If this was an experiment, it seemed to be going well — for a while. Trump delivered what was widely regarded as the best speech of his political career before a joint session of Congress and 47.7 million television viewers Tuesday night. He even showed a touch of grace in an emotional moment with the wife of a fallen Navy SEAL.
And because Trump didn't detract from his performance by complaining about Democrats' abrupt exit or do anything else to trample on those good headlines, he was rewarded with the best 24-hour news cycle of his young presidency.
You could just hear White House aides saying: “See what happens when you stop mean-tweeting, Mr. President?”
But the good times didn't last. The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to disclose in confirmation proceedings that he met twice with Russia's ambassador to the United States during the presidential campaign. Calls by Republicans for Sessions to recuse himself from investigations related to Trump and Russia — which the former senator from Alabama ultimately did — dominated the news Thursday.
Trump exercised restraint for a while but succumbed Thursday night to the urge to vent his anger on Twitter. Reverting to form, the president said Democrats “have lost their grip on reality,” railed against a “witch hunt” and insisted yet again that the “real story” is leaks. (The Post report relied on unnamed Justice Department officials.)
Trump was back on Twitter on Friday morning, airing another grievance about another subject.
The president has decided that Twitter discipline is totally overrated.
Trump's conclusion makes sense — if you view the relationship between the White House and the news media through the same cracked lens he does. Trump rejects the premise that journalists are dedicated to reporting important information. He contends they are members of an “opposition party” out to get him.
Trump is a dealmaker. A good deal with an opponent such as the media would go something like this: I will lay off the nasty tweets and act “presidential” in my speech to Congress and, in return, you will stop the negative stories.
In Trump's worldview, reporting on Sessions's meetings with the Russian ambassador was akin to dealing in bad faith. I did what the media wanted, right? How could The Post turn around and hit me with that Sessions story?
This, of course, is not the way things work. It doesn't matter that Trump had been on his best behavior. The Sessions story was important, so reporters reported it. There is no art of the deal here.
But Trump views relationships as transactions. If playing nice on Twitter doesn't yield a reprieve from bad press, then it is a bad deal. It's not worth it.
Trump tried discipline. It didn't pay off for long, so expect him to return to his old ways.