If you had to list everything that happened in the world last week in order of importance—all the deaths, all the births, all the victories and defeats on behalf of humanity, every baby's first word and every lover's first kiss, every new idea and fleeting moment of beauty—Donald Trump calling Apple CEO Tim Cook "Tim Apple" would have to rank near the bottom of the list. The president gets names wrong a lot but no one, even his political opponents, really cares very much. At worse, it demonstrates a certain absent-mindedness from a man who claimed he has a "very good brain" and "one of the greatest memories of all time." By the weekend, everyone had moved on, as they should have.
Everyone except Trump himself, that is. On a Friday dinner for GOP donors at his Mar-a-Lago club, the president reportedly told the assembled wallets that actually, he said "Tim Cook Apple," just too quickly for the "Cook" part to be clearly heard, and the whole thing was just another bad story from the Fake News Media. Only if you watch the original footage it's clear Trump said "Tim Apple." As an anonymous donor told Axios, "I just thought, why would you lie about that... It doesn't even matter!" But not only did Trump lie about it, he was still thinking about it Monday, when he tweeted this:
In one sense, this is just pointless bad-faith griping from a president who has elevated pointless bad-faith griping into an art form. But before we shrug off this bizarre attempt to gin up conflict as just another thing Trump does, more background noise of ordinary life in America, we should remember that this sort of falsehood—so brazen that it seems almost daring, too stupid to be believable—is part of what powered the mess of a movement that brought him to the White House.
Trump first became politically relevant when he spread the conspiracy about Barack Obama not being born in the US (a bit of racist nonsense he was still reportedly spouting after the 2016 election). Trump built his campaign on misrepresenting immigration statistics and called the government's unemployment numbers "phony" before he won the presidency and celebrated those same numbers. And he memorably kicked off his presidency with a petty dispute with the media over the size of his inauguration crowd, which led to some official photographs reportedly being edited to make that crowd seem bigger.
That crowd size dispute, in hindsight, provided a preview of what was to come. No ordinary administration would get into a yes-it-is-no-it-isn't argument with the media over something as stupid and obviously fake as a wildly inflated estimate of how many people were on the National Mall for an inauguration. It would be seen as a distraction from other issues, and a diminishment of the White House's credibility.
But Trump's number-one issue is conflict with the media, and in that battle credibility doesn't matter. He wants to cultivate the press as an enemy because it allows him to paint journalists as out-of-touch elitists (in contrast to his faux—tax cheat—man of the people schtick), and because his constant drumbeat of "fake news" lets him respond to any criticism by simply saying it was made up. Credibility with the media, in that context, is a negative—you want to be seen as fighting the press all the time, never agreeing with them.
Trump reportedly once told a man accused of misconduct toward women, "You've got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women... If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you're dead." He seems to follow that playbook in all aspects of his life—owning up to something as simple as getting a name wrong would validate the news stories that said he got a name wrong, and that means admitting that journalists are occasionally correct. If you are selling yourself as the only honest man in politics, that's something you can't afford.
In the case of Tim Apple, the controversy is eye-rollingly stupid. It will die out quickly, because no one is particularly invested in whether Trump got a name wrong or not. The point for Trump is not to convince anyone he said "Tim Cook Apple"—though no doubt some of his die-hards buy that explanation—but to be in constant opposition with the media, a relentless grind that's excruciating to watch. Trump wants the 2020 campaign to be nothing but negativity, a solid wall of accusations and counter-accusations, a months-long parade of bitterness and strife that confuses some voters, causes others to bail on politics entirely, and inspires his base. No empty charge will be too low, no lie too big, no feud too petty, and nothing, not even video evidence, will ever result in Trump admitting he is lying.
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Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.