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Coming to terms with the point of Trump's cynical Oval Office address

Trump has no plan. He has no new material. He has no offer. He has no bill. He has no facts. He has no crisis. So what was the point of his Oval Office address?
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump listens to questions from the media after speaking with members of the military by video conference on Christmas Day, Tuesday, Dec. 25...

He probably won't admit it publicly, but Donald Trump reportedly didn't even want to deliver his Oval Office address last night.

The New York Times  reported, "[P]rivately, Mr. Trump dismissed his own new strategy as pointless. In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors hours before the address, he made clear in blunt terms that he was not inclined to give the speech or go to Texas, but was talked into it by advisers, according to two people briefed on the discussion who asked not to be identified sharing details."

The president, of course, delivered the speech anyway, and by any objective measure, it was a transparent failure. As became painfully obvious over the course of his nine minutes, Trump has no plan. He has no new material. He has no offer to extend to his rivals. He has no bill to promote or lobby on behalf of. He has no facts, as evidenced by the avalanche of falsehoods he peddled to the nation. He has no support, with polls showing broad American opposition to his demands for a border wall.

Trump also has no crisis, and as of last night, no desire to declare a national emergency.

All of which led Rachel last night to pose the question I couldn't get out of my head: why in the world did this Oval Office address even happen at all?

"We're talking about how the president is singing the same song that he has singing all along. This is not different. He doesn't have any support. He probably has less support on this than he did before, particularly after the midterm elections."So, why did he just do this? I mean, he didn't announce a national emergency so that he could use some sort of authority that he doesn't think he has otherwise to go build this thing. Why did this just happen?"

The salience of questions like these is itself notable. Ordinarily, when a sitting president addresses the nation from the Oval Office, there's no real question as to why the speech was delivered. Last night, however, the question seemed unavoidable, which is emblematic of the absurdity of the circumstances.

But what's the answer? Why did Trump make this address? There are a handful of possibilities.

Trump's desperate and can't think of anything else. He's spent the last few years trying to convince Americans to be terrified of immigrants. It was at the core of his campaign kick-off speech in 2015, and it was at the heart of last night's remarks. By and large, however, the public isn't buying what he's selling, and Trump is no closer to his goal of building a giant, medieval vanity project along the border. Perhaps he delivered the address because it was the only thing remaining in his bag of tricks?

Trump wants attention. The president watches an extraordinary amount of television, and over the last week, he's probably seen a lot of coverage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the new House Democratic majority. Trump doesn't like to share the spotlight, so maybe he saw an Oval Office address as a way to turn attention back to himself?

Trump has an exaggerated opinion of his ability to persuade. Facing bipartisan congressional opposition to his ransom demands and a deeply skeptical public, perhaps the president assumed a national address would convince Americans how right he is?

Trump wants to impress his base. This is the one that makes the most sense to me. Just a few weeks ago, the president was prepared to avoid a shutdown and accept legislation that funded the government without money for a border wall. When his base and conservative media howled, Trump quickly reversed course, rejected his own position, and picked a losing fight.

Last night, I suspect, was an extension of this same posturing. The president probably doesn't expect to get a border wall, but he clearly seems eager to give the appearance of someone who's fighting tooth and nail for a border wall.

The result was a spectacle that was as pointless as it was ugly.