“I. Never. Mentioned. The Word. ‘Israel,’” said President Donald Trump, drawing out the syllables, performing hard eye contact with the dozens of cameras, as Israel’s prime minister stood by in a brief press conference in Jerusalem on Monday.
Trump spoke in that “make no mistake” way, with notes of the old tune, “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman.” If cameras can cringe, these seemed to. Then Benjamin Netanyahu’s stony face hit a new level of stoniness; he drew close to his body the open arms with which he had promised to welcome Trump one day earlier. In a minute or two, video of Trump’s claim ricocheted around Twitter.
Because, of course, in mentioning that he didn’t mention Israel, Trump mentioned Israel, seeming to confirm that the state secrets he had blabbed to the Russian ambassador like a tween with Ryan Gosling gossip did not just seem to point to Israel, but belonged to Israel.
Trump’s latest foul will be lost before the week is over; it’s writ on the water of our era’s choppy news seas. But the “Israel” slip indicates something eternal: Donald Trump cannot keep a secret. In fact, the “liar president,” as his opponents would have it, might just be the most pathologically unsecretive—dare I say, honest—president we’ve seen yet.
Sure, we’re accustomed to thinking of Trump as chronically deceptive and flat-out wrong, and he commonly is—about crowd sizes, illegal voting, his “fine-tuned machine” of an administration, the Iraq War, 9/11 cheering, the list is endless. But someone must be putting truth serum in Trump’s second scoop of ice cream these days. No matter the stakes, he doesn’t have even a White House junior aide’s gift for circumspection, spin or truth-shading. Lately, in fact, Trump can’t shut up even when almost everything is at stake.
In a town of snakes and double-agents, the president’s extreme emotional transparency would be admirable, a sign of vulnerability, sincerity, guilelessness—that is, if it weren’t so self-incriminating. Most notably, on the firing of FBI director James Comey, Trump could not for one single day stick to the simple if ludicrous script that his aides hawked in the immediate aftermath: that Comey was fired at the suggestion of Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, the attorney general and his deputy, out of gallantry to Hillary Clinton, the damsel distressed by Comey’s political whims last October.
No, Trump could not prevaricate. Evidently, the president dies in darkness. And it wasn’t even under interrogation lights that he gave up the truth. He volunteered it. I chopped down the cherry tree, Lester Holt! “When I decided to just do it”—fire Comey, the FBI director, on his own initiative—“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 have won.’” It was a flamboyant act of self-sabotage—Trump admitted that he fired the man investigating his campaign’s potential ties to Russia because he was investigating his campaign’s potential ties to Russia—and it unsurprisingly prompted cries of obstruction of justice and calls, ultimately answered, for a special prosecutor. But Trump showed no remorse.
The president’s zeal for self-defeating candor can seize him anytime. He admitted to Reuters that the being the leader of the free world was harder than he expected—a worrisome revelation, to be sure, but one that came across as sincere and plainly true. Trump also readily admits his ignorance: He confessed, for instance, that before a short chat with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he didn’t understand why it should be so hard for China to bring North Korea to heel. Trump has also blurted out that he had a good chance of being the first candidate to make money running for president; that he finds healthcare mind-bogglingly complicated; and that he holds anyone who seems even faintly to criticize him, including the sacred cows—from the pope to the press to the parents of U.S. soldier Humayun Khan, who died in action—in contempt.
Why the compulsive target practice at his own foot? Doesn’t Trump, the ultimate brand builder and self-promoter, know better? Whatever it costs him in the real world—and the price of his indiscretions seems increasingly steep these days—Trump must always defend his personal supremacy. He hates the suggestion of his campaign’s collusion with Russia not because it could be criminal, dangerous to national security, immoral or even outright treasonous. He hates it for one reason only: It takes away from his November victory. He didn’t win an Emmy, he lost at golf a time or two, but by gum he is the president of the United States.
At the same time, if Trump ever kept a secret about anything, it would suggest he had something to be ashamed of. But Trump is free from shame, and instead insists on believing that everything he does—consume cake while launching bombs, hit on married women, lecherously size up his own daughter—merits kvelling. This includes his sleazy affair on his first wife (which he put in tabloid headlines in 1990), his tax-dodging (“that makes me smart”) and his ongoing commitment to Michael Flynn, the disgraced and tainted former national security adviser whom Trump reportedly wants back in the White House.
In fact, here’s the secret to Trump’s secrets: They never seem mistakenly to “slip” out, as if he were surprised by his own gaffe and regretted it afterward. Instead, he takes pride in his loose lips. With the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, he was boasting of his “great intel” and, to prove it, promptly burned a key intelligence source (oh, but he never mentioned Israel). With the latest blurt in Jerusalem, Trump, as Cornell Law School professor Josh Chafetz put it, “didn’t ‘accidentally’ confirm that the intel was Israeli. He corralled the press, got their attention, hushed them, & then confirmed it.” Trump doesn’t apologize, temporize or show a split second of embarrassment—like a boy who hams up his burps and then glows with pride.
This leaves Trump’s beleaguered surrogates, more seasoned liars, high and dry. On the other hand, it’s a boon to anyone who would investigate him. With a president this boastful about his misdeeds, Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to handle the Russia investigation, can certainly forego the Gitmo stuff—and even, maybe, routine surveillance. As David C. Gomez, a former FBI special assistant, told the Daily Beast, “On a big case like this, the ideal thing would be a wiretap on your No. 1 subject. … But in this case, you don’t need a wiretap. He just comes right out and says it.”