The Atlantic‘s newly elevated White House correspondent, Elaina Plott—last seen defending access journalism by not knowing what “access journalism” means—used her access to produce another story for the pile of stories about how the president is a brilliant media tactician.
“As the number of scandals surrounding the White House grows,” Plott wrote, “so does, it seems, the president’s free time—and his ability to change the narrative.”
The ever-growing blank space on Donald Trump’s schedule, in this account, is not a sign that he has broken down under the strain of his political, criminal, and cognitive liabilities and is no longer able to do the job of being president. It is Trump freeing himself to do what he does best, to seize control of the media narrative.
Plott talked to the ever-accessible Rudy Giuliani, who informed that her all that downtime was really uptime:
“As mayor, some of my busiest days had an open or relatively open calendar,” Trump’s lawyer told me.
But it’s the same story the Dilbert guy and various other hero-worshippers have been telling to praise Trump, the same thing countless anxious #resistance people quote-tweet around Trump whenever he tweets something particularly unhinged: Trump is using his masterful media-manipulation skills to change the subject, to distract the press from what ought to be the real news. “[I]t’s an opportunity to dangle new carrots in front of the public, and to watch reporters flock to them in real time,” Plott wrote.
There’s a simpler and more convincing way to look at it, though: Donald Trump is trying to distract Donald Trump.
Trump did spend his prior life running elaborate scams on the press, using fake numbers and fake deals and fake spokespeople to convince the world he was a genius dealmaking billionaire. He was younger then, operating in a realm he’d grown up in and which he understood how to manipulate. Now he is old and confused and overwhelmed. All he really understands is that he’s scammed his way into something he can’t handle and it all feels bad.
And so he does the same thing a one-celled organism does when it encounters an unpleasant stimulus: he flinches away. That’s what all the grand presidential command of the narrative comes down to. When Donald Trump hears something that makes him feel bad, he doesn’t want to think about it, so he talks about something else.
That the news cycle follows along is just an epiphenomenon. The real thing is internal and ordinary, a weak personality trying to flee from whatever it can’t face up to. Sometimes the escape is to yell about something else; sometimes it’s to come up with a blatant, self-soothing lie. Plott described Trump “sending journalists scrambling to report the most up-to-date list” of chief-of-staff candidates, after he tweeted there were more than 10 prospects. But that also just describes the more likely scenario: Trump scrambling away from admitting that no one is willing to work for him anymore.