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The two words Trump cannot bear to hear: 'Former president'

For Trump, it seems the two most terrifying words in the English language are: "Former president."
Image: Donald Trump looking at a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall
President Donald Trump tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Alamo, Texas.Alex Brandon / AP

Former Vice President Mike Pence announced yesterday that he's created a new D.C.-based office for himself, which will naturally be called the Office of the Former Vice President. That made sense: Pence served as the vice president, then voters elected someone else, so now he's the former vice president.

This wouldn't even be especially notable, except his former boss doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the rhetorical framing.

This first came to the fore last weekend, when Donald Trump announced that he'd found some lawyers willing to represent him in the upcoming impeachment trial. The Republican issued a press release with a headline that read, "45th President Donald J. Trump Announces Legal Team." The statement was four paragraphs long, and it kept repeating the same clumsy phrase.

The first line read, "45th President Donald J. Trump today announced...." It proceeded to quote one lawyer saying, "It is an honor to represent the 45th President..." and then a different lawyer adding, "I consider it a privilege to represent the 45th President."

It eventually occurred to me what was going on: on Team Trump, it appears no one is allowed to use the phrase "former president."

As the week progressed, the pattern held. For example, Trump's lawyers filed a legal brief with the Senate ahead of the impeachment trial with a topline that read: "Answer Of President Donald John Trump, 45th President Of The United States." The first sentence read, "The 45th President of the United States, Donald John Trump, through his counsel..."

In all, the document referred to Trump as the "45th president" a grant total of 44 times in 14 pages -- even in instances in which it would've been more grammatically convenient to simply refer to him as the former president."

But that's apparently not allowed.

Yesterday, after House impeachment managers invited Trump to offer testimony as part of the Senate trial, his lawyers wrote back declining the invitation, though they added that they believe Democrats have a weak case "against the 45th president."

The defense attorneys signed their formal response identifying themselves as counsel to "the 45th president."

Soon after, Jason Miller, a Trump spokesperson, told Newsmax, "I do not expect the 45th president to be in Washington next week."

I will gladly concede that Donald Trump was, in fact, the 45th president, so the use of the phrase is clearly accurate. But the repetition of the phrase is also becoming kind of creepy. Does Trump believe using "former president" would somehow represent a concession?

Or does Trump think by avoiding the phrase "former president" he can tell himself that he's merely adopted a weird president-in-exile status?

Ronald Reagan used to joke, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'" For Trump, the two most terrifying words in the English language are: "Former president."