That Time Donald Trump Tried to Be Captain Planet, as Told by Barack Obama

Captain Planet, he’s our hero?
Gif: Brian Kahn/Getty

It’s Barack Obama book week. The former president’s new book, The Promised Land, dropped on Tuesday, and there’s a lot to pour over.

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Soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump is largely a specter in the book, not appearing until very near the end. While Trump’s most famous tie to Obama is using the false birther conspiracy theory to rise to prominence, Obama recounts his first, and frankly weird, encounter with Trump. Improbably, it involves the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In his book, Obama writes the following after describing Trump as “someone who’d left a trail of bankruptcy, filing, breached contracts, stiffed employees, and sketchy financing arrangements in his wake” (which, unfortunately, yes):

“In fact, my closest contact with Trump had come midway through 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon crisis, when he’d called Axe [adviser David Axelrod] out of the blue to suggest that I put him in charge of plugging the well.”

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There are layers to this to unpack. First, the story is something recounted in Axelrod’s own memoir in 2015, and Trump has admitted it was true, though he said the call was more about building a ballroom on the White House. (Obama notes Trump did indeed raise that after being rebuffed on the Deepwater Horizon offer.) But by all counts, this appears to be a thing that really happened.

Need I remind you, Deepwater Horizon was the single costliest environmental disaster in U.S. history. It happened in 2010, when malfunctions, a series of human and equipment failures, and lax federal enforcement led to a massive oil rig blowout a mile (1.8 kilometers) under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It caused an estimated $61.2 billion loss for BP, the operator of the rig, killed 11, and the impacts are still with us today.

To plug the well required unprecedented expertise. Obama recounts in his book that the Coast Guard’s head of response, Admiral Thad Allen, referred to the operation to cap the well that was actively spewing millions of barrels of oil into the ocean “more like a space mission.” To address the crisis, Obama deployed then-Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to assist. Crews of BP engineers worked on the issue. In short, this was not a simple fix and certainly nothing like putting your name on a skyscraper.

Now, consider the levels of batshittery of Donald Trump offering to lead the charge. There are many things Donald Trump can be accused of, but having a shortage of chutzpah is not one of them. By 2010, Trump was making money from The Apprentice and licensing his name after overseeing the failure of Trump Shuttle (airline), Trump University (it eventually settled in a multimillion fraud case), Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, and various casinos. This was clearly not the man for the job. Obama writes that the federal government worked with “citizen volunteers” on the cleanup, from deploying booms around oil to monitoring the spill from the sky. Dirty work, sure, but maybe a little more Trump’s speed than running the whole operation.

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Now, with the hindsight of four years of Trump’s disastrous presidency, it’s even clearer how bad things would’ve been if he had managed the spill. The U.S. is in shambles because he absolutely failed to address the coronavirus (which he also caught). He’s attempting one of the shittiest coups in history. And he rolled back safety protections put in place after the spill once he became president.

If he had been put in charge of Deepwater Horizon or, heaven forbid, it had happened on his watch, we’d be forced to watch Trump hold press conferences touting “beautiful, clean oil” gushing up from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a nightmare to even consider. With his rollbacks and two more months for him in office, there’s sadly still time for a repeat to become reality.

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