It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Donald Trump is always in want of praise from his television. Though other presidents have been busy with the job of being president, cable news — and tweeting about what he’s watching on cable news — is the centerpiece of Trump’s morning and evening routines. It’s clear that what the media cover and how they portray him has a tremendous influence on Trump: This week, the pictures of Tuesday’s chemical attack by Syria played a crucial role in Trump’s decision to order a missile strike Thursday against a Syrian airfield. The president’s sensitivity to his media image makes it all the more important for outlets to be cautious in their coverage of the missile strike and its aftermath.
Fourteen years ago, the media breathlessly reported the George W. Bush administration’s charges against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and then rhapsodized over “shock and awe” in the war’s early months. One would hope that the United States’ subsequent struggle in Iraq (and Afghanistan) might lead talking heads to be more muted or skeptical this time, but Thursday’s coverage suggested otherwise. MSNBC anchor Brian Williams described Pentagon footage of missile launches as “beautiful.” The New York Times headlined one piece in treacly fashion, “On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first” (before later changing it). Parades of guests largely praised the missile launches as the right course of action.
By contrast, the networks did not focus much on whether it was concerning that Trump had flipped within a week on intervening in Syria, or what Trump’s next steps would be. (It’s worth noting that, after sending 400 Marines to Syria in March, the administration has stopped disclosing how many U.S. troops are deployed there.) There was even less discussion of the legality of the strike, even though Congress had not authorized it. (The Trump administration even forgot to include a justification in its original set of internal talking points.) And absent almost entirely, with the notable exception of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, was any extended dwelling on the United States’ not-so-stellar record of Mideast interventions.
Someone as hungry for approval as Trump remembers what gets him plaudits, especially from the establishment that has looked down on him all his life. In the blink of a news cycle, gone was talk of his many failures, replaced by tributes — and all he needed was a few dozen cruise missiles. He will not soon forget that. After all, the idea of a president launching a military strike to boost his poll numbers has occurred to Trump before:
Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2012
This does not mean media coverage should become as negative in the future as it is boosterish now. But it should be considerably more skeptical. The questions are obvious: Was this attack really constitutional? Why did the president change his mind on Assad in only a few days? Is there a plan to avoid deeper entanglements for the United States? In fact, is there a plan at all? It is always important for news media to avoid excessive cheering for military action. But with this president, it’s more crucial than ever.