Donald Trump is, at heart, a showman. He rose to national fame thanks to star turns on reality TV in which he played the tough-talking boss to a group of aspirants hoping to become as successful as he has been in business. His great gift is the ability to draw attention — and then use that attention for his own, usually commercial, purposes.
Trump may have outdone himself on Friday morning. He and his campaign touted a "major" announcement at his newly opened hotel in Washington, D.C., at 10 a.m. The word was that Trump would walk away from his past skepticism about President Obama's citizenship while also laying the blame for the birther movement at the feet of Hillary Clinton. (That, of course, isn't true — according to numerous fact-checkers — but no matter: Trump planned to say it anyway.)
And say it he did. "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it," Trump said. "President Obama was born in the United States. Period."
Trump's assertions about Clinton's role in the birther movement are wrong. His simple statement that Obama was born in the United States directly contradicts myriad statements he has made questioning the president's birthplace over the past five years.
But neither of those things were the most amazing part of that Trump event. The most amazing thing was that it took the Republican nominee 29 minutes to deliver those three sentences. The event was slated to start at 10 a.m. Eastern time. It wasn't until 11 a.m. that it actually began — with Trump touting his new hotel and proclaiming that it is likely to be one of the best in the world. He then ceded the stage to a parade of decorated military veterans who testified to his toughness, his judgment and his temperament.
Cable networks seemed to not know what to do. All three of them — MSNBC, Fox News and CNN — stayed with the generals' testimonials for the better part of 20 minutes. That's a remarkable amount of free cable time to dedicate to a series of surrogates testifying how great one of the two party nominees is.
When was the last time CNN covered a full Clinton event with multiple surrogate speakers? This is unreal.
— Guy Cecil (@guycecil) September 16, 2016
The networks eventually cut away from the generals, but then Trump was back at the mic — roughly 90 minutes after his event was originally slated to start. Meaning that he drew an hour and a half of live coverage for:
1. An empty podium.
2. A series of military endorsements/testimonials.
3. Three sentences from Trump himself — one that is totally false and two others that represent a total reversal from a position he held as recently as, well, Thursday night.
It was a low moment for politics and political coverage. A nothing-burger filled with falsehoods covered as though it was the Super Bowl. But for Trump, it might have been his crowning achievement: All eyes on him with the chance to direct the play in whatever way he saw fit. The ringmaster — calling the shots in all three rings of the circus. It was peak Trump.