Why Trump’s Dinner With a White Supremacist Is So Revealing

7 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Former Presidents don’t typically end up breaking bread with national pariahs. And certainly not by accident. Staff and security protocols regularly protect them from such encounters—both as a practical matter and as a political one. Even lowly mayors who make the trek to D.C. to meet with donors, wonks, and reporters vet every chair at every table to head off a potentially scandalous coffee meeting.

So how then did Donald Trump end up sitting down last Tuesday for a dinner of turkey, stuffing, and apple pie with the rapper formerly known as Kanye West and Nick Fuentes? How did a former President and newly declared candidate for a comeback come to share any space with an entertainment icon whose recent antisemitic comments prompted companies left and right to drop their lucrative endorsement deals with him, and a far-right activist who denies the veracity of the Holocaust and whom the Justice Department has called a white supremacist?

Was this, as Trump insists, an accidental meeting of lightning rods for chaos, one a corporate pariah and the other a radical rallying point for the aggrieved whites? A masterclass in trolling? Something in the middle? A hint at just how unhinged the 2024 campaign, now underway in earnest, is going to become?

More from TIME

The answer to any one of those questions should leave most Americans a little queasy, regardless of their politics. Even Trump’s most ardent MAGA-ists should see the meeting as, at best, an unforced error that is a distraction from his early entry into the race. And even Trump’s harshest critics don’t have to stretch far to cast it as a dog whistle to the worst corners of the current political landscape, one that—in Fuentes’ telling—would prefer to see Trump a little less scripted and presidential and much more engaged in the culture war afoot. It truly is a choose-your-own-adventure approach to political observation, and one that doesn’t exactly bode well for the republic if these are the options.

Read more: Insiders Question How Long Until Trump Swaps ‘Solid’ 2024 Team for MAGA Fringe

And here is the most confusing part of this whole affair: did Trump really not know who Fuentes was? The ex-President isn’t exactly someone who burdened himself with details. In the White House, he kind of ricocheted between meetings, lurching forward with a policy announcement well before anyone had checked out its legality and then sprinting toward a different initiative before any aides’ tested its assumptions. Trump governed by gut and allowed his supplicants to ply him with flattery and feigned fealty. So it’s not entirely outside the realm of the possible that Trump found himself supping with Fuentes without knowing the celebrity activist’s identity.

It isn’t beyond the imagination to think Trump thought the 24-year-old Fuentes was a Ye adviser, or part of his posse, or even a new member of the Trump cohort. Whereas traditional pols like Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney make a point of knowing the faces and backgrounds of the people at their tables, Trump lumps most of his contacts into two piles: useful suckers and hired help. He has proven himself capable of treating both categories with rampant disrespect and disloyalty. So Fuentes could have been a sycophant of the moment or a hired gun who happened to have some knowledge of polling.

Trump maintained he was caught unawares by the visit: “This past week, Kanye West called me to have dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Shortly thereafter, he unexpectedly showed up with three of his friends, whom I knew nothing about,” Trump said Friday. Trump said the dinner was “quick and uneventful” before the Ye entourage returned to the airport. Still, and it cannot be dismissed entirely out of hand, Trump knew his former aide Karen Giorno, who joined the meal, and didn’t do a quick pull-aside to ask her who their interloper was. In politics, sloppiness and indifference don’t have much daylight between them.

Still—and here’s where it tests the elasticity of imagination—Trump’s insistence that he had no idea who Fuentes was matters only if you believe that, had he known, he would have refused to take the meeting. And that seems up for debate. Trump hasn’t exactly been shy when it comes to leaning into some dark impulses, including antisemitism. What Fuentes represents is part of the alchemy of Trump’s modern Republican Party. The Trump team’s awkward and tortured stiff-arm of Fuentes suggests something was happening behind the scenes that complicated the initial spate of Trump-didn’t-dine-with-Fuentes hints before eventually accepting that it happened and suggesting an ambush of some sort. It is as if the Trump cadre of current advisers recognized the Fuentes forum was a step too far even for Trump; they had to build some sort of firewall between an unapologetic extremist and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024.

In the grand field of the next presidential campaign, l’affair Fuentes might not even be a blimp. But one of the most useful pieces of advice ever offered to me is this: only the paranoid survive. Ye on his own is a problematic figure, and Trump’s response even in the absence of Fuentes suggests he later came to understand the mistake. (His statement on the meeting via his social-media start-up is one of the history books: “So I help a seriously troubled man, who just happens to be black, Ye (Kanye West), who has been decimated in his business and virtually everything else, and who has always been good to me, by allowing his request for a meeting at Mar-a-Lago, alone, so that I can give him very much needed ‘advice.’”)

The 2024 primaries are still a long way off, and early voting some 20-plus months away. There will be weekly skirmishes like the Trump-Ye-Fuentes dinner to flare up and test the MAGA machine—and to give its gear-grinders a chance to trip it up. Still, the fact a former—and perhaps future—President could accidentally stumble into a meeting with a rapper who is now arguably the country’s most famous antisemite and a man deemed a white supremacist by the Justice Department shouldn’t be overlooked as a pointless feud. Sure, maybe this was actually an accident, perhaps it was a slip in the protocol operation. Or maybe it was a former President making clear how he views his party’s future. And maybe it also aligns perfectly with Trump’s disregard for norms and embrace of chaos; consequences are for other people. After all, it was at this same Mar-a-Lago that Trump shared classified information with his Japanese guests at an al fresco dinner, and drew a raft of professional and amateur spies, and kept classified documents in his basement and closets to the point of drawing a Justice Department probe. Tuesday’s dinner was merely another chapter of that Florida property’s legacy.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com