But not this week.
In a tectonic shift of media attention, every major television network — broadcast and cable alike — focused on a deeply damaging story that Trump can’t control.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that impeachment proceedings would begin.
On Wednesday, Trump responded in a rambling, low-energy news conference from the United Nations, for which all three broadcast networks ditched their usual programming.
Then, for hour upon hour Thursday morning, the networks did the same for the congressional testimony of acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire, who was grilled about a whistleblower’s report that puts a harsh spotlight on Trump’s urging Ukraine’s president to dig up dirt about his political rival.
“Almost like moving forward with impeachment would get people’s attention,” quipped author Jonathan Katz about the media onslaught.
At least some Americans were riveted. As one indication, Whistleblower Wednesday brought sky-high cable ratings — including on Fox, where Trump defenders were working tirelessly in prime time but where news coverage couldn’t fully avoid, or spin, the obvious.
And even those who weren’t all that interested could hardly avoid it.
It was thrust before their eyes, including on the three networks’ evening news shows, which led their 30-minute broadcasts with substantial segments — not one of which could have made Trump happy. (Those three half-hours are still appointment viewing for more than 20 million people each night, on average.)
Even in this digital age, most Americans still get their news on the tube, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study — though that, of course, is shifting fast to digital sources, especially smartphones.
In fact, it may be the combination of the incessant online blasts and the negative television imagery that is proving so hard for Trump to control.
“Brace Yourself for the Internet Impeachment,” was the headline of a Thursday New York Times article.
“In many ways, it is a made-for-the-internet event,” wrote Kevin Roose. ‘The political stakes are high, the dramatic story unspools tidbit by tidbit and the stark us-versus-them dynamics provide plenty of fodder for emotionally charged social media brawls.”
Frustrated and angry, Trump has ramped up his customary attacks on journalists — and has acknowledged, with an edge of bitter self-pity, that things have dramatically changed.
“I used to be the king of good press,” he lamented at the U.N. news conference. “They covered me well — otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
He now favors a new adjective of disparagement.
“Much of the press . . . is not only fake, it’s corrupt,” he said at the same event.
Meanwhile, the White House has abandoned — perhaps foolishly — a traditional way it used to get its message out (and allow itself to be held accountable): the daily press briefing.
It has now been 200 days without one. The new White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, has yet to answer questions from behind the lectern — preferring, apparently, to condemn reporters in writing, whether by tweet or by op-ed in the friendly spaces of the conservative Washington Examiner.
It’s about to get worse: Impeachment hearings are sure to flood the media zone with images and words that cannot make the president look good, despite the best efforts of his loyal defenders.
In the new film “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” the disgraced lawyer to the mob — and to celebrities, including Trump — is heard speculating in an interview on how he’ll be remembered. Cohn confidently predicts that his obituary will emphasize his role as aide to the red-baiting Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy.
His voice then is spookily followed by a photograph of his New York Times obituary. He called it: “Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59.”
The moment of truth for McCarthy and Cohn came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Television made all the difference in 1954, as it did again almost two decades later during the televised Watergate hearings, with their disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Granted, the media world looks nothing like it did in the 1950s or the 1970s.
But then again — for the president — it also looks nothing like it did two weeks ago.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan