Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire
It hasn’t even been two weeks.
Hard to believe, I know. But it wasn’t even two weeks ago that Sally Yates and James Clapper testified before Congress in the ongoing Michael Flynn investigation. In that time, we’ve been witnessing a presidency implode on a scale not seen since Watergate, and at a clip never seen period. The firing of James Comey on May 8 set off a chaotic, scandal-ridden Rube Goldberg machine, with every day bringing about a new twist, a new wrinkle, a new turn that can’t be unmade.
And there at the center of the swirling and inchoate mess is none other than the sweaty, pulse-veined brow of a sitting president who has no idea how to contain the damage or avoid the perception, however correct, that he has committed the cardinal sin of his personal religion: losing.
For Trump, there is nothing worse. And it’s getting increasingly hard to avoid the implication, what with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Comey firing and Russia connection (see Archibald Cox and Kenneth Starr, key players in previous scandals that ended, or almost ended, in impeachment). Trump finds himself unable to make a case for himself, and even the acting FBI director was uninterested in perpetuating Trump’s confused justification for terminating his predecessor.
Oh, but the president fancies himself a fighter, and in fighting, has done little but exacerbate the damage. His ineffective flailing has only thrown the White House into chaos as he undermined his own surrogates by flatly contradicting their justifications for Comey’s firing. And now their external PR campaign has entirely collapsed, leaving the administration with essentially no public voice to contain the damage.
None, that is, but the president’s terse, hostile tweets.
Let’s milk it, shall we?
In the last two weeks, Trump has accused the media of perpetuating a witch hunt, openlyadmitted to sharing intel with Russia on the grounds that, well, he can do whatever he wants, lied about James Clapper’s testimony vis a vis collusion with Russia, mocked a sitting US senator, and threatened James Comey — all publicly on social media. Whatever else his faults, Nixon at least appreciated discretion.
There has been no time since the institution of the office where public relations hasn’t been a significant factor in the chief magistrate’s ability to do his job. But for President Trump (two words that, God willing, I will never get used to typing), public relations is the job. His campaign was predicated, from the first day, on his public persona and unique ability to communicate with his constituency; Trump, it went, would win. He’d never stop winning, and that was how he’d “make America great again.” He built his constituency on his unfiltered and unrestrainable tendency to mouth off.
But now he’s under siege, and what once looked like the bold, devil-may-care proclamations of an insurgent are now the paranoid rants of an embattled administration that has completely lost its ability to articulate a coherent response to a situation that seems very increasingly likely to end with the president’s resignation. Instead of maintaining the administration’s initially measured response to the appointment (ironically) of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel, Trump lashed out the next morning with accusations of unfairness toward him — a repetition of the themes he’d already debuted in his commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy the day before. “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media,” he said. “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
If it feels like I am simply documenting the events of the last weeks, it’s because it’s difficult to avoid; our famously undisciplined president appears to be making a point of standing in between his administration and the successful management of the ongoing political crisis. The stark reality facing the president, and by extension the entire United States, is that he is very obviously having quite a difficult time, lacking the basic attention to detail or skill of discernment to know what he should say and when he should say it. That’s true in private Oval Office meetings with the Russians, it’s true in his public addresses, and it’s true on Twitter.
Trump, in short, does not know how to speak in measured or appropriate terms. He’s made a career of it, or rather a brand. The same tendency that he spent a decade cultivating into media stardom and which ultimately elevated him to political office is rapidly destroying his ability to govern, such as he had. It is nothing less than the complete breakdown of his public relations efforts, one that starts — and ends — with him. Donald Trump’s inability to control his mouth — in private, on Twitter, and on television — is not only severely undermining his administration’s ability to get in front of this scandal, but is in fact making it immeasurably worse.
Worse, and worse, and worse.
If there is any consolation for the president to be had, it’s that he won’t recede into memory the way of a Fillmore, a Harding, a Pierce, or even a Ford or a Bush 41. For better or for worse, he has assuredly cemented his place in American history. We will never be able to stop talking about him.
At least he has that.