He’s out there, lurking, his fingers poised on the buttons. At any moment, he may strike. News, inevitably, will follow.
As he illustrated with tweets about the musical “Hamilton” over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump knows how to change the subject — and the entire news cycle. Just as questions were mounting about Trump’s appointments, his business conflicts, his $25 million fraud-case settlement — bam! — Trump had everyone talking about something else.
In this case, a Broadway show.
Whether inadvertent or part of a calculated media strategy (there’s evidence going both ways), Trump has proved he’s very, very good at hijacking the national conversation. All politicians want to talk about their issues, but Trump is a cruise missile when it comes to butting in. He’s the Distractor in Chief.
The “Hamilton” flap — “Apologize!,” Trump demanded after the cast of the show read a message about inclusiveness to the departing figure of Vice-President-elect Mike Pence — was vintage Trump. Time and again during the campaign, Trump dropped a verbal bomblet that shifted the day’s media focus away from whatever else was threatening to displace him.
Trump made everyone forget his rather weak first primary debate performance, and the embarrassing opening question about his treatment of women posed by moderator Megyn Kelly, by unleashing an epic Twitter jihad against Kelly immediately afterward. His vilification culminated with his infamous incantation that “there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” as he told CNN, making Kelly’s fairness the issue rather than his own behavior.
Just when Trump’s headline-hogging ways began to flag last December because of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, he reignited media interest by proposing a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. He tapped the pedal again in late January by boycotting a Fox-sponsored primary debate held just before the Iowa caucuses.
In February, he all but short-circuited headlines about Marco Rubio’s strong debate performance by rolling out an endorsement from Chris Christie. “Trump has been able to disrupt the news pretty much any time he wants, whether by being newsworthy, offensive, salacious or entertaining,” wrote data guru Nate Silver not long thereafter. “The media has almost always played along.”
And so on: Trump drew coverage to himself during the Democratic convention — Clinton’s ostensible moment in the sun — by calling on the Russian government to find and release the emails Clinton had deleted from her private server. (Just kidding, he later said, but then he said maybe he wasn’t.)
Trump hasn’t held a news conference since July, but that says little about his ability to make, and shape, the news. He’s given a series of interviews (most recently his post-election sitdown with “60 Minutes”), but interviews aren’t really necessary, either. Trump has 15.2 million Facebook likes and 15.7 million Twitter followers, giving him a massive megaphone requiring no meddlesome media middleman.
“Presidents do like to change the subject from time to time, but never daily,” laughs Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution in Washington, whose direct experience with presidents stretches to the Eisenhower administration.
Hess doesn’t buy the idea that Trump is being strategic in shifting the conversation his way. “I thought it was a campaign strategy,” he says. “But now we think of it just as Trump being Trump.”
Fair point. Some of Trump’s stunts might just be impulsive, even counterproductive.
In a rare act of contrition, Trump conceded that his mean-spirited retweet about Heidi Cruz in March was “a mistake.” Similarly, his dead-of-night tweetstorm attacking former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machado probably did Trump no favors, especially among women, which is exactly why Clinton brought up Machado in the first presidential debate.
It might also have been the reason Trump’s campaign aides wrested his Twitter account away from him during the final weeks of the race.
Yet here he is again, back on Broadway.
Trump’s “Hamilton” tweets became the soundtrack of the weekend, widely discussed on television and in social media, and occupying prime real estate on Sunday newspaper fronts.
Some saw that as the entire point of those tweets: an effective way to change the conversation from topics Trump might not have been as eager to talk about.
“In the villainous golden lair he maintains in Trump Tower, [Trump] laughed his best Dr. Evil laugh,” wrote media critic Jack Shafer at Politico. “‘Got ’em again,’ he thought.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper called the tweets “weapons of mass distraction” in a promotion for a segment about them on his Sunday program, “State of the Union.”
Vox.com’s headline put it even more sharply: “Don’t let Donald Trump’s antics distract you from what’s really important.” (Among the “important” things Vox suggested Trump was directing attention from: the conflicts inherent in marketing his new luxury hotel in Washington to foreign diplomats.)
“It’s off-base to ascribe an intent to deflect in these ‘Hamilton’ tweets,” argues Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. “They are entirely consistent with the thin-skinned, petulant character of the president-elect. He clearly can’t help himself, and to think that this is part of a thought-out strategy gives him too much credit.”
Those in the news media note that it’s possible to cover more than one story about Trump at once. And the “Hamilton” story registered on several levels.
New York Times Editor Dean Baquet points out that his newspaper had four other Trump-related stories on its front page on Sunday in addition to the one about “Hamilton,”including a profile of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and an update on the transition.
The controversy over what happened in the theater “was a very powerful illustration of the different ways Americans view the world. Some saw the ‘Hamilton’ cast as courageous and others saw it as insulting. That’s a good story.”
And, he added, “when the [president-elect] tweets at the cast of the biggest play in a generation, that’s news.”
Baquet’s counterpart at The Washington Post, Martin Baron, made a similar point, saying the story didn’t push anything of importance off the paper’s front page, which included a profile of Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and a report on the president-elect’s meeting with Mitt Romney.
“The ‘Hamilton’ story was one of intense reader interest, probably because it brought into especially sharp relief the tensions in American society after this presidential election,” Baron said. “It also happened to spark a vigorous conversation about free expression.”