More and more these days, folks preface their remarks by noting that they’ll be taking an Internet beating for saying them. CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash channeled the self-forewarning this week when she said, “I’m sure I will get hit for this, and I don’t really care. The bottom line is that this is, a year ago, this is the presidency that many people thought Donald Trump was capable of.”
That assessment came on Tuesday, after President Trump opened a 50-minute-plus negotiating session on immigration issues with congressional leaders to the mainstream media. People couldn’t believe it. Under normal circumstances, the cameras would have been allowed in for some quick video, a question or two — then booted. Instead, they watched as Hill leaders got into the nitty-gritty of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, border security and other immigration minutiae.
The next day, Trump made clear that he enjoyed the media response to his act of transparency. In the run-up to a Cabinet meeting, he spoke of “anchors” who’d sent “letters” praising him for his work. When pressed for copies of such “letters,” the White House issued a list of tweets and cable-news chatter:
Now: Most of those comments were disciplined, reportorial thoughts limited to celebrating the ability of the media to memorialize the immigration meeting; some veered into more substantive praise of Trump’s meeting demeanor. Next time, expect far more restraint. That’s because Trump is displaying an eerie commitment to punishing those who would be so bold to praise, defend or even utter neutral comments about him.
Just hours after his performance in the meeting, for instance, Trump’s contradictory positions and lack of conviction started to sink in. “The meeting seemed to make some pundits think something was happening,” noted Vox.
Something was happening in a White House meeting two days later with key congressional officials on immigration. The cameras weren’t running in this particular session. As The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey reported on Thursday — touching off a massive news plume — the president said this in an Oval Office meeting, in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” (The president appeared to deny using that language.)
On Tuesday, then, we saw Trump on immigration in front of the cameras: restrained and presidential, though clueless. On Thursday, we heard about Trump on immigration without the cameras: an ignorant racist.
On his Fox News program Thursday night, host Tucker Carlson sought to minimize Trump’s “shithole” comment by citing the backdrop. “President Trump asked why America doesn’t receive immigrants from places you might want to visit on vacation,” Carlson said. “Why aren’t we getting more people from Norway, he said, which by almost any measure, including the U.N.’s measures, is the most developed and richest country in the world. While saying this, Trump used an expletive, and that’s not surprising either since he uses them all the time and was speaking privately.” Which is to say, candidly.
Supporters of Trump commonly cite studies that have found 9-to-1 ratios of negative-to-positive coverage of the president — proof, they say, that the media is tilted against Trump. Or perhaps there’s another explanation: Trump says something stupid; media labors to nail down the story using an array of sources; White House issues weaselly statement; Trump apologists attempt to minimize the horror; they say really dumb things that make their own news. See how a spectacularly unfit president dominates the news?
The lesson for the media is that Trump still has the ability to imitate a human being for just under an hour. He can do that. To conclude, however, that such performances signify anything more, anything real — like the possibility that he can run the government, or that he understands any of the issues before him — is to invite a big disappointment. The real Trump will surface momentarily, after all.
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