He jumped the gun in saying this. Trump’s presser began with a de facto ad for Trump hotels (of course) followed by a long series of comments by the veterans onstage with him, at which point it looked like the entire event was a psych-out. Trump had dangled the prospect of a formal statement on Obama’s origins, the press had bit, and now he was flipping the script on them, exploiting their interest in freak-show material like Birtherism to get them to carry the message he really wanted out there. That’s when CNN cut to Tapper for this commentary, at a moment when it seemed like the presser was a bait and switch. A few minutes later, though, Trump dutifully returned to the stage and gave the media what they wanted, a pro forma statement that Obama was born in the U.S. after all. It wasn’t a total Rickroll.
But Tapper’s not wrong. It was a partial Rickroll: The Birther announcement was tacked onto the end as an afterthought, knowing that the cable networks would carry the rest of the event live in anticipation. If Trump wanted a full Rickroll, he could have said at the start, “I was only kidding about giving a statement on Obama’s birth certificate today. We announced that because I knew it would bring you guys out. What I really want to talk about is veterans’ issues.” He would have essentially been daring them to pull the plug on their live coverage, knowing that doing so would confirm starkly that it’s freak-show stuff they care about most, not important policy. In the end he didn’t go that far but he did use them for his own purposes, just as he did throughout the primaries. This is a guy, remember, who ducked out of a debate early this year because he didn’t want to face Megyn Kelly but couldn’t stand the idea of his competitors getting free coverage in his absence, so he organized a veterans’ charity fundraiser to be covered live on CNN and MSNBC the same evening. This is a guy who, if you believe the accusations, used to pose as his own press spokesman in New York to whisper to the gossip sheets about the models he was dating. Media manipulation is his oldest and most renowned skill. Calling Trump a skillful troll is like calling Hillary untrustworthy. It’s not remarkable. It’s the central feature of their political identity.
And yet, on Twitter this morning, conservative social media was brimming with people oohing and ahhing at how King Troll had once again deftly suckered the press. As I write this, here’s how Drudge is covering the revelation that Trump’s birth-certificate demagoguery, which was his main contribution to American politics until he started babbling about the wall, was really just a scam he feels comfortable dropping now for self-interested political reasons:
WaPo, an eminent member of the media that just got trolled, was itself impressed with the brazenness of the trollery. Even a Trump critic as righteous as Ben Shapiro felt obliged to marvel at how thoroughly Trump had owned the press. And that’s true, as far as it goes.
But … it should go further, right? It’s been true for a long time that you can’t go wrong as a Republican in embarrassing the media, but watching people fall all over themselves this morning over Trump’s troll kung fu makes me think that’s now devolved into the idea that embarrassing the media is pretty much all you need to do. This guy spent five years pushing a conspiracy theory; for a long time it was his signature issue, key to building his image as a fearless anti-PC warrior, which helped him win the nomination this year. Now, 53 days out from a national election, the Republican nominee for president has to call a press conference to say, effectively, “Okay, looks like the president’s birth certificate was real after all.” And the main reaction from most conservatives seems to be “He sure got those media people good, didn’t he?” President Trump might stick us with single-payer, I guess, but as long as the Rose Garden photo op where he signs the bill features some sick media burns, he should be okay with his base. Let me suggest that if your main takeaway from all of this is “Trump is an awesome troll,” maybe the media isn’t the real mark here. We may have reached the point where media critics’ reaction to the media’s Trump coverage is lamer and more cynical than the coverage itself.
In lieu of an exit question, I’ll leave you with this parting thought from my pal Karl.