On Wednesday morning, President-elect Donald Trump might have had reason to be nervous — if, of course, he acknowledged that feeling existed. Claims of the Russian government possessing damaging information about his personal life were everywhere. His secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson was facing tough questions from Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Russia and Vladimir Putin. And Trump was scheduled to hold a news conference — his first since last summer.
By the time Trump was done with his lunchtime press conference — one filled with half-truths and distortions — he had won the day.
How? By turning the Russia story into a debate over fake news and the media — and in so doing, turning the media against itself.
This was no accident. From Trump’s opening statement, it was clear that he wanted to make the story of the day one about the media and its foibles. Here’s the first thing Trump said:
“It’s very familiar territory, news conferences, because we used to give them on an almost daily basis. I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences and it’s good to be with you.
“We stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news, but I do have to say that — and I must say that I want to thank a lot of the news organizations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by maybe the intelligence agencies? Who knows, but maybe the intelligence agencies, which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that. A tremendous blot, because a thing like that should have never been written, it should never have been had and it should certainly never been released.”
Immediately the theme of the news conference is established. Most of the media is good. But some aren’t. And this whole Russia story is really about why some in the media — BuzzFeed, in particular — decided to publish a dossier filled with unverifiable claims about Trump. Whether or not Trump had seen the two-page summary of what was in the dossier — intelligence officials said he had — was lost in the shuffle.
Then came Trump’s showdown with CNN’s Jim Acosta in which Acosta repeatedly tried to ask a question of the President-elect only to be stymied in his attempt to do so. Here’s that exchange:
ACOSTA: Can you give us a question since you’re attacking us? Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. I’m not going to give you a question.
ACOSTA: Can you state ...
TRUMP: You are fake news.
If there was any question what the story coming out of the news conference would be, it ended in that exchange. Conservatives cheered Trump’s willingness to shout down an adversarial reporter. The media warned of the dangers posed by Trump’s willingness to punish journalists who didn’t treat him well. Talk of what made “fake news” was everywhere. So was chatter about whether or not BuzzFeed should have published the dossier.
What wasn’t everywhere — and by that I mean top of mind for the average American — was Trump’s skirting of a blind trust for his assets. Or his continued unwillingness to condemn Putin. Or any real clarity about what he knew when about the Russian dossier. Or any serious discussion about Trump’s continued unwillingness to release his tax returns.
You get the idea. The day became dominated by two narratives that are good for Trump: 1) Him versus the media and 2) The media versus the media.
You let this happen!!!!, screamed media critics. You followed the bright shiny thing rather than pushing Trump on what really matters!
An easy charge to level. But one that is simply not born out by the facts. Reporters did try to push Trump. He refused to engage, preferring to either call on reporters more favorable to him — the question on Trump’s recommendations for the media to do better was ridiculous — to help drive his preferred message.
And we — the media — covered the lack of a blind trust. And Trump’s refusal to release his taxes. And his lack of criticism of Putin. But all of that got lost amid the maelstrom about the media that Trump was able to kick up and then — through the power of social media — stoke.
@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!
Trump won Wednesday. That’s a testament to his nuanced understanding of how the modern media works, the media’s own soft spots and the ways in which polarization dictates how people consume any news event. It’s also further evidence that the Trump presidency will be like nothing politics has ever seen before.
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for The Washington Post.