearances the longer this all goes on.
With that in mind, it's hard to see Trump's bizarre phone call to his attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis on Wednesday, as anything other than a sad coda to his already downbeat presidential denouement.
The call — made in lieu of a rumored-and-then-cancelled personal appearance — came midway through a hearing of Pennsylvannia Republican lawmakers focused on the president's persistent, and thus far entirely unfounded, allegations of voter fraud during the recent 2020 election. The content of Trump's address is relatively unimportant. It's nothing we haven't heard before: He won, the vote was rigged, it's all so unfair, and so on. What's interesting is less what he said, and more how he said it: over his attorney's phone as it was held up to a microphone in a hotel ballroom.
For the most powerful man on Earth – one who prides himself on projecting an image of boundless energy and stamina — the effect was decidedly counterproductive. This was not a leader, or even someone acting like it. For nearly 10 minutes of rambling self-pity and baseless conspiracy theories, Trump came off as small and inconsequential — perhaps no more so than when Ellis received a second phone call that beeped repeatedly over the line as Trump continued to speak.
The president is, among other things, genuinely skilled at manipulating public opinion through television. He innately understands what makes for good TV — and he understands that good TV means he can steer the national conversation as he sees fit. Which is why his stunt today felt so hollow. Gone was Trump the media savant, and in his place was a tinny, disembodied voice stuck in a loop of repeated grievances and self-congratulations.
There are still weeks to go before Trump leaves office, and the president could very well spend them wrecking as much havoc as possible before Joe Biden comes to town. But from the performance he gave today, Trump doesn't seem all that interested in fighting for the presidency anymore. Not really. The wind is out of his sails. The fire is out of his eyes. The emperor has no new clothes, and seems tired of trying to pretend like he even cares.