Master of Distraction

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In a rare moment of candor in an otherwise typically long and rambling interview then presidential candidate Donald Trump did with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for The Washington Post in April 2016 he made the following admission:

Donald Trump: I bring rage out…I always have…I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends.

Woodward has been reminding people of this line recently to sound the alarm that we are “being had” – that Trump is creating fresh provocations for the media to be outraged by almost every day so that we are all just caught up in a rage and can’t separate the truly important transgressions from ones that are a distraction.  Woodward goes on to say “he’s doing things to distract us from all the big policy decisions he’s gambling on.” It seems like two years into the Trump presidency people are finally starting to figure out his strategy but it was all laid bare in the interview quoted above from the campaign trail.  Trump seems to thrive on bringing rage out in people and furthermore thinks that eventually those very same people will come around and become his friends. The great comedian and media critic Jon Stewart recently echoed what Woodward said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour saying that Trump baits journalists and  “appeals to their own narcissism and ego” and is able to distract attention away from his policies and “just focus on the fight”.  Stewart thinks we should focus less “on his insults and more on the people being hurt”. On a recent episode of his podcast the journalist Ezra Klein recently addressed Trump’s “ability to jam outrage into the system constantly…so that people don’t have time to digest whatevers just happened or whatever just came out”.  He goes on to say that Trump is a “genius at changing the subject by recognising that he can just change the subject to other things people are upset about” and that previous presidents would manage a scandal by changing the topic to something “boring” but “the thing that Donald Trump understands is that the only way to distract from scandal is with scandal and he’s okay with there being negative attention on him, he just wants to control what the negative attention is about.”  Klein breaks it down to a scientific level saying “I think that he’s understood that it’s like if something is a -5 charge you can only replace it with something that’s between -4 and -6, you can’t replace it with a +1 and that’s a good insight into how the media works.” Klein recently talked to Whitney Phillips who studied online trolling and talked about how online trolls crave attention, but that journalists can’t help but report on it because it’s so outrageous. She compared trolling strategy to Trump’s war with the media as a “feedback loop predicated on sensationalism.”

This strategy of distraction means that the media rightfully gets whipped into a flurry of outrage over Trump’s latest scandal and therefore bigger policy issues or fundamental problems with his presidency are not making waves in the same way. A case in point is that The New York Times published a blockbuster 13,000 word story of Trump’s history of dodging taxes on Wednesday, October 3rd and went so far as to say that Trump had engaged in “outright fraud”.  The story was overshadowed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings at the moment so the Times even re-published the story in its entirety on Sunday, October 7th.  Though the story is damning and hopefully more will come of it, the actual impact has been rather muted. Trump himself dismissed the piece as “very old, boring and often told hit piece”.  After the initial publication of the story Trump tweeted that the two women that cornered Jeff Flake in an elevator in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings were actors paid for by George Soros – possibly as a means to distract from the tax story.  ProPublica and WNYC have been doing some fine reporting on Trump as well and published a story implicating Trump and his family in deceptive practices involving their real estate business.  The impact of that story was similarly muted. Now that Democrats control the House there is a possibility that these issues will be properly investigated and Robert Mueller’s team could be investigating these items already.  Donald Trump is certainly no typical president and he is doing incredible damage to the country and the institution but it would be wise to not fall prey to the Trump-created distractions.

Fresh Take on Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”

Much has been written about Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” and here are a few things I found striking that haven’t been as widely discussed as the more explosive revelations within it.

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Even though it is squarely about Trump, the book could have been called All The President’s Men (if that title hadn’t already been made famous by Woodward himself). It’s really about the men (with a few exceptions) that surrounded President Trump in his first year in office, and what they did to contain and prevent him from his worst impulses.  Woodward didn’t interview Trump himself, and I doubt much insight would actually be gained from the inclusion of Trump’s words here.  Interviews with Trump are long and rambling and don’t actually provide much insight into the man, besides that he is a compulsive liar and that he can’t focus on anything besides himself.  In a 2016 pre-election interview with Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, who painfully had to try to pin down Trump to interview him for the book, said that Trump’s key characteristic was that “he has no attention span.”  This is something that the characters in Fear not only understand but use to their (and perhaps our) advantage.  Woodward writes about “an administrative coup d’etat” where staffers would either ignore the President’s orders or would go so far as to remove letters from his desk in the Oval Office to prevent the President from signing them.

One much discussed passage in the book is about a furious Trump not understanding why the US spends money to protect foreign countries like South Korea and Taiwan and having to be told that it’s done to prevent World War III.  Another passage which hasn’t been as discussed but is nearly as terrifying recounts Trump’s aides explaining to him that China could retaliate against a trade war by refusing to sell antibiotics to the US (nearly 97% of the US supply comes from China).  

These accounts show the clear danger that Trump presents and how the strategy of containing him could be quite beneficial.  On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that this is actually just delaying the inevitable and that if there were mass resignations similar to what happened in the Nixon administration during Watergate, the stronger the case for Congress or the voters to do something about it and prevent someone like him from getting elected again.     

Some characters like Senator Lindsey Graham and Steve Bannon come across as political opportunists while others fare better, notably economic adviser Gary Cohn, White House staff secretary Rob Porter and the President’s lawyer John Dowd.  One of the criticisms of the book has been that Woodward’s sources could likely be presenting themselves in a flattering light to him so that history will be kind to them. Woodward has pushed back against this saying that he tries to get as many sources as possible and isn’t relying on just one person’s account.  In interviews he has repeatedly quoted his old editor Ben Bradlee saying that over time “the truth emerges”.  The more that is reported on this the more truth will certainly emerge.

Sideshow Act or Actual News?

Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien has a good opinion piece in Bloomberg about the Omarosa story that is currently dominating the news cycle.  O’Brien calls Omarosa and Trump “kindred spirits” and that while he was interviewing Trump for his book “Trumpland” he seemed to be endlessly fascinated by Omarosa, particularly her “self-absorption and nastiness”.

Of the barrage of daily news stories regarding this administration it’s difficult to choose which ones to stay focused on and a lot the time events that seem to not have much merit surprisingly turn into important stories.  At first glance everything about Omarosa’s story seems to be something that could and should be ignored, until it’s not of course. Thinking like that is entirely missing the point. The Omarosa story is the new Stormy Daniels story or Michael Cohen or the endless other ones that are demanding our attention by their sheer absurdity.  O’Brien theorizes that “Trump tweets relentlessly when he feels cornered or obsessed” and by all accounts Trump is definitely obsessed with Omarosa. Trump refuted Omarosa’s claim that he used the n-word during a taping of “The Apprentice” and said that Mark Burnett called to tell him the tapes she alludes to don’t exist.  Then a day later Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she can’t guarantee Trump didn’t say it.  Omarosa said that the Apprentice tape was discussed during the 2016 campaign on a call but his aides denied that ever took place.  The next day Omarosa released a recording of that meeting causing Trump’s aides to walk back their original statements.  Frank Bruni writes that Omarosa’s tapes reflect Trump’s long history of recording or threatening to record conversations, “Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the cleverest kind of revenge.”  Politico reports that there are some similarities between the fear of Trump’s staff worried about what will come out in subsequent recordings to the fears Hillary Clinton’s staff had during the Wikileaks daily release of John Podesta’s emails.  A key difference was spelled out by Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, “Nobody had to be worried that there was an email where Hillary used the N-word.”

Time will tell how long this story will dominate the news cycle and whether it actually does anything to impact change.  That people are yet again openly wondering what Trump’s views are on race and how it is that he has such a terrible track record of hiring people like Omarosa in the first place is a dialogue worth continuing to have.