Because President Donald Trump was always controversial when speaking to the White House press, that ambitious subset of Beltway journalists grew addicted to him. So did cable news, talk radio, podcasts and every sort of news media, from legacy outlets to start-ups. Trump was good for business, for ratings, for clicks.
President Biden, not so much, which is why his fiasco of a news conference on Wednesday has the spinners — those on his payroll, those employed by Democrats up for reelection in 2022 and those in media who are in the tank for Democrats — trying very, very hard to cover for his missteps and mistakes. The invitation the president issued to Vladimir Putin to nibble a bit on Ukraine? The new category of “minor incursion” caused an instant reset of expectations. Would a lurch by the Chinese Communist Party for Taiwan be a “minor incursion”? How about the tempting Senkaku Islands? What about a hunk of Lithuania? Who knows after that performance? Appeasement is in the air.
Biden tried to correct his mistakes the following day, but that session will go down in infamy along with Dean Acheson’s 1950 National Press Club speech , often blamed for encouraging North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, or April C. Glaspie’s July 1990 meeting with Saddam Hussein, thought by some to have signaled to the Iraqi dictator that he could invade Kuwait without a U.S. response.
Will Putin invade? If he does, historians will mark Jan. 19, 2022, as the day Biden’s foreign policy was forged.
The president’s performance was so awful that it diverted the pundits from an apparent tiff between Trump and Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Reports bubbled up that the two were at odds; specifically, that Trump was dismayed that DeSantis was not being sufficiently deferential in the pre-2024 sweepstakes. The old addiction kicked in; given the slightest taste of Trump news, Beltway pundits go wild.
With Trump and DeSantis, the genesis was in the increasingly influential “Ruthless” podcast that recently hosted DeSantis. The governor allowed that he might have done things differently in the early days of the covid crisis, and probably should have opposed the stay-at-home orders of that time. Some political reporters read a lot into that; when I listened, I confess I didn’t attach any significance to the comment at all. Those on the Ruthless team confessed to me that they didn’t either.
In short, you have to work overtime, and with an active imagination, to turn anything DeSantis said into a feud with the former president. Still, out come the fabled Mar-a-Lago whisperers , who allegedly rush straight from dinner with the president to their DMs with reporters: “Trump is trashing DeSantis in talks with visitors.”
Hmm. I called former national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, who has been down to Mar-a-Lago and on the phone with the former president. Had he heard this chatter? O’Brien went on the record: “I’ve never heard any such thing,” he declared on my radio show Thursday. “The president and Gov. DeSantis always had a strong relationship. … My guess is this is fake news coming from the media that’s trying to stir up some sort of controversy that doesn’t exist,” he continued. “As the president’s pointed out in the past, he helped get Gov. DeSantis elected to his current position. So I think there’s a strong relationship there.”
I also checked in with longtime DeSantis supporters. Sources close to the governor confirm O’Brien’s account: “There is no conflict. Zero tension.”
After all that sleuthing, the former president himself knocked down the idea of a conflict on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, echoing O’Brien’s assessment: “Fake news,” declared Trump.
Addiction is a terrible thing to break, and Trump addiction is particularly strong among scribblers and talking heads. But, as for the alleged feud, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there’s no there there.
Yes, everyone would like to have a do-over on virus response. DeSantis’s musings about what he might have done differently in 2020 got catapulted from a serious reflection by a serious man into a tawdry bit of nonnews, especially compared to the real deal of “minor incursion.”
The lesson for the industry addicted to Trump, palace politics in the GOP, intrigues in the capital: Get over it. It’s unbecoming a mature press surrounded by important but difficult stories. Stay focused on the real news, not the gossip.