On Friday night, Fox News’s Ed Henry, guest-hosting the 7 p.m. show “The Story,” threw a cocked elbow at the mainstream media. Seizing on a day of discussion over BuzzFeed’s disputed report that President Trump had asked lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, Henry riffed on the previous week’s kerfuffle: “It was just one week ago tonight, in fact, that the New York Times had the previous blockbuster that was going to blow the president out of the water, saying that the FBI had a counterintelligence investigation to find out whether he was a Russian agent and some of the same people said, ‘Oh my gosh: It’s all over. The walls are closing in.’ Where are we one week later?”
Well, those darn walls won’t stay put. They continue closing in.
There are lots of descriptors for the specific mix of dysfunction, stupidity, bigotry, apathy and cruelty that Trump has brought to the White House. Pundits have cycled through them since the very beginning of his presidency, when he instructed then-press secretary Sean Spicer to lie about his inauguration crowd. When it comes to idioms deployed to describe just how this madness simply cannot last, however, nothing comes close to a magical five-word formulation:
In December, columnist Frida Ghitis wrote a piece for CNN under the headline, “The walls are closing in on Trump.” That came after a bad day in court for former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Also in December, author Bob Woodward told an MSNBC host, “clearly the investigative walls are closing in on Trump.” That comment was prompted by host Lawrence O’Donnell’s comparison of Trump’s travails with Watergate.
Also in December, Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) told CNN, “The walls are closing in.” That comment came in reference to the president’s legal troubles.
Also in December, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told CNN, “So it seems to me that the walls are closing in on the president” — again in reference to the president’s legal troubles.
Also in December, the Globe and Mail editorialized, “The spectacle is like watching a bellowing man trapped in a room with the walls closing in. As Mr. Mueller’s investigation continues, the President could find himself backed into a corner no matter which way he turns. Be patient.”
Also in December, CNN commentator David Axelrod told host Anderson Cooper, “Those walls are closing in on him and the more he feels trapped, the more I think he’s going to lash out.” That comment came in reference to Trump’s rhetoric regarding a possible government shutdown.
Also in December, CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said, “I mean, every time the President of the United States seems to be under attack by the walls closing in through the Mueller probe, he goes to his security blanket . . . immigration.” That comment also came in reference to Trump’s rhetoric regarding a possible government shutdown.
Also in December, Edward Luce wrote a piece in Financial Times under the headline, “The walls are closing in on ‘individual #1.’”
Also in December (Dec. 7), CNN’s Don Lemon said, “Maybe it’s the coverup and the crime all at the same time. At the end of a week of bad news and worse news for this president, the walls are really closing in tonight on one of the biggest days so far in this Mueller investigation with one huge development after another rocking the White House.”
Also in December (Dec. 10), CNN’s Don Lemon said, “The walls are closing in, and we can expect Trump’s tweets to get even more and even angrier and more unhinged.” That comment came in reference to “reporting that now shows at least 16 associates of Donald Trump had contact with Russians during the 2016 campaign and the transition period following Trump’s election victory.”
That tedious list — please see this video mash-up by NewsBusters — by no means exhausts the number of walls-closing-in iterations in the media regarding Trump in December. This is the cliche of the Trump presidency, mouthed by Democratic leaders, pundits and anchors agog at how this fellow can make it through crisis after crisis. So reliable is this reaction that a search in Nexis of “Trump and ‘walls closing in’” can serve as a shortcut for media coverage of incidents of Trumpian misfeasance and scandal. (Full disclosure: The term has found its way into The Post as well.)
Remember August 2018, when a raft of bad legal news relating to Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen dogged Trump? “I think that the walls are closing in on the president. These are people who are not insignificant, smallish players on his campaign,” said the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein on MSNBC.
Remember April 2018, when we found out that Cohen had taped conversations with Trump? “You know, the walls are closing in a bit here,” Republican strategist Michael Murphy told MSNBC.
Remember October 2017, when the special counsel secured a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos? “We begin with the Russia investigation and the walls closing in on people close to the Trump campaign and the White House. The more we’ve learned about the Trump team’s ties to Russia, the more people in the president’s circle have changed their stories,” said “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd in early November 2017.
Remember April 2017, when Trump, just a few months into his presidency, had already validated the worst fears about his presidency? “When you heard Trump talk about being president before he took office, it was a very sort of like macho, power-centric kind of dynamic. Now we hear him talking about being in a cocoon. It’s almost like he feels like the walls are closing in on him a little,” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis told CNN.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s affix that date — April 28, 2017 — as the moment in which the walls started closing in on Trump — at least in the view of the American punditry class. Consider that the long axis of the Oval Office is nearly 36 feet. If the walls managed to devour Trump in a heap of plaster, molding and high-end wallpaper by Tuesday afternoon, they will have traveled an average of about .33 of an inch per day since April 28, 2017.
That may be too literal, of course. According to this site on English language usage, “walls closing in” cropped up in the mid-20th century. In an address on Jan. 1, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “The walls are closing in remorselessly on our enemies.”
Who cares about the etymology, though? For pundits and politicians, the phrase sounds good, though it started losing its originality by its 100th repetition on cable news. It manufactures drama, even as its frequent invocation skips over a couple of fundamental truths: It’s no simple and quick thing to remove a president from office; and any of the horrors of Trump were on full display during the election, yet he managed to secure the presidency. Apparently the walls were in fixed-position mode during the campaign.
And a final problem with the phrase is that it appears to be on a one-way glide track. When a piece of good news surfaces for the Trump presidency, pundits tend not to say, “Well, the walls are moving back out.”