Donald Trump's primetime SCOTUS circus: Is his empty showmanship starting to lose its power?

After just 10 days in the White House, Trump tries to recapture the narrative. Is the media getting wise to him?

By Gary Legum

Published January 31, 2017 5:15PM (EST)

 (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/clu/Salon)
(Getty/Chip Somodevilla/clu/Salon)

Donald Trump will announce his pick to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court live from the White House in a prime-time broadcast on Tuesday night. Given the incompetence this administration has shown in its first week, it seems fitting that this television event is scheduled for one day before Nielsen’s February sweeps period begins. And Trump is supposed to be our reality-show president! No wonder ratings for “The Apprentice” cratered after the second season.

To be fair, there is precedent for a prime-time introduction of a Supreme Court nomination. George W. Bush announced his pick of John Roberts to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor live in a ceremony broadcast from the East Room of the White House in July 2005. Speculation at the time was that the Bush administration went for the splashy unveiling to draw attention away from its terrible poll numbers, which were being dragged down by various scandals, the fight over Social Security privatization and the quagmire in Iraq.

There may be something similar at work with the timing of Trump’s announcement. Originally the White House had planned to unveil the SCOTUS pick on Thursday. The media has been speculating that it was moved up by two days to take attention off the backlash over the immigration ban announced last Friday by giving reporters almost two full days to feverishly speculate on the identity of the far-right, Heritage Foundation-approved gasbag Trump is certain to nominate.

Whatever the reason, there is more than a touch of showmanship attached to this announcement, and that has been among this administration’s most notable features 10 days in (aside from the authoritarianism). Putting on a show is also the motivation behind the much-ballyhooed executive orders that Trump has been signing nearly every day. Some, like Friday’s immigration ban, have had an immediate, dramatic, devastating effect. But others are just memorandums with orders that could have just as easily been delivered at a meeting or by phone. 

For example, there was absolutely no reason why Trump had to sign a memorandum at a Pentagon ceremony, in front of the White House press corps and carried live on cable news and announcing he intends to “rebuild” the military. In reality, the president lacks the power to unilaterally order the rebuilding he apparently intends to take place or to appropriate funds for it. Unless I'm missing something with regard to the constitutional separation of powers (which is definitely possible), Congress controls the purse strings for such an endeavor.

Nor was there any reason for Trump to make a big show out of signing a memorandum giving the Joint Chiefs of Staff 30 days to present him with a plan for defeating ISIS. That one could have been quietly signed and sent to the Pentagon or presented in a meeting with military brass. Instead, Trump made a big display of signing the document in the Oval Office while surrounded by the reprobates and mountebanks of his administration in front of, once again, the White House press corps.

Even Trump’s tweets are often timed to get the media’s attention first thing in the morning and capture the day’s news cycle. The pattern has been evident since the inauguration. Three or four tweets appear on Trump’s feed early in the morning, ranting about whatever is bothering him or throwing insults at senators who have displeased him. These are often the only tweets that appear during the day. The media can then be expected for the next few hours to speculate about what they mean and to ask press secretary Sean Spicer about them at the daily White House press briefing. In this way, every day can be turned into a soap opera with Trump, that master entertainer, at its center.

Considering the success that Trump has had using Twitter to grab attention ever since he first announced his candidacy, or the way he kept voters’ focus on him with his large campaign rallies that news networks were happy to broadcast in full, it's no wonder his team is trying to find ways to use the White House to engage in similar tactics. In normal times, these tactics would probably work. Our media has long been reactive, chasing shiny objects for one day and dropping them the next for something new.

But these are not normal times. And the policies this administration has rolled out to this point have been so blatantly discriminatory as to generate worldwide protests. On Monday the media was still forcing the White House to defend the controversies surrounding the weekend’s immigration actions and the Friday statement it had released to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Trump may have come to power largely through the force of his showmanship. But it's just possible that his power to manipulate the media and the news cycle is starting to fade. Now and for the duration of his presidency, it's important for the press and the public to understand when this gibbering mango we have seen fit to put in power is trying to distract us with phony and empty ceremony — and to react accordingly.

Gary Legum

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