When I first interviewed Trump in early 2015 before he declared for the presidency, and almost a year later before the New Hampshire primary, I referenced his July 21, 2005, testimony to the Senate on the then-pending remodel of the U.N. headquarters. It is an amazing performance that will capture your rapt attention if you find it on YouTube. Trump was in his element, talking real estate development, New York City commercial space and contractors, labor unions and naivete among lessees. He was funny, precise and in command of an amazing array of facts. (You can also see over Trump’s left shoulder the current ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. Grenell was then spokesman for the United States at the United Nations, and if he gets sent back to New York as is rumored, he will be a talented and rhetorically gifted ambassador.)
I bring up the U.N. testimony because the exchanges with the media on Wednesday, especially with Acosta (who has been a welcome guest on my radio show) were lopsidedly in favor of the president. The president has spent two years learning the job to which he brought a communications skill set unmatched by any other commander in chief, except Ronald Reagan, and as much — if not more — television experience than the Gipper. President Barack Obama could do “cool” as well as anyone. Nobody is better at “combative” than Trump, and we live in an age addicted to combativeness. Cable news has adopted sports-like coverage and monetized combativeness. So, too, video games and blockbuster comic-book movies. The culture is built on combativeness.
And the president is getting better and better at the policy and performance aspects of the presidency, getting better on the details even as he sharpens his jousting skills.
I have said since 2015 that Trump is the best interview in America. It is still true. And he is making it look effortless. “60 Minutes,” a full-on news conference, the press availabilities in the Oval Office, the walks to the helicopter — he always delivers incredibly watchable television.
What he needs is a supporting cast, beyond the superb national security voices he has in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis eschews the talk-show spotlight.) Vice President Pence always connects with conservative audiences, and a few other Cabinet members shine as well. But Trump needs Sunday-show talent beyond Kellyanne Conway. I’ve written before, for example, that he needs Judge Michael Luttig at the Justice Department; part of Luttig’s value would be his commanding presence. If Trump repopulated his front bench with a talented supporting cast of people who would amplify rather than muffle his message, he’ll be unstoppable in 2020.
As he leans into the job and gains a new foil in soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he’ll be selling his vision of “compromise.” He will be assisted by the ever-capable Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), master of the “long game” and, if Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) vacates his chairman post on the Judiciary Committee, by the committee’s incoming chairman, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina (the second-best interview in America.)
So much could get done — a DACA-plus (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) deal that includes a long, strong, double-sided fence, increasing the Navy to 355 ships, providing jobs in some Democratic states and prescription drug pricing reform based on the demonstration program that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar rolled out last month.
Linking the experience of the first two years and his communications skills with, finally, a reliable Senate majority and maybe, just maybe, a speaker who’d like a few last markers for history could produce quite a ride. And the reelection that is coming one way or the other could be built on more achievements than the many already assembled.