Maybe Donald Trump Isn't Actually a Master Media Manipulator
When the president reprised his you're-fired shtick last night, this wasn't the outcome he expected.
If there's one trope of the Trump years that we can definitively retire now, it's the idea that the president is constantly winning some 13-dimensional chess game devoted to distracting us from unflattering stories. Where a more adept politician would be trying to change the subject from the Russia probe, Donald Trump just can't help drawing attention to the very subject he wants people to ignore.
When Sally Yates and James Clapper testified to the Senate subcommittee investigating Russia's alleged interference in last year's election, another president might have chosen that moment to unveil a major policy initiative—or, if he didn't have any initiatives handy, to hold a photo op with some girl scouts. At the very least, he would have tried not to talk about the story. Instead Trump ran to Twitter to insinuate that Yates had leaked classified information, a tweet that amplified rather than disrupted the day's event. Then he plastered a message onto his Twitter banner declaring that Clapper had "reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is 'no evidence' of collusion w/ Russia and Trump." This was widely derided for misrepresenting what Clapper had said, but from a PR perspective it did something even more unforgivable than lying: It ensured that the first thing anyone visiting Trump's Twitter page would see would be a reference to the Russia accusations.
That was Monday. Tuesday he fired his FBI chief—that is, he fired the head of the bureau investigating his campaign's alleged links to Moscow—while clumsily shoehorning a hey-you-know-I'm-innocent remark into his letter dismissing the director.
Naturally, this prompted speculations that Trump is trying to cover up something serious. And that may well be true. (You needn't believe the more far-out Trump/Russia conspiracy theories to think a probe into the president's business dealings in Russia—or anywhere else, from China to New Jersey—could turn up something unethical and/or illegal.) But it's also entirely possible that we're watching a dumb guy with a big ego throwing a tantrum because he can't control the media agenda. Politico's piece on the lead-up to the firing claims that Trump "had grown enraged by the Russia investigation" and was "frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn't disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe…" And so he made a move that guaranteed his TV today would be talking about virtually nothing else.
According to the Politico report, "the fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise." Funny how that works out. If you could stuff the Streisand effect into a suit, it would look like Donald Trump. This isn't 13-dimensional chess; it's 13-dimensional 52 card pick-up.