The president's contrasting responses reveal, once again, the structure of his unorthodox political value system. This is your regular reminder that he cares about crowd size more than almost anything else.
By conventional standards, the remarks by Cohn and Tillerson were more embarrassing to the president than an unfilled rally venue. Addressing Trump's initial failure to single out white supremacists for criticism after the deadly demonstration in Charlottesville earlier this month, Cohn told the Financial Times on Friday that “this administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups.”
On the same subject, Tillerson said Sunday on Fox News that “the president speaks for himself” and added, “I've made my own comment as to our values.”
Meanwhile, the attendance in Phoenix that so infuriated Trump still clocked in at about 10,000 people, according to the city. That's nothing to be ashamed of. But the audience apparently failed to meet the president's expectations. Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs and Kevin Cirilli described the scene like this:
Gigicos had staged the event in a large multipurpose room. The main floor space was bisected by a dividing wall, leaving part of the space empty. There were some bleachers off to the side, but otherwise the audience was standing — and the scene appeared flat, lacking the energy and enthusiasm of other rallies.
While some rallygoers camped out for hours to ensure admission — a sign of enthusiasm that was a hallmark of Trump's campaign events — there were plenty of stragglers, too. Jacobs and Cirilli reported that the crowd appeared thin when Trump arrived and filled in as warm-up speakers took the stage.
A spokeswoman for the city of Phoenix told the Arizona Republic that 4,000 to 5,000 would-be attendees were turned away — not because the convention center had reached capacity but because they arrived so late that the event was wrapping up.
And The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson reported that “as the night dragged on, many in the crowd lost interest in what the president was saying. Hundreds left early, while others plopped down on the ground, scrolled through their social media feeds or started up a conversation with their neighbors.”
Why would reports like these bother Trump more than criticism from within his own administration?
In a way, Cohn's and Tillerson's comments reinforce one of the president's central arguments — that “the swamp” is trying to drag him down at every turn. Sure, he picked these guys, but that just goes to show how hard it is for Trump to shake up Washington as he promised, right?
A rally crowd that can't match the zeal of previous ones could indicate some weakening of Trump's base, however. The latest figures from the president's own pollster show a slight decline in Trump's approval rating among Republican voters.
Desertion in the ranks of Trump supporters — even a little — is arguably more harmful to the president's image than dissension in the administration. That is probably why Trump reacted to Cohn, Tillerson and Gigicos the way he did.
Update: As if on cue, Trump on Tuesday visited parts of Texas hit by Hurricane Harvey and at a fire station in Corpus Christi remarked, “What a crowd. What a turnout.”