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Like Captain Ahab spotting a breaching Moby Dick in the distance, there seemed to be palpable pundit excitement last week about the prospect of the elusive “presidential” Donald Trump finally being sighted in the wake of the United States’ bombing mission in Syria.

Eager to bestow a mantle of seriousness and normalcy upon him, some commentators rushed to proclaim the U.S. military strike on an airfield to be a defining moment for the still-new president; to stress how the bombardment meant that Trump had elevated himself in stature and was now conducting himself in a somber, statesmanlike manner.

We’ve seen this excited commentary regularly with Trump, perhaps most notably when a portion of the pundit class was eager to announce that a serious, “presidential” Trump had finally emerged following his address to a joint session of Congress in February. (It was yet another false sighting.)

Media declarations late last week about how Trump “became President Of The United States” with the Syria attack and “turned the page” on his troubled presidency presented the brief military incursion as a sweeping demarcation line for Trump’s presidency in terms of grading his seriousness.

We were told Trump had experienced an epiphany of sorts and suddenly understood how to use Oval Office power for good around the world. Indeed, Trump led with his “heart,” The New York Times announced in the wake of the strikes.

But the “presidential” spin isn’t based on fact. It’s well-established that Trump is an Olympic liar who pushes falsehoods about topics large and small alike. So why would journalists suddenly assume that Trump’s telling the truth about the motivation for the bombing attack on Syria?

The “presidential” narrative seems more like it’s the media projecting into the news cycle how they think the President of the United States should act during a time of crisis. But Trump is not normal, and his relentlessly strange behavior cannot be explained away, let alone normalized.

In its page-one analysis of the Syria bombing, the Times stressed Trump had been moved to action out of sympathy for Syrian victims of a chemical attack that authorities believe was ordered by President Bashar al-Assad.

Suddenly able to read Trump’s mind and peer into his heart (or listening intently to White House spin), the Times claimed unequivocally that the bombing raid was “an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his — and that turning away, to him, was not an option.” (The Times also excitedly concluded the one-day bombing raid would “change the course” of Trump’s presidency.)

The Associated Press stressed that “the weight of world’s problems” had sunk in and forced Trump to act. Like the Times, the AP tried to read Trump’s mind and concluded that there’s “a growing awareness that an American president — even an unconventional one like him — is looked to as [a] defender of human rights and a barometer of when nations have violated international norms.”

The Washington Post suggested, “The Syrian chemical weapons attack seemed to awaken Trump’s sense of moral responsibility as leader of the world’s sole remaining superpower.”

But other than launching some missles at an airfield, where’s the evidence that Trump did any of those things? Where was the evidence he had suddenly transformed himself into a “defender of human rights,” or that a “moral responsibility” seemed to “awaken” in him?

If, according to one preferred media telling, the gruesome pictures of children being gassed to death last week represented an epiphany of sorts for Trump, why didn’t Trump simultaneously lift his proposed travel ban and welcome suffering Syrian refugees into America?

Trump relentlessly used the victims of the Syrian civil war as political punching bags during the presidential campaign. Yet parts of the Syria bombing coverage last week politely set that aside in order to suggest Trump had become more “heartfelt” and “presidential.”

He can’t have it both ways.

And this has been part of the on-going riddle for the press: How to treat seriously someone like Trump who is categorically un-serious. And how to treat seriously a president who seems to be profoundly uninterested in the details of policy. Or telling the truth.

This is why the pursuit of “presidential” Trump often seems like wishful thinking: Journalists desperately want Trump to meet them halfway. Lots of journalists seem completely willing, if not eager, to uniformly lower the bar for Trump in terms of acceptable behavior for a sitting president. They’re willing to rewrite the rules for him, which includes consciously looking away for very long periods of time in order to pretend he falls within the mainstream of American politics and our history of Oval Office inhabitants.

But if they’re going to craft new rules for Trump, the least he could do is alter, or improve, his behavior and meet them halfway.

But Trump’s going to keep doing what he wants to do, which is to often act abhorrently.

Still, when there appears to be even the slightest glimmer of normalcy emanating from this president, journalists overreact and pronounce that The Change, or The Pivot, has finally occurred and Trump is now ready and willing to act like an adult while serving as president.

He’s not, and he hasn’t. Yet the media’s “presidential” pursuit continues.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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  • 1.Why did Trump choose to hide certain specific files and not others at Mar-a-Lago? What were the criteria that Trump used to keep some files concealed and not others? Who selected those files? Did Trump consult or direct anyone in his selection of secret files? Trump was notorious for being too impatient to read his briefing papers, even after they had been drastically shortened and simplified. Is there the slightest evidence that he spirited these papers away so that he could consult or study them? Who besides Trump knew of the presence of the files he had concealed at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 2. Mar-a-Lago has an infamous reputation for being open to penetration even by foreign spies. In 2019, the FBI arrested a Chinese woman who had entered the property with electronic devices. She was convicted of trespassing, lying to the Secret Service, and sentenced and served eight-months in a federal prison, before being deported to China. Have other individuals with possible links to foreign intelligence operations been present at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 3. Did members of Trump's Secret Service detail have knowledge of his secret storage of the files at Mar-a-Lago? What was the relationship of the Secret Service detail to the FBI? Did the Secret Service, or any agent, disclose information about the files to the FBI?
  • 4. Trump's designated representatives to the National Archives are Kash Patel and John Solomon, co-conspirators in the investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016, the Ukraine missiles-for-political dirt scandal that led to the first impeachment in 2019, and the coup of 2020. Neither has any professional background in handling archival materials. Patel, a die-hard Trump loyalist whose last job in the administration was as chief of staff to the Acting Secretary of Defense, was supposedly involved in Trump’s “declassification” of some files. Patel has stated, “Trump declassified whole sets of materials in anticipation of leaving government that he thought the American public should have the right to read themselves."
  • The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified.” If Pat Cipollone, the White House legal counsel, did not “generate the paperwork,” was he or anyone on his staff aware at all of the declassifications? The White House Staff Secretary Derek Lyons resigned his post in December 2020. Did his successor, who held the position for a month, while Trump was consumed with plotting his coup, ever review the material found in Trump’s concealed files for declassification? Or did Patel review the material? Can Patel name any individual who properly reviewed the supposed declassification?
  • 5. Why did Trump keep his pardon of Roger Stone among his secret files? Was it somehow to maintain leverage over Stone? What would that leverage be? Would it involve Stone's role as a conduit with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers during the coup? Or is there another pardon in Trump’s files for Stone, a secret pardon for his activities in the January 6th insurrection? Because of the sweeping nature of the pardon clause, pardons can remain undisclosed (until needed). Pardons are self-executing, require no justification and are not subject to court review beyond the fact of their timely execution. In other words, a court may verify the pardon was valid in time but has no power to review appropriateness. A pardon could even be oral but would need to be verifiable by a witness. Do the files contain secret pardons for Trump himself, members of his family, members of the Congress, and other co-conspirators?
  • 6.Was the FBI warrant obtained to block the imminent circulation or sale of information in the files to foreign powers? Does the affidavit of the informant at Mar-a-Lago, which has not been released, provide information about Trump’s monetization that required urgency in executing the warrant? Did Trump monetize information in any of the files? How? With whom? Any foreign power or entity? Was the Saudi payment from its sovereign wealth fund for the LIV Golf Tournament at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club for a service that Trump rendered, an exchange of anything of value or information that was in the files? If it involved information in the files was it about nuclear programs? Was it about the nuclear program of Israel? How much exactly was the Saudi payment for the golf tournament? The Saudi sovereign wealth fund gave Jared Kushner and former Trump Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin $2 billion for their startup hedge fund, Affinity Partners. Do the Saudis regard that investment as partial payment for Trump’s transfer of nuclear information? Were Kushner or Mnuchin aware of the secret files at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 7.Did Trump destroy any of the files? If so, when? Did those files contain incriminating information? Did he destroy any files after he received the June subpoena?
  • 8.Were any of the secrets of our allies compromised? Has the U.S. government provided an inventory of breaches or potential breaches to our allies?
  • 9.Does the resort maintain a copying machine near the classified documents that Trump hid? Were any of the documents copied or scanned? Are Trump’s documents at Mar-a-Lago originals or copies? Were any copies shown or given to anyone?
  • 10.Trump’s lawyer Christina Bobb has revealed that a video surveillance system covers the places where Trump hid the files at Mar-a-Lago, and that the system is connected to a system at his other residences at the Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey and Trump Tower in New York City. According to Bobb, Trump and members of his family observed the FBI search and seizure of his files at Mar-a-Lago, “actually able to see the whole thing” through their surveillance system. Who has that surveillance system recorded entering the rooms where the files were kept?

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