When we talk about President Trump (as we've been known to do here a few times), it's so easy to focus on his deficiencies — his record number of untrue statements, or his seeming lack of basic knowledge about his administration's own initiatives, or his narcissistic nonstop craving for praise, or his management style that seems to mainly involve chugging Diet Coke and rage-tweeting eight hours a day about cable TV news. When we do that, however, we tend to forget one thing. The man also accomplished one of the most difficult feats known to humankind, something various smart folks including John Kerry, Mitt Romney, Al Gore and John McCain can attest to – getting elected president of the United States. Like the proverbial hedgehog, Trump surely must know one big thing.
That one thing, as we saw throughout 2015 and 2016, is manipulating the media, not only to get a ridiculous amount of free air time, but also to work the spin cycle of rage and resentment and to use that news coverage — no matter how negative it appears to be on the surface — to keep his base of supporters engaged and often whipped up in a state of frenzy. And as 2018 dawns, The Donald clearly hasn't lost track of his One Big Idea.
So it was this past week — the totally-devoid-of-actual-news dead zone between Christmas and New Year's — that the president suddenly, without warning, made himself available for a half hour, without any aides present and with minimal interruption, to New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt for a rambling interview that completely dominated the cycle for the next 48 hours. In these crazy times, that seemed like an eternity.
Trump made some news over the course of 30 minutes, of course. He claimed that "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department" — a statement that was quickly challenged by constitutional scholars and could foreshadow tumultuous doings for the Trump-Russia probe in 2018. He insisted there was "no collusion" between his 2016 campaign and Russia's election hacking a whopping 16 times, a classic case — one could argue — of the man "doth protest too much, methinks." But most reviews of the Times interview focused on three other things:
– The president of the United States is a chronic and perhaps pathological liar. The Washington Post's fact check compiled a list of 24 false or misleading claims by Trump, a rate of nearly one per minute — including falsehoods that he's saved coal in a West Virginia that's "doing fabulously," that no Democrats believe Trump's campaign colluded with Vladimir Putin's Russia, that his endorsement in an Alabama Senate primary pulled Sen. Luther Strange out of fifth place (among other problems, there were only three candidates), and that millions of people have joined health care associations that don't yet exist. Other fact checkers found similar lies and half-truths. The habitual dishonesty from the commander-in-chief is one of the greatest threats to American democracy.
– Journalists need to do a better job challenging Trump's most alarming statements and his lies in real time. Most journalists will tell you that there's a variety of ways to conduct an interview, and often the let-the-subject-ramble approach elicits more news than a confrontational in-your-face grilling, which causes the subject to clam up or even end the interview. That said, Trump rarely speaks anymore with journalists who aren't from Fox News or Christian broadcasters, and it was more than disappointing that the Times' Schmidt didn't challenge assertions such as Trump knowing more than "the greatest CPA" about the recent tax bill, let alone his declaration of authoritarian-type power over the Justice Department.
– Several top pundits expressed concern that Trump is in a state of serious cognitive decline. The flip side of the wide-open and unchallenged interview style was that Trump's rambling answers, his rapid topic-jumping and his seeming disconnection from the realities of health care reform, the Russia probe, and other critical issues had some well-regarded political analysts openly questioning whether the president is suffering from dementia or some other impairment. CNBC's John Harwood, a straight-down-the-middle veteran Beltway journalist, wrote that "his comments signaled an inability to grasp conditions in the country, the limitations of his own capacities and the nature of the office he holds." Esquire's Charles Pierce called the interview "a portrait of a man in cognitive decline," while Vox's Ezra Klein stated flatly: "The president of the United States is not well."
It's hard to disagree, and yet in one all-important way, Trump clearly has not lost it … not yet, anyway. The interview itself, and Trump's domination of the news cycle for most of a week in which he seemingly did little besides play golf, is a tribute to his media savvy. The ensuing flood of stories about the president's provable lies and his incoherence will merely be spun among Trump's supporters as more proof that he drives liberals insane — a skill that 36 percent of the country apparently values more dearly than the ability to see a doctor, and which thus holds Trump's flock together.
Most important — and I think this was the most critical takeaway from the interview — is that Trump surely seems fully cognizant that the same forces that fueled his improbable 2016 victory will be every bit as much in play in 2020, if his implosive presidency can last that long. He told the Times:
That's a half-truth, at best. Global respect for the United States is plunging everywhere except Israel, and it will be miraculous if the economic recovery that began under Barack Obama and has continued in Trump's first 11 months doesn't hit a speed bump before 2020. But he's absolutely right in that the media — especially cable TV — remains addicted to the high ratings and record profits of covering Trump the way it covered Trump in 2016 … and that paved the way for his victory.
"The one thing I know for sure is that Donald Trump has made American journalism great again," CNN chief Jeff Zucker said last month, adding: "CNN's been around for 37 years, this is the most-watched year in the history of CNN on television." That's remarkable because in past cycles TV news viewing has plummeted in the year after a presidential election, and, arguably, MSNBC and Fox News did even better in 2017 than CNN.