A Return to Self-Sabotage

Donald Trump is pretty good at self-sabotage. He had drawn even with Hillary Clinton in the polls, by staying on-message and by staying relatively calm – he wasn’t blurting out strange and random thoughts – but then, for no reason at all, he decided it was time to do this:

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the United States, ending his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African American president but also seeking to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors.

“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean,” Trump said Friday morning at his newly opened luxury hotel in Washington. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”

This was a complete reversal that could have been done at any time, and if he was worried about how wacky the birther stuff had made him seem, this should have been done long ago. And the bit about Hillary was odd:

This is not the first time that Trump has accused Clinton of sparking speculation over Obama’s birthplace, an assertion that has been repeatedly disproved by fact-checkers who have found no evidence that Clinton or her campaign questioned Obama’s birth certificate or his citizenship.

That bit about Hillary has been thoroughly disproved – she didn’t start the birther thing. And no one remembers her, at every campaign stop in 2008, shouting that Obama was born in Kenya, so she didn’t continue what she never started. This was recommended to her by a few supporters, but she laughed at them. She wasn’t going there. But Trump said she did go there. On the other hand, he remembers lots of things that never happened – American Muslims dancing in the streets on 9/11 and whatnot. He’s like that. Everyone is used to him now.

Still, this didn’t go well:

Trump’s 35-second statement included no apology, and he did not disavow the “birther” movement that he effectively led for more than five years.

Earlier Friday morning, Clinton said Trump owes Obama an apology for promoting the false theory. She did not directly address Trump’s accusation that her 2008 campaign promoted the same theory, but her current campaign flatly rejected that claim.

“For five years, he has led the birther movement to delegitimize our first black president,” Clinton said at a gathering of black women at a Washington hotel. “His campaign was founded on this outrageous lie. There is no erasing it in history.”

Obama told reporters Friday that he already “was pretty confident about where I was born.” First lady Michelle Obama noted at a Friday rally in Fairfax, Va., that there are those who still question “whether my husband was even born in the country.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that “with regard to an apology, I don’t think the president much cares.”

Trump is who he is. No one cares – the most devastating critique of the day – and there was also that odd setting:

Trump’s statement came as he promoted his newly opened hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The event began more than an hour late and, for the first 25 minutes, consisted of a series of military veterans talking about why they support Trump. The lineup included retired Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, who has publicly questioned the president’s place of birth.

Okay, he brought the birther folks along, perhaps to prove that he was just kidding, as one never knows:

Birtherism is far from the only conspiracy that Trump has embraced. Trump has also accused the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) of being connected to the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Trump has raised suspicions over the deaths of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February and Vince Foster — a deputy White House counsel in President Bill Clinton’s administration — in 1993. Trump claimed that on 9/11 he watched “thousands and thousands” of Muslims on rooftops in New Jersey celebrating the destruction and has warned that Syrian refugees might be a “Trojan horse” waiting to destroy the United States.

Was he kidding about any of that? Who knows? But this time he did make some folks quite angry:

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee called for an apology on Friday. For them, Trump’s comments came across as insulting and pandering, considering how many years Trump had promulgated the birther theory.

“He founded it, and that catapulted him into his campaign for the presidency,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who suggested that the election would be a “referendum on bigotry.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said that while he is used to “dog whistles” in politics, he has had a difficult time adjusting to these “howls of wolves.”

“These are howls. These are not whistles,” Clyburn said. “This is not just about the contest for the presidency. This man is on a mission to heap as much insult on this president, to do as much as he possibly can to delegitimize his presidency and to play into a narrative that has been floated in this country for over 200 years.”

Yes, they were angry. Trump doesn’t get to say that this birther stuff he’s been pushing for the last five or more years now does not matter a bit, now that he’s changed his mind, if he has. One short statement doesn’t erase a thousand statements over all those years. Forget what he said before? They won’t forget.

This did more harm than good, and others were angry too, but for a different reason. Slate’s Jim Newell was there with the press corps, and about ten minutes in, he knew he’d been had:

It’s a trap. I’m an extra in a bad commercial.

We were sitting in the ballroom of the new downtown property, four blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Like most of the new downtown property, the color scheme in the room relies heavily on gold, but here the camera-facing portion was dulled to an appropriately muted motif, with a blue backdrop and six American flags near the dais. About half of the ballroom was blocked off for reporters and cameras. So many cameras.

The Trump campaign hinted to news organizations that he would be holding a press conference at his new downtown property in Washington, D.C., on Friday morning after delivering a statement. The subject was intended to be some sort of “major announcement” about his half-decade-long refusal to say that President Obama was born in the United States. This is the “issue” that catapulted Trump to the top of the preliminary 2012 Republican presidential primary polls, before he collapsed and opted not to run. He made this nonsensical, racist argument because, in his words, as recalled by former Mitt Romney personal aide Garrett Jackson, “rightwing crazies will believe it.”

But now that was going to change:

At some point in the past month, some figure in his campaign – presumably new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway – finally got him to understand that he’s no longer running in the Republican primary and needs to mitigate his active appeals to racism if he’s to recover among suburban whites. Trump has had various surrogates and campaign spokespeople aver that he believes President Obama was born in the United States, but until Friday, he was too proud to admit it himself. Friday’s event was his opportunity to fess up, whereupon the press would pepper him with follow-up questions about why he promoted the birther conspiracy in the first place, whether he really sent investigators to Hawaii to look into it and what exactly were the unbelievable things they were finding, why he was saying it Friday when he refused to say it as soon as Thursday, and most importantly, why he spent years following Obama’s long-form birth certificate reveal in 2011 – which a campaign statement sent Thursday evening described as the “conclusion” of the episode  – still promoting the theories in interviews and on social media.

This was good. They were going to have it out, finally. They’d ask great questions and put him on the spot – and he agreed to that. This would finally change everything. It would be a day for truth, justice, and the American way. The press could do its job and hold him accountable.

No, they got scammed:

The press conference proved instead to be Trump’s troll of the media, a rick-roll – as everyone called it later – on the grand scale. It was effortlessly brought off and all it required was a manipulation of media incentives and cable news control-room politics, plus a carefully arranged use of space and taxpayer-funded security detail. You can have all your earnest think-pieces about false balance and the like; Trump’s event on Friday was enacted media criticism.

To be clear, the term rick-roll refers to an internet bait-and-switch in which a link promising something  really cool immediately takes you straight to a video of the Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up” – and you know you’ve been had – and the press here was had – and Newell follows Trump’s steps in doing that:

  1. Wink to news organizations that you’re finally going to eat crow on your most prominent political lie of the past six years, in the form of a press conference. They will send all of their cameras and reporters, and they will clear their broadcast schedules for the entire morning. In his Washington Post interview on Thursday, Trump declined to admit Obama’s domestic birth, “because then everyone is going to be talking about it.” On Friday morning, Trump told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that she would have to wait for the press conference to hear the announcement. “We have to keep the suspense going,” he said.
  1. Hold the event in a ballroom where you’ve made sure to separate the press filing-area from the podium by approximately ten rows of seating for various lobbyists, operatives, supporters, and – most importantly – veterans. Rope it off. Make veterans and war heroes both the subject of and the speakers at the event, so as to discourage rude intrusions from the press corps during introductory speeches.
  1. Make brief introductory comments yourself just to ensure the cameras are rolling. If the introducers had spoken from the beginning without a word from Trump, cable networks might’ve held their coverage of the event on standby until Trump had taken the microphone. By making a few remarks at the beginning before introducing a couple of supporters, Trump forced the hand of the networks, who let the feed run, surely assuming Trump would get to the meat of the matter after a few minutes. Instead, he just yammered on about his new downtown property before giving way to his compatriots.
  1. Allow veterans to sing patriotic hosannas to Trump for roughly 30 minutes, unfiltered, to cable news audiences and other networks live-streaming the event, creating what is effectively a free half-hour infomercial.

And then there was the masterstroke:

At some point, the networks will get hip to the ruse and decide to cut away. When they do, that’s when to jump in and give them what they were waiting for. On Friday, this happened after about a half-hour, with CNN cutting away to the studio and the anchors shamefacedly acknowledging that they’d been had. I am certain the flattering introductions would have continued straight through Election Day if the networks hadn’t pulled the plug. They did, and very soon after Trump returned to the podium and got to the point.

And then the rest is easy:

Pretend not to hear the reporters screaming from a good distance back in their cordoned-off pen. I have never seen such a hostile press reaction as what ensued when Trump concluded his remarks and began to walk out. Things had gotten feral. MSNBC’s Katy Tur was standing on her chair in the front row screaming questions.

Escape to do a tour of the new downtown property with the camera crew pool, but without any producers or reporters in tow. Literally keep the reporters locked inside the ballroom until you’re safely away from them while using television cameras to record footage of your new downtown property. Use the Secret Service to bar anyone from using side doors into your new downtown property’s atrium, even though it’s now supposedly open to the public.

All of it worked perfectly:

It was not subtle. It was as subtle as the gold trim on the new downtown property’s urinals. This was a Trump initiative, after all. Everyone in that ballroom on Friday knew early on that we were being trolled. Afterward, the networks reportedly held an emergency conference call on which they agreed to erase the camera pool footage of the property tour, since no editorial figure had been allowed to join. It was a small measure of revenge.

Meanwhile, in the ballroom, the blue backdrop was collapsing, taking out all but one of the Old Glories in its path. Trump’s ruse was physically falling apart, but the man himself was long gone from the room.

The video of the stage collapsing has gone viral – the symbolic collapse of the Trump candidacy perhaps, or the collapse of the press as having any meaningful role to play in any of this anymore. It could be either, but in a comment on the previous column here, Rick Brown, a member of the team that created CNN in 1980, is not impressed with Trump:

Trump treats the media like just another toy in his toy box, which might or might not someday backfire on him. While his treatment of the press will immediately disqualify him with some voters, others, who don’t understand the role of journalists as standing in for the public, and don’t see a slight of the press as a slight on themselves, will think it’s a hoot.

Either way, the damage has been done: 

Those who remember learning in school that a free press is a necessary fixture in good countries, understand that when a politician fucks over the press, he’s fucking over those that the press ultimately serves, which is the public. And those who don’t remember that sort of thing from school will probably be voting for Donald Trump anyway.

But is it just me, or has Donald Trump single-handedly changed the way the press covers politics in this country, maybe forever?

There was a time, back when the differences between the parties were not so great, that the national news media took an objective approach to each side, not wanting to question the veracity of anyone’s stance for fear of being accused of partisan bias.

But times have changed. Trump has so completely flooded the public square with outrageous lies and sleazy innuendo, reporters and anchors have had no choice but to make it their job to call him out on every one of them. For example, this morning, every reporter I heard reporting this story made sure to insert words to the effect, “and he has wrongly claimed that Hillary Clinton was the first to question where president Obama was born.”

So is this the end of objective journalism? From now on, will there not be a dime’s worth of difference between “objective reporters” and “liberal reporters”? Time will tell. Maybe when this election is behind them, journalists will find a way to write new rules of political coverage.

Meanwhile, what’s your decision: Do you stop covering his campaign, just to spite the sonofabitch? That certainly would be fun!

But no, you keep on going. After all, just because the candidate keeps acting like an asshole doesn’t mean you can stop doing your job.

And maybe the worst thing is, as stupid as he is – and make no mistake, just because he knows how to play the press doesn’t mean he’s not stupid – but as stupid as he is, the asshole knows you’re in a bind.

The New York Times’ Gail Collins puts that a different way:

People, I know some of you get very frustrated that news coverage of this election does not begin every day with: “In yet another total falsehood, Donald Trump…” This is your moment.

The Day of the Double Falsehood is a very clear and very dramatic example of Trump’s tendency to, um, speak fictionally. He was just a real estate guy with a cheesy TV show until 2011, when he sort of ran for president, in a bid that focused almost entirely on his claims that Barack Obama had come from Kenya.

“Three weeks ago I thought he was born in this country. Right now I have some real doubts. I have people that actually have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told an NBC interviewer.

We never did learn what they found. But Trump has continued to get some of his most startling information from “people.” During the primary season in New Hampshire, a man at a Trump town hall gathering got up to claim Obama was a Muslim and “not even an American.” Strong candidates tell guys like this they’re wrong. Weak candidates ignore them. Trump responded, “You know, a lot of people are saying that.”

None of the outrageous things he says are his fault. You got a complaint, take it to the people.

But this is getting absurd:

Trump’s people were forced to come up with an unwinding scenario that did not require the candidate to admit he’d ever done anything wrong. So they sent out a press release announcing that Trump was the hero of the story – the man who stamped out the birther rumor, which was started by Hillary Clinton’s “vicious and conniving behavior.” Trump’s demands for the truth had forced Obama to release the long-form version of his Hawaii birth certificate while “Hillary Clinton was too weak to get an answer.”

“Inarguably, Donald J. Trump is a closer. Having successfully obtained President Obama’s birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States,” the campaign’s statement concluded.

Even the most creative minds in the press office could not come up with any explanation for why it took Trump five years to acknowledge what the birth certificate proved. Asked about that, Pence said, disjointedly and desperately, that his running mate’s record on behalf of the African-American community “really speaks for itself.”

It does? Again, who knew? Collins is puzzled by it all:

What we have here is a candidate for president of the United States who makes stuff up all the time, but is either incapable of realizing that he’s telling a lie, or constitutionally unable to take blame for being untruthful.

Yet, according to the polls, Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem is that the public thinks she’s dishonest. Amazing.

That is amazing, and Kevin Drum adds this:

I understand why reporters don’t like to use the word lie. It’s emotionally charged. You have to be absolutely sure that you’re referring to something that’s flatly, factually wrong, not merely exaggerated or cherry picked. And you have to be sure that the speaker knows he’s telling a lie.

Those are the rules. They aren’t my rules, but that’s neither here nor there. What they mean is that very few statements from politicians qualify as lies.

But this is the very reason that reporters need to start using it in this campaign. Donald Trump has basically hacked the media, using their own customs and traditions against them. He knows he can say anything he wants and will get away with it because reporters are so loath to call anything a lie.

But Donald Trump lies. He says Hillary Clinton started the birther controversy. He says Clinton has no policy on maternity leave or child care. He says we know nothing about Hillary Clinton’s religion. He says that crime is at record levels. He says the “true” unemployment rate is 40 percent. He says he saw thousands of Muslims cheering on 9/11. He says he opposed the Iraq War.

These things are plain and simple lies. Sure, it’s an emotionally charged word, but that’s the very reason reporters need to start using it. Because even by the strict standards of mainstream journalism, this is what Donald Trump traffics in. The public needs to understand that Trump goes far beyond normal political puffery, and the only way to do this is to take a deep breath and tell the truth: Donald Trump lies. Constantly.

Perhaps it is time to just come out and say that, to say the word, as often as necessary, but Josh Marshall sees something else:

If someone says for years that blacks have smaller brains and are only fit for menial labor or that Jews are parasites and greedy by nature and then finally says “Okay, maybe not, I’m not gonna say that anymore”, who cares? If such racist agitation is ever to be forgiven it’s only with a true recantation and apology and an explanation of why that person said and did such terrible things for so long. If you’re now apologizing, well, why did you say such a thing? You must have known it was wrong, right? Have you really had a change of heart? Or is this just convenient? If someone says, well, I just ran some new tests and I can now say the greedy thing isn’t true. So I know longer believe that and by the way, you’re welcome, Jews, I’m sure you appreciate my clearing that up. No one would take this as an apology or recantation but rather a new offense.

Birtherism isn’t just not-true. It’s conscious and deliberate racist agitation. Trump’s been doing that for years. He’s never explained or recanted or apologized or been held to any account.

And he didn’t apologize now. You must have known it was wrong, right? Have you really had a change of heart? No one got to ask those questions. This whole thing seems to have been intended to put the whole birther matters to rest, so Trump would never be asked about it again. Obama was born in America. That’s what he finally said. Move on.

Now that’s not going to happen. He further angered those who were already angered, and then he infuriated the press to the point where they’ll never cut him a bit of slack ever again. He made matters much worse, but then he is who he is. He’s the master of self-sabotage. He can’t help himself.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to A Return to Self-Sabotage

  1. Rick says:

    “…he infuriated the press to the point where they’ll never cut him a bit of slack ever again.”

    I wouldn’t bet on that. I’m sure I’m not the only journalist (or, in my case, maybe ex-journalist) who strongly suspected beforehand that this was a trap. Still, they had to play along with the ruse anyway.

    This business about Trump claiming that Hillary started this thing, while he ended it, reminds me of the occasional story you hear about some fireman being arrested for setting fires that he would then heroically rush in to put out.

    And his theatrics of yesterday also reminds me of his days way back before he was a candidate for anything, offering millions of dollars to charity if only president Obama would dance the can-can in a bikini, or something — desperate attempts to make himself look like a player, attempts that we would all sluff off without much more than a pathetic smirk, since he seemed to be the only one thinking he wasn’t irrelevant. But fast forward to 2016, and it’s truly a case of Albert Shanker getting his hands on nuclear weapons.

    But how much do his shenanigans hurt him? Unfortunately, not very much, as far as I can tell.

    I wonder, were anyone to do a study on real estate prices in Costa Rica right now, if they would find a rise that corresponds in any way to Donald Trump’s 538.com improving chances of winning this election?


  2. Russell Sadler says:

    Etch-a-Sketch doesn’t work unless the 3–year-old stops scribbling and yelling. The 3-year-old hasn’t stopped yet.

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