This week, two incredible events unfolded before our eyes: American television viewers were invited into the White House Cabinet Room, where for nearly an hour they watched as President Trump effectively led a bipartisan meeting in which he and congressional Democrats made real progress on immigration reform.
And it snowed in the Sahara Desert.
The reason for the Saharan snow was a rare blast of arctic air sweeping across Algeria. The reason for the rare public display of presidential leadership was the release of a new book by New York media gossip columnist Michael Wolff that portrays Trump as mentally unfit to be president. Wolff describes Trump as being like a child who “could not really converse . . . not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth conversation.” In just 55 minutes, Trump completely discredited Wolff’s thesis.
In true reality-TV fashion, Trump let the American people watch as he conversed, shared information and held a “balanced back-and-forth conversation” with his most vehement critics. He was charming, evoking laughter when he asked Democratic leaders, “When was the last time you took a Republican out? Why don’t you guys go and have dinner together?” He was substantive, explaining the problem with chain migration, the value of a merit-based system such as those in Canada and Australia and the value of his wall. And he challenged both sides to think bigger — “You’re not so far from comprehensive immigration reform” — and even offered to take on his own base to get it done. “If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat,” he said. “I’ll take the heat off both the Democrats and the Republicans.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an hour-long video of the president at work is worth more than 50,000 words of gossip and innuendo. Trump effectively asked the American people, “Who are you going to believe: Michael Wolff or your own lyin’ eyes?”
The video was devastating for Wolff’s credibility. Yet it also showed why, despite Trump’s outrage, Wolff’s book may be the best thing that ever happened to his presidency.
First, the book has prompted Trump to show Americans a side of himself they had not previously seen. Where has the White House been hiding this guy? Watching Trump being this presidential should not be as rare as snow in the Sahara. If Americans saw more of this Trump, he’d be rising in the polls. Trump needs to realize that it was this meeting, not his barrage of tweets, that finally destroyed Wolff’s account. The lesson is that being presidential is far more powerful than the tactics that got him to the White House.
Second, the Wolff book has discredited Trump’s media critics who embraced Wolff’s conclusions that Trump did not have the mental capacity to be president. NBC’s Peter Alexander asked during a White House news briefing, “Should Americans be concerned about the president’s mental fitness?” CNN ran a story declaring, “Doctors call Trump’s mental health ‘danger to nation.’ ” Politico reported that talk of the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of the president from office, is “Washington’s growing obsession.” The New York Times ran an editorial asking, “Is Mr. Trump Nuts?”
Any sentient American who watched Trump in serious discussions with members of Congress could tell this “president with a drool cup” caricature is absurd. The fact that the media gave so much print and airtime to this caricature did more to harm their credibility than all of Trump’s incessant “fake news” tweeting over the past year.
Third, the book has brought about the end of Stephen K. Bannon. Not only has Bannon lost his White House job, he’s now lost the support of the Mercer family, his position at Breitbart and his credibility on the national stage. And he has earned a presidential nickname – “Sloppy Steve.” His demise is a blow to the ethno-nationalists of the alt-right and a chance for Trump to remove an albatross around the neck of his presidency.
The president is now at a crossroads. It was he who let the media stay in the room for the meeting, and it worked. So, what does he do next? Does he build on this success by delivering a substantive bipartisan State of the Union address, and use the power and trappings of the presidency to expand his base of support? Or does he go back to the tactics that made those questioning his fitness for office seem even remotely credible?
His opponents have overreached and given him an opening. The question is: Will he seize it or squander it?