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Opinion How Donald Trump swindled cable news

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Trump International Hotel on Friday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s many critics complain over and over that he’s incompetent, ill-informed, a first-class bumbler. That’s all true, except when it comes to swindling cable-news producers.

And in that particular category of achievement, Trump did his finest work this morning.

His campaign scheduled an event for 10 a.m. at Trump’s just-completed hotel in Washington. In a Fox Business interview, host Maria Bartiromo brought up the birther issue, an obsession of Trump’s going back to 2011. When asked about it on the campaign trail, Trump has said he doesn’t want to talk about it, though his campaign issued a statement saying that, after all these years, the candidate himself believes that President Obama was born in the United States. “Well, I’m going to make an announcement on it today, probably during my first speech at my new hotel,” said Trump to Bartiromo.

Yet Trump wouldn’t provide any details on what he was about to announce. “We know that Obama … was born in America, correct?” asked Bartiromo.

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“You watch my statement. We have to keep the suspense going. You my friend, you watch the statement. I think you’ll be happy,” said Trump.

Suspense implemented: Cable-news channels were slobbering all over the story, moving to the Trump event right after Hillary Clinton finished up a speech of her own.

10:03: Carol Costello on CNN — “It has been a wild morning in presidential politics, let me tell you. Hillary Clinton just finishing up. We expect Donald Trump to speak sometime this hour and when he does, he is likely to make big news.”

10:05: MSNBC’s Craig Melvin: “This is the scene right now in the nation’s capital, where the GOP nominee is set to hold that campaign event any moment now.”

10:10: Fox News’s Martha MacCallum: “It’s a very sensitive issue for him and it puts the focus back on him.” Wrapping up a conversation with colleague Chris Wallace, MacCallum said, “It’s a test for him, and he’s going to have to handle it very skillfully and that moment is coming any second.”

10:13: Political analyst Gloria Borger on CNN: “We’ll be interested to see what Donald Trump says. The statement says he takes credit for bringing this to the fore and forcing President Obama to issue his birth certificate, blaming it, of course, on Hillary Clinton, of which there is absolutely no truth and no fact. And he’s doing it in this venue — one last thing — because this is the opening of his hotel. And he’s trying to get a lot of attention for that as well.”

10:23: MSNBC’s Melvin: “Why talk about this?”

10:35: CNN discusses Trump’s call for no moderator at debates. Chyron: “SOON: TRUMP TO ADDRESS BIRTHER ISSUE” That “soon” formulation saw a lot of rotation this morning on cable news.

10:37: Bill O’Reilly, after discussing some campaign-trail issues, gets a chance to promote his new book.

10:39: CNN’s Borger says, “First of all, I believe this is about showmanship.”

10:40: Fox News’s O’Reilly declares that the first debate will be a “crucial moment for America.”

10:43: NBC’s Katy Tur on MSNBC: “He’s constantly making outrageous statements and nobody is leaving him … It puts the Republican Party, the Republican leadership, in a tough position.”

10:49: Ron Brownstein on CNN, speaking of the Trump campaign statement on birtherism: “There is simply nothing in that statement that is attached by any tether to reality.”

10:55: The Post’s Robert Costa on MSNBC: “Right now, Trump has it all. He has his property debuting in D.C. He’s on every network. He’s at the center.”

10:56: CNN’s Costello: “We’re going to monitor this until Donald Trump addresses the issue at hand, which is the birther controversy.”

Circa 11:04, the Trump International Hotel and Presidential Campaign Infomercial started. It was sponsored by CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. A breakdown:

11:04 to 11:10: Trump talks about how his hotel may be one of the best in the world. Then he introduced the Medal of Honor recipients and generals and veterans who have gathered in the room, some of them to deliver praise for the candidate. “I love leaders,” said Trump.

11:10 to 11:23: Various leaders take turns endorsing Trump: “Mr. Trump has never failed at anything because he listens to his advisers, he listens to his people. For the last eight years, our president hasn’t listened to anybody,” said one. “Deplorables are also deployables,” said another. “Together we will all make America great again,” said another.

11:24: On Fox News, host Jenna Lee breaks in to explain, “For the last twenty minutes we’ve been hearing from a variety of different veterans, some highly decorated, voicing their support for Donald Trump. … We’re not quite sure how much more we’ll hear from different veterans.” More veterans, for sure, kept talking.

11:24: One speaker said, “It’s very simple: We, all warriors here, are supporting Mr. Trump because he has the only budget, the only economic plan, that can rebuild the military.” Shortly thereafter, CNN breaks in with updates from hosts John Berman and Kate Bolduan. “In a sense, you could say that [Trump] was leveraging five years of birther conspiracy to promote his hotel, but now we’ve been listening to veterans and military officials praising Donald Trump. He has lined up quite a bit of support on that stage.” Jake Tapper comes in with more truth: “While these American heroes are all people we should show reverence and respect … it’s hard to imagine this is anything other than a political rick-roll,” says Tapper, ripping the Trump people for essentially running a campaign ad. “It was very clever on one level, and on another level it does speak to the integrity of the Trump campaign: They told us something was going to happen and it’s not happening.”

11:29: Just after a speaker talks about how these veterans “believe in [Trump’s] guts to be commander in chief,” host Peter Alexander on MSNBC breaks into the proceedings.

11:30: Cable networks continue coverage, moving again to the lectern as Trump addresses the audience. He admits President Obama was born in the United States.

So: One-and-a-half hours in all. Of that: One hour of empty and repetitive pregame analysis; more than 20 minutes of pro-Trump infomercial; a few minutes of freaking out that Trump had swindled them. A minute of Trump admitting that Obama was born in the United States. “That was it,” said Bolduan.

“We got played, again, by the Trump campaign, which is what they do,” said John King, summing up. “We just got played, and voters can decide what to think of that.” Commentary of that sort would elicit much greater sympathy if the cable networks hadn’t already compiled an extensive record — particularly in the primary season — of covering Trump events wall to wall, just for the ratings.

The cable news networks haven’t responded on the record to requests for comment. The question: Why does it take them so long to realize they’re getting punked?