You have to hand it to Donald Trump: The man is always learning on the job. Just this week, he learned that impeachment, which he compared to lynching, was “a very ugly word” because “it really means a high crime and misdemeanor.” During an open cabinet meeting on Monday, he referred to the “phony” emoluments clause, which prompted some news outlets to post the full text of the clause, which is part of the Constitution of the United States. In that same cabinet meeting, he revealed some other facts he’d recently learned. For example, he was actually not that different from George Washington, the country’s first president. “I don’t know if you knew it, but he actually ran his business simultaneously when he was president,” Trump said. “George Washington was actually considered a very rich man at the time… George Washington, they say, had two desks. He had a presidential desk and a business desk.”
It seems Trump was trying to say that even George Washington, one of the closest things the American republic has to a secular saint, was more corrupt than Trump, who made a big show of handing off his businesses to his sons. Unlike him, Trump implied, George Washington was still formally doing business while serving as president—and employing an elaborate eighteenth-century ritual to appear to keep his duties as the president separate from his work as a plantation owner. Maintaining two desks, Trump seemed to think—and was likely told—had been Washington’s sly workaround.
Almost immediately after Trump shared his insights, Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate, was forced to issue a statement. It was true that Washington was one of the country’s wealthiest men: He oversaw a prosperous agricultural estate, worked by 300 enslaved people. And when he became president, he did not sell off the plantation. Instead, he entrusted his nephew to run it in his absence and stayed as closely involved as he could, demanding reports from his overseers. But that bit about the desks? Well, the Mount Vernon people weren’t sure what the current president was talking about.
“There are two desks that I know of associated with George Washington’s presidency,” Mount Vernon’s research historian, Mary Thompson, said in the statement. “The first has been known as Washington’s presidential desk. I do not know where it is now.” Evidently, Washington had a second desk made for him as he was preparing to hand over the presidency, a desk that was specifically intended for use at Mount Vernon. It was not a “business desk,” nor was it used simultaneously with what Trump called the “presidential desk.” What’s more, Thompson speculated that the floor plan in the Philadelphia house occupied by President Washington for most of his tenure probably couldn’t accommodate two desks anyway: “I am not aware of Washington having had two desks in the study in the presidential mansion, which was a fairly small room.”
It is a remarkable thing to have watched over the past three years. Trump, a deeply and proudly ignorant man, is also the world’s most excitable yet solipsistic student, completely sure that whatever piece of historic arcana that he’s come across is unknown to most of humankind. Just recall his “discovery” of Frederick Douglass, who, Trump noted, “is being recognized more and more.”
The historical fact he discovers is often not new, not a fact—it was clear from Trump’s comments about Douglass that he mistakenly thought the abolitionist was still alive—and is predictably warped to serve his own political interests. In a Monday night interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity, for instance, Trump dispensed some more presidential history. Having compared himself favorably to Washington already that day, he noted that the only president who got more unflattering press attention than him was Abraham Lincoln. “You know who’s covered worse than me, they say?” he asked Hannity. “Abraham Lincoln. I’ve heard the one person—it used to be five or six, now it’s down to one—Honest Abe Lincoln. They say he got the worst press of anybody. I say, I dispute it.” The discovery? Abraham Lincoln, the freer of slaves, the savior of the Union, was as savagely covered by the press as Trump is today. The point? He went down in history as another secular American saint, a misunderstood martyr—and so will Trump. The veracity? Let’s just say Trump and Lincoln got bad press for very different reasons.
Then there was the time Trump trotted out his favorite president, Andrew Jackson, as the example of another unfairly maligned leader. "I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War,” Trump said in May 2017. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, 'There's no reason for this.' People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?"
Setting aside the fact that this very question is, quite literally, one of the subjects most frequently written about by historians—and never mind the blaring neo-Confederate overtones—the remark is just dressed-up praise for himself. A “tough person” with “a big heart” is how Trump likes to think of himself, one who is often misunderstood and hemmed in by contemporaries. He, too, is a man who could’ve done great things for the country if he had just been given free rein to cut deals.
It’s not just that Trump hides behind warped versions of American history to justify his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the presidency, it’s that we don’t know where he gets this stuff from. Who told him the untrue story about George Washington and his two desks, one that he and his supporters will now tenaciously believe? We know Trump doesn’t read his carefully prepared intelligence briefings, and that he doesn’t read much of anything if it’s over 280 characters. We know he gets his information from some unorthodox sources, from Fox & Friends to online conspiracy theories to the last person to whisper something in his ear before he decides to trumpet the new thing he’s learned to the world. We know that people closest to him, like his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, apparently figured out unique ways to get their preferred set of alternative facts to the president. ("Sometimes it's best to talk to Trump through the TV," Lewandowski is said to have told his lobbying clients.)
The leader of the free world, it turns out, is deeply and terrifyingly impressionable. And Trump’s omnivorous, source-agnostic ingestion of information opens him—and the country—to manipulation by people who are America’s adversaries and do not have Trump’s, or America’s, best interests at heart. We learned this week, for instance, that Trump formed his views on Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, by listening to Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán and Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.
But there’s another way to look at it, and this is unironically my favorite thing about the Trump presidency: It’s not just Trump who’s learning all kinds of fascinating things here, it’s the American people, too. As Trump feels his way through a system he never thought he’d actually run, running up against all the safety valves and backstops that frustrate his desire to run the thing like an opaque family business, we, the American people, have found ourselves unwitting students in a crash course in advanced civics, and a strange and hilarious refresher of American history.
Did you know that George Washington was among the richest Americans in the late 18th century and that he didn’t use two desks at once? How often do you think about the kind of publicity Abraham Lincoln got in his day? How many of us really knew about the emoluments clause before the Trump presidency? Even Trump, the leader of a party that once prided itself on the strict and literal interpretation of the Constitution, did not know about this clause—or knew about it but dismissed it as unreal. How many of us knew what the rarely implemented Logan Act was before Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had potentially violated it?
Had you ever given much thought to the 25th Amendment before the fired acting FBI director said officials had considered using it to remove Trump from the White House? Did you know that a presidential pardon doesn’t apply to state convictions or that a campaign finance violation can take the form of hush money paid to a porn star? Did you know what the Hatch Act was before Trump refused a government ethics watchdog agency’s recommendation to fire adviser Kellyanne Conway for repeatedly violating it? Or did you realize that so many of the strictures that bind our leaders aren’t self-enforcing and are in fact just extremely flimsy, frighteningly fragile, politely agreed-upon norms?
Just think of all the fascinating explainers that those of us who didn't go to law school have now read about arcane legal and constitutional matters, and consider how much more you know now about how our system is designed than you did in 2016! If you can squint past the fact that we’re learning about our system in its breach, you would probably agree that we’re all learning so much every day—almost as much as Trump.
Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.
Originally Appeared on GQ