It is fairly obvious that Trump and his campaign team, and now Trump and his White House team, are running a war on the media strategy.
This is made easier by how some of the media have dealt with Trump and how they continue to report on him.
Donald Trump very deliberately picked a fight with the media to help fuel his rise to the White House, and now that he’s there — and his administration is struggling — he is strategically escalating it.
On Friday, the administration canceled press secretary Sean Spicer’s scheduled briefing to the full White House press corps, and replaced it instead with an off-camera briefing to which some media outlets were invited — and others were excluded, including CNN, the New York Times, Politico, and BuzzFeed News.
This isn’t an isolated incident. The move came on the heels of a morning speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which Trump complained, at length, about what he called the “fake” media, saying “they are the enemy of the people.”
And at Trump’s freewheeling press conference last week, he similarly started off by denouncing members of the media who, he said, “will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that we deserve.”
Trump can be erratic, reactionary and unpredictable but this is too consistent to be anything other than a deliberate strategy.
Though Trump is surely motivated in part by personal pique here, and he has long complained about the press, it’s now indisputable that the attacks on the press are part of a deliberate White House strategy — one that has the fingerprints of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who early on in the administration suggested the media was the “opposition party” and Trump’s most important foe.
Some claim this is to divert from what the White House are achieving. Andrew Prokop claims this is to hide their lack of achievements, including:
- He’s ended his first month without any significant accomplishments (since his controversial immigration and travel order is currently frozen in the courts).
- 2) He’s been plagued by a seemingly endless series of leaks from what appears to be every level of the government.
- There are burgeoning scandals potentially implicating his administration officials and associates — scandals publicized and often exacerbated by the aforementioned leaks.
- With Democrats reduced to minority status in both houses of Congress, and years remaining before candidates begin challenging him for the 2020 election, he’s lacking an obvious enemy to make his foil.
It could be a bit of both – diversion from what they are trying to do and diversion from failures.
Trump appears to be trying to solve all these problems by attacking the press. Doing so changes the subject from his lack of accomplishments and scandals. It also discredits the institution that is the conveyor of a great deal of negative information about him. And it gives Trump a nemesis he can fire up the conservative base by fighting.
The strategy certainly seems be be pleasing at least some of Trump’s support base, who only seem to see positives in him so anyone who criticises is seen as a negative.
But the fairly large number of sceptics and opponents are unlikely to be converted to the Trump cause by this. They also risk losing from support if Trump fails to live up to his boasts.
Trump and his team are deepening the divide. This may or may not be a deliberate strategy.
Will it work? Maybe, to an extent (every President will always have opponents).
The bigger picture here is that being president is difficult, and Donald Trump has had a particularly rocky start to his administration.
With his appointees bogged down in Congress, no evident movement on any of his major legislative priorities, his main executive action blocked in the courts, and his top national security aide already fired and replaced, Trump has little to show for his first month in office.
The idea that he can get his mojo back by attacking the press might seem to make sense. After all, Trump enjoys fighting, so if the goal here is to please the president by picking a fight, then mission accomplished.
But if the goal is to actually get anything done in this administration, it’s not so clear this is wise. Picking random fights with the media won’t help the White House get anything through Congress. It won’t make FBI investigations go away. And it won’t help the administration’s arguments in the courts.
Another problem is that if the administration destroys its own credibility by waging a war on the press, it could have a hard time getting its message out later when it truly needs to — say, during a major crisis of some kind.
A ‘cry wolf’ problem. This also applies to when there is actually valid criticism of some media – it could be largely ignored as just more strategy.
The media has a credibility problem, but so does Trump. It’s likely the bulk of the public will become even more disillusioned with both the politicians and the press.
Moves like this could also make the leak problem worse. The more people inside the government get scared that Trump is threatening democracy, the more they might be motivated to leak a damaging bit of information before it’s too late.
Finally, it’s also worth remembering that presidents can greatly damage themselves by overreacting to leaks. The Watergate scandal came about because President Nixon was furious at leaks, and in an effort to “fight back” against leakers, his White House aides created the “plumbers” to retaliate against leakers and political opponents (because plumbers, you see, fix leaks). This eventually led to the botched Watergate break-in at the DNC headquarters. That didn’t play so well in the press, either.
Trump, Bannon et al may feel that they are invincible, the best anti-press revolutionary strategists ever.
But for all it’s faults the media is a many pronged and resilient combatant, spread around the US and around the world.
And all they have to do is observe, investigate and report. They don’t have to try and run the world’s biggest power and biggest bureaucracy at the same time.