Doing what he does best: Donald Trump just played the media like a fiddle — again

The media was becoming obsessed with a story that made Trump look weak. Here's how he nipped that in the bud

Published March 30, 2016 4:09PM (EDT)

Donald Trump                          (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

As we all know by now, the normal standards of what constitutes “good” and “bad” press do not apply to Donald Trump.

Still, allow me to suggest that news of Trump’s disowning the RNC’s “loyalty pledge,” which he did last night on CNN, and news that his campaign manager was being charged with simple battery are not entirely unrelated. Quite the opposite.

Think about it this way. Before Trump told Cooper that he would no longer agree to support the Republican nominee — supposedly because the GOP establishment had treated him “very unfairly” — the political story of the week was the, shall we say, “hands-on” approach favored by Corey Lewandowksi, his campaign manager.

And it was a story that, even by the twisted standards of Trump 2016, did not make the candidate look good. It suggested he and Lewandowski had lied about the campaign manager’s altercation with a former Breitbart reporter. More importantly, because it’s not hard to find evidence that Trump is a liar at this point, it suggested that Trump was the one thing his supporters won’t abide. In a word: weak.

(I mean, her pen was “a little bomb”? Really?)

But now, after Trump’s revocation of his “pledge,” which anyone with a lick of sense knew was bullshit in the first place, what is the media talking about? Well, that. It was the lead story of the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent’s influential “Morning Plum”; it was front-and-center for The New York Times; Politico was all over it, naturally; and it should go without saying that CNN treated it as a major development in the campaign.

It didn’t make the Lewandowski story disappear, of course. The media loves to write about the media; so nothing is going to do that. But it did knock it down a peg, which isn’t too shabby. And it gave Trump’s water-carriers, like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, an excuse to pretend Trump’s campaign manager’s being charged wasn’t worth our time, anyway:

The “Morning Joe” crew on Wednesday took up Donald Trump’s campaign manager being charged with battery for allegedly manhandling a reporter, with co-host Joe Scarborough expressing frustration they were taking up time talking about the issue at all. [….]

Brzezinski then turned the discussion to the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein to ask what Fields first reported about the incident.

“I get it,” Stein began.

But Scarborough cut him off.

“You don't get it. Nobody gets it, Sam, because we haven't heard it, Sam,” he said pointedly. “Because there is, again, such a hyper-focus. We are now eight minutes into this and I guarantee you, wasting eight minutes, now almost nine minutes on this, people will still say that we have insufficiently obsessed on this touching.”

“There’s two sides to every story,” Brzezinski tried to cut in.

“Which, let me say again, was inappropriate and should have never happened,” Scarborough continued, raising his voice. “But we were going to go to news four minutes ago but you and the rest of the Twitter-sphere think this is the most important story of the universe, Sam, so please, tell us what she said immediately after this broke.”

One wonders if Scarborough’s little tirade earned him an attaboy — written, of course, with a gold-colored Sharpie pen

Anyway, if Trump didn’t mean to shift the media’s attention, it’s hard to think up how an intentional effort could’ve served him any better. And when it comes to Trump’s influence on the mass media, you should always assume that he’s acting with intent. Recall, for example, what he reportedly said years before his campaign began:

What they heard as they ate deli sandwiches around Donald Trump’s hulking wooden conference table sounded like the businessman’s typical bravado. These 25 New York political operatives had come to ask him to run for governor. But Trump had another plan—a very specific plan—to run for president.

“You guys are going to be very helpful when I do the big thing,” he said, according to people who were in the room that day.

To the GOP county chairs and assemblymen there in Trump Tower’s glass-enclosed conference room overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park, Trump’s aspirations seemed far-fetched and the plan itself sounded downright implausible.

“He said, ‘I’m going to walk away with it and win it outright,’” a long-time New York political consultant recalled. “Trump told us, ‘I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.’”

For about five minutes, there, attention was moving away from Trump and toward Lewandowksi. By disowning the “pledge,” he arrested the spotlight’s drift. There’s a new top story in American politics. And all eyes, once again, are focused on Donald Trump.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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