President Trump’s self-assessment has been consistent.
“I’m, like, a very smart person,” he assured voters in 2016.
“A very stable genius,” he ruled two years later.
“I’m not a doctor,” he allowed on Thursday, pointing to his skull inside the White House briefing room, “but I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”
Mr. Trump’s performance that evening, when he suggested that injections of disinfectants into the human body could help combat the coronavirus, did not sound like the work of a doctor, a genius, or a person with a good you-know-what.
Even by the turbulent standards of this president, his musings on virus remedies have landed with uncommon force, drawing widespread condemnation as dangerous to the health of Americans and inspiring a near-universal alarm that many of his past remarks — whether offensive or fear-mongering or simply untrue — did not.
Mr. Trump’s typical name-calling can be recast to receptive audiences as mere “counterpunching.” His impeachment was explained away as the dastardly opus of overreaching Democrats. It is more difficult to insist that the man floating disinfectant injection knows what he’s doing.
The reaction has so rattled the president’s allies and advisers that he was compelled over the weekend to remove himself from the pandemic briefings entirely, at least temporarily accepting two fates he loathes: giving in to advice (from Republicans who said the appearances did far more harm than good to his political standing) and surrendering the mass viewership he relishes.
Some at the White House have expressed frustration that the issue has lingered. “It bothers me that this is still in the news cycle,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator, told CNN on Sunday, adding, “I worry that we don’t get the information to the American people that they need, when we continue to bring up something that was from Thursday night.”
Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican who has been willing to speak skeptically about Mr. Trump’s virus leadership, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that it “does send a wrong message” when misinformation spreads from a public official or “you just say something that pops in your head.” Asked to explain the president’s words, Mr. Hogan said, “You know, I can’t really explain it.”
No modern American politician can match Mr. Trump’s record of false or illogical statements, which has invited questions about his intelligence. Insinuations and gaffes have trailed former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle and Joseph R. Biden Jr., now the presumptive Democratic nominee, among many others. But Mr. Trump’s stark pronouncement — on live television, amid a grave public health crisis, and leaving little room for interpretation — was at once in a class of its own and wholly consistent with a reputation for carelessness in speech.
Still, for weeks, the president’s political team has been strikingly explicit about its intended messaging against Mr. Biden: presenting him as a doddering 77-year-old not up to the rigors of the office — and setting off on the kind of whisper campaign that does not bother with whispers.
A Trump campaign Twitter account on Saturday celebrated the anniversary of Mr. Biden’s 2020 bid by highlighting all that he had “forgotten” as a candidate, with corresponding video clips of momentary flubs and verbal stumbles: “Joe Biden forgot the name of the coronavirus.” “Joe Biden forgot the G7 was not the G8.” “Joe Biden forgot Super Tuesday was on a Tuesday.”
On Sunday, the Trump campaign made clear that the disinfectant affair would not disrupt its plans. “Joe Biden is often lost,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, “losing his train of thought during friendly interviews, even when he relies on written notes in front of him.”
T.J. Ducklo, a Biden spokesman, called this approach “a distraction tactic — as if anything could erase the memory of the president suggesting people drink disinfectant on national television.”
Carlos Curbelo, a Republican former Florida congressman who clashed at times with Mr. Trump and did not vote for him, said the president’s comments on disinfectants were likely to resonate precisely because he was running a race premised largely on Mr. Biden’s mental capacity.
“Given Joe Biden’s gaffes and mistakes, I think the Trump campaign had a strong narrative there,” he said. “At the very least, that advantage was completely erased.”
Mr. Curbelo said a friend had suggested recently that Mr. Trump’s toxic virus idea was “the craziest thing he ever said.”
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Mr. Curbelo recalled. “‘Maybe. I’d have to look back and check.’”
This history, of course, is the argument for Democratic caution. The list of episodes that were supposed to end Mr. Trump — the “Access Hollywood” tape, the “very fine people” on both sides of a white supremacist rally, insulting John McCain’s service as a prisoner of war — is longer than most voters’ memories.
The president can register as more time-bending than Teflon. Plenty sticks to him; it just tends to be buried quickly enough by the next stack of outrages, limiting the exposure of any single one.
But if most Trump admirers have long since made up their minds about him, recent polling on his handling of the crisis does suggest some measure of electoral risk. Governors and public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci are viewed as far more trustworthy on the pandemic, according to surveys.
Lily Adams, a former aide on the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris, who is now advising Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC, said that swing voters in focus groups were especially dismayed at Mr. Trump’s refusal to listen to experts.
“Any person who has ever done a load of laundry, or installed a childproof lock on a cleaning supplies cabinet, or just looked at one of those skulls on the label, knows it’s an idiotic idea,” she said.
Even some of the president’s reliable cheerleaders at Fox News have not tried to defend him. And recent visitors to the Drudge Report — the powerful conservative news aggregation site whose proprietor, Matt Drudge, has increasingly ridiculed Mr. Trump of late — were greeted with a doctored image of “Clorox Chewables.” “Trump Recommended,” the tagline read. “Don’t Die Maybe!”
For Mr. Trump, such mockery tends to singe. Since long before his 2016 campaign, few subjects have been as meaningful to him as appraisals of his intellect.
It is a source of perpetual obsession and manifest insecurity, former aides say, so much so that Mr. Trump has felt the need to allude to his brainpower regularly: tales of his academic credentials at the University of Pennsylvania; his “natural ability” in complicated disciplines; his connection to a “super genius” uncle, an engineer who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When Rex Tillerson, the president’s first secretary of state, was reported to have called Mr. Trump a “moron” in private — one of several former senior administration officials said to have rendered equivalent verdicts — Mr. Trump challenged him to “compare I.Q. tests.” A favorite Trump insult on Twitter, reserved for Mr. Biden among others, is “low I.Q. individual.”
“He doesn’t want to feel like anybody is better than he is,” said Barbara A. Res, a former executive vice president of the Trump Organization, who recalled Mr. Trump bragging about his college grades. “He can’t deal with that. I can see it now with the doctors, and that’s why he dismisses them. He used to be intimidated by lawyers. Anyone who knows more than he does makes him feel less than he is.”
Steve Schmidt, a former Republican strategist and prominent Trump critic, said the president’s meditation on disinfectants stood apart from a trope that Mr. Schmidt came to recognize as an adviser to conservatives like Mr. Bush: “that the conservative candidate in the race was also always portrayed as the dumb candidate.”
“But a caricature is distinct from a narrative,” Mr. Schmidt said. And Mr. Trump’s reckless medical fare, he reasoned, had given adversaries a narrative by confirming a caricature.
The president’s own attempts at damage control have been scattershot. First, his new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, accused the news media of taking Mr. Trump out of context. Shortly afterward, he undercut her case by saying his comments had in fact been a sarcastic prank on reporters, an explanation even some supporters found implausible.
He left his Friday briefing on the coronavirus without taking questions. By Saturday, when Mr. Trump tweeted that the events were “not worth the time & effort,” his opponents conceded this much:
The president had probably done something smart.