The final humiliation of Donald Trump came with an accompaniment of Thanksgiving decorations and a side of turkey. For only the fourth time since the election, the president appeared in public today — albeit 20 minutes late — to formally pardon a fattened white bird from Iowa named Corn. And he looked utterly dejected as he did it.
“Thanksgiving is a very special day for turkeys,” he started out, somewhat confidently, before adding, “Probably not a very good one, actually.” Then, “Oh look at that beautiful, beautiful bird. That is a lucky bird.” Was there envy in his eyes as he held his hand over Corn (the winning turkey out of Corn and Cob, after a hard-fought Twitter poll) and issued the all-encompassing presidential pardon? Clearly some believed there was, as the ceremony was briefly interrupted with the shouted words of a reporter in the back: “Mr President, what about a pardon for yourself?”
Perhaps The Donald was haunted by his own words in 2018, when he turned up to the same turkey pardoning ceremony and joked that the loser — the turkey condemned to the White House Thanksgiving table — had “refused to concede” after a “free and fair election”. He “demanded a recount,” he added, before telling the bird, “I’m sorry to tell you the result did not change.” It was a heavy-handed foreshadowing of the season finale that makes you wonder: Who on earth writes this stuff? But I suppose something Trump said had to eventually come back to bite him in the ass, and if it wasn’t a Ukrainian quid pro quo then it would have to be this, an aside made at a ceremony for poultry. One might say that his turkeys had finally come home to roost (I’ll show myself out.)
There is nothing sadder than seeing a man who promised just a few short weeks ago that he was going to “make liberals cry again” be reduced to a dejected comedian at an event about dinner. I almost offered him a little vial of my own tears, which naturally I carry on my person at all times, to perk him up. Slouching in with dead eyes, the president elicited a smatter of applause when he mentioned the highs of the Dow Jones this morning. He half-heartedly thanked Melania, as he usually does, for redoing the Rose Garden. He talked about the “doctors, nurses and scientists who have waged the battle against the China virus”. He said that members of the US military “keep America safe, keep America great and, as I say, America first.” No, that’s not a fully coherent sentence, despite the fact that he kept his eyes down on a printed piece of paper on the lectern in front of him the entire time, but at least it wasn’t a conspiracy theory about commie voting machines from Venezuela.
If wild-eyed Kimberly Guilfoyle screaming into the void at the Republican National Convention that “THE BEST — IS YET — TO COME!” was the apotheosis of Trumpist triumphalism, this was the nadir. Head out in front of him and arms unmoving at his sides, the president moved in his own, strange gait from the lectern to the turkey and back again, briefly touched Melania’s upper back (a bold move in itself, considering what happened the last time he tried to hold her hand) and then retreated back inside the White House without acknowledging the heckles of journalists. He gave the cameras a thumbs-up, but you could tell that his heart wasn’t in it.
There was one moment when Trump broke the fourth wall and told us all, whether accidentally or on purpose, that both turkeys will actually retire to the sanctuary at the end of the day. The turkey pardoning vote is a sham, you see, a spectacle, and the reality of the situation is that neither Corn nor Cob will end up bronzed in Trump-like splendor and paired with mashed potatoes on the Thanksgiving table. No longer does the president joke about a bird on its last legs trying desperately to overturn a fair vote; now he reminds us that the whole charade is meaningless and that really, both get off scot-free. One wonders why he’d want to float that idea this year. It’s impossible to tell.
There had been speculation before this important event that Rudy Giuliani himself might turn up in a turkey suit and try to steal the presidential pardon from Corn, sweating off his stuck-on feathers halfway through in an echo of his “leaking hair dye and/or engine oil” incident. Yet the lawyer was nowhere to be seen today; instead, Ivanka, Jared Kushner and their children were the only ones given a shout-out by Trump, except for “Ron”, a man who raises turkeys in Iowa and was briefly treated to a standing ovation. If there’s one man I will remember from the final days of Trump’s lame-duck presidency, it will be Ron.
Of the many hallowed and consequential duties of the presidency, said Barack Obama at the same ceremony during his time in the White House, the turkey pardoning “is not one of them”. Yet Donald J Trump today appeared more prepared and more serious than he has been at any press conference he’s ever held about Covid-19, Iran, Brexit, or indeed any other significant global occurrence. There was something wistful, even romantic, about the way he paused and said, “This is a great, great country — there’s nothing even close as far as I’m concerned.” There was a touch of the melancholy in the way he tried to muster humor, claiming that the birds had named themselves Corn and Cob in an act of “blatant pandering” to the American people. He had roused himself out of his bunker for this one “beloved annual tradition”, but he couldn’t quite bring his A-game to it. It was the look of a man who knows he’s had his bluff called and he soon has to fold.
Incidentally, there’s another kooky tradition the US has had even longer than the turkey pardoning ceremony: peaceful transitions based on the democratic results of an election. Last night, Trump made some noises toward keeping that tradition, too, tweeting that despite the fact he believed his team would “prevail” in overturning those illegal votes he keeps insisting happened, he was nevertheless directing GSA head Emily Murphy to finally release transition funds to Joe Biden and his team. Just before Thanksgiving, it was unfortunate timing, meaning that the turkey pardoning ceremony — something that usually is seen as a bit of innocent fun — quickly became an exercise in national humiliation. In a way, that meant that this bizarre back-and-forth with a bird named Corn was President Trump’s concession speech by proxy.
We could not have predicted it would come to this — but what a delight that it has.