President Trump called me for a chat on Saturday.
It was our first conversation since he unfollowed me on Twitter in April after I wrote a Mail column telling him to ‘Shut the f*ck up Mr President,’ because he suggested people should be injected with bleach to cure coronavirus.
Since then, I have relentlessly hammered him for his woeful handling of the pandemic that has now led to over 220,000 Americans dying from Covid-19, by far the worst death toll in the world.
So, when the White House switchboard rang to say ‘Mr Morgan, we have the president for you’, I was bracing myself for some full-bore Trump bombast of the ‘loser!’ and ‘idiot!’ type he unleashes on anyone who dares to criticize him.
But instead, we ended up having a cordial free-rolling 25-minute exchange which gave me a fascinating insight into the mindset of the world’s most powerful man as he heads into the biggest week of his life.
And one thing’s absolutely clear: Trump genuinely believes he’s going to get re-elected.
This is not a belief supported by any polls right now, but then, as he pointed out, ‘the polls were all wrong last time.’
A week ago, I’d have said that Trump was definitely heading for a shellacking in next Tuesday’s election.
His chaotic conduct during his campaign, epitomized by the ludicrous way he behaved after catching the coronavirus himself, epitomized a disastrous year in which his worst character traits of bullsh*tting, empathy-devoid narcissism fuelled catastrophically bad leadership over both the corona crisis and the mass protests over George Floyd’s dreadful death.
But then came last Thursday’s second and final presidential debate in which Trump managed to keep his temper and show a calmer, more measured and focused style that many of his supporters have been begging him to show for months.
By doing so, he scored some powerful hits against his Democrat opponent Joe Biden – forcing him to admit he’d finish the oil industry (something Trump told me he thinks was a ‘massive mistake’ given the industry employs 10 million people, many in crucial swing states) and to chuck Barack Obama under the bus over his failure to tackle immigration issues fast enough (‘Can you believe he did that?’ snorted Trump, derisively, ‘Obama can’t be happy…’)
And it earned him the best post-debate plaudits he’s ever had in his political career with even some of his toughest critics conceding he’d been more ‘presidential.’
‘People seemed to like that me better,’ he mused on the phone.
‘I’m one of them,’ I replied. ‘It was far more effective than the raging bull in the first debate.’
Trump chuckled. ‘Yeah, but some people like the other me too…’
That’s true, they do.
Trump’s base loves him going on the rampage like a human King Kong, lashing out at anyone and anything that gets in his way. It’s how he won the White House in the first place.
But that brash, bombastic, abusive style which was so un-edifyingly evident in the first debate, increasingly grates with independent voters.
And therein lies the big question for Trump in these final few days of campaigning: does he unleash the furious beast of that first debate, or the more reasonable creature of the second debate?
There’s no doubt that Trump’s fire-breathing energy and showmanship give him a massive performative advantage over Biden who looks and sounds like the old man of 77 that he is.
‘Sleepy Joe’, as Trump calls him, has remained hidden away for much of his campaign, preferring to let his unhinged opponent dominate the media coverage and, he hopes, politically hang himself in the process.
This may turn out to be a brilliant strategy if Biden wins.
But what should be worrying Democrats is their candidate’s increasing propensity for embarrassing verbal gaffes when he HAS appeared in public.
Last night, in the worst example so far, he even forgot who he was running against.
Speaking at an ‘I Will Vote’ virtual concert, Biden said: ‘Not because I'm running, but because who I'm running against, this is the most consequential election in a long, long, long time. The character of the country, in my view, is literally on the ballot. What kind of country we're gonna be? Four more years of George, um, George…’
His wife Jill could be seen repeatedly muttering the word ‘Trump’ under her breath as he stumbled to remember the name of the president – ironically enough, a question often put to concussion patients in hospital to check if they’re cognitive functions are working properly.
A vacant-looking Biden hesitated then added: ‘Gonna to find ourselves in a position where, if Trump gets elected, we're going to be in a different world.’
The fact that Biden briefly thought he was running against George W. Bush, whose presidency ended eleven years ago – and I have to assume he meant that George, not Dubya’s late father President George H.W. Bush, or it really is time for another urgent cognitive test - was a toe-curling mistake, and one that will be seized on by Republicans desperate to portray Biden as a man suffering from the onset of senility.
Especially as it came just two days after Biden said during a campaign video: 'We have put together, I think, the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics.'
This shocking blunder prompted White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany to tweet: 'BIDEN ADMITS TO VOTER FRAUD!'
If Biden continues to make such excruciating unforced errors between now and polling day, it may yet come back to haunt him and the Democrats at the polling booth.
‘Sleepy Joe can barely stay awake!’ Trump told me, gleefully, and that was before the ‘George’ fiasco.
So, Biden’s verbal missteps are troubling, as is the partisan US mainstream media’s ongoing refusal to cover them with the same enthusiasm they would cover Trump if he did the same.
But I suspect they won’t be enough to swing the election Trump’s way.
What might though, is a dramatic gear-change by the president in an area where his opponent is immeasurably stronger.
I appeared on Fox and Friends last Friday morning and made this direct plea to Trump: ‘If the president is watching, I know you un-followed me on Twitter because I was very critical on you in this crisis. But you may want to re-follow me now because if you take my advice you still have a chance to keep in the White House.’
Trump HAD been watching, which is why he called me.
As for my advice?
It centered around one word: empathy.
‘Americans are suffering,’ I said. ‘They’re losing their loved ones to the virus, and their jobs and livelihoods too. They need to see and hear that their president understands and cares how bad things are, and they want to feel hope that their president can get them out of this mess. A little more empathy will go a long way.’
Trump heard me out with unusual patience, and said he got what I was saying.
Whether he acts on my advice remains to be seen.
(Full impartial disclosure: I’m also very happy to offer Joe Biden advice on how to beat Trump, should he feel the need to hear it).
His lack of empathy has been a constant fault-line throughout his presidency.
It’s advice that Joe Biden certainly doesn’t need because he has a natural powerful empathy born of the unspeakable double tragedy he has suffered with his first wife and baby daughter being killed in a car crash and then his beloved son Beau – who survived the accident – dying from brain cancer six years ago.
When Biden talks about loss and grief, he speaks from a deeply traumatised and battered heart.
I spoke with him after Beau died, when he rang to thank me for a column that I’d written about his son who I knew well, and it was one of the most profoundly moving conversations of my life.
Trump, by contrast, often looks and sounds like he only cares about himself.
If he can show in this last week of campaigning that he cares about his fellow Americans too, and I mean REALLY cares, he could yet salvage an unlikely victory from the jaws of seemingly inevitable defeat.
We’ve reached a pivotal moment in the coronavirus crisis as the second wave rages over much over America.
If the election comes down to who will save more lives from the disease, Biden will deservedly win given how much more seriously he has taken the pandemic.
But if it comes down to who may best revive the wreckage of the US economy, Trump may have the edge given how well he ran the economy before the virus struck. There’s no doubt that many Americans share Trump’s view that ‘the cure can’t be worse than the disease and his ‘open up’ message – sharply at odds with Biden’s safety first pro-lockdown stance - is beginning to resonate with people fed up with the restrictions on their lives, especially those in Democrat-run states whose kids are still not back at school due to teacher union pressures.
One thing’s for sure: in our phone call, Trump sounded unbelievably fired up for the challenge of being re-elected.
‘OK, Piers, I’ve got to go vote!’ he exclaimed at the end of our call.
(He did indeed vote one hour later in a library in Florida’s Palm Beach County.)
‘Do you really think you can win?’ I asked again.
‘YES!’ he barked back emphatically, with a certainty that I hadn’t heard since I last asked him that question a week before the 2016 election when very few others gave him a cat in hell’s chance.
He was right then, and if ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden doesn’t get his act together fast then Trump may just prove everyone wrong again.