Not 24 hours ago, WaPo ran a story about how frustrated House Democrats are that they can’t get away from him. They try to talk about health care — and suddenly there’s news about a new tariff. They try to talk about their big ethics bill — and there’s a bulletin about Russiagate. Even when they’re talking (reluctantly) about impeachment, they’re apt to be thrown off by some major new immigration policy or whatever that Trump is rolling out. And of course there’s always, always a tweet. They can’t get a word in edgewise in the news cycle. They’re constantly, endlessly reacting to whatever the hell it is that the president’s done now.
Imagine how they feel upon finding out that their presidential candidates will have to react to him too during what was supposed to be their showcase, the presidential debates.
It’s fitting, though. We elected the world’s biggest troll president. If ever there was an event in which he should be online trolling, this is it:
The president, who has spent years embracing social media for his political advantage, is tentatively planning to live-tweet the debates on June 26-27, according to people familiar with the planning…
Interacting in real time on Twitter would make Mr. Trump’s presence more tangible by directly inserting himself into the political conversation unfolding on stage. His posts could provide instant responses as well as insights into which attacks he feels most acutely…
Political advisers have long wanted Mr. Trump to tap the brakes on attacking Democratic presidential rivals, concerned that the president’s reactions would elevate contenders and provide some shield from what otherwise could be a bruising primary battle. Mr. Trump’s broadsides against former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, have coincided with polls that increasingly show voters view Mr. Biden as the most likely to deny the president a second term.
It’ll be like “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” says Emily Zanotti, except in real time, with the people onscreen talking back to their critic-in-chief as they’re informed of what he’s tweeting. His advisors are reportedly lukewarm about the idea, reasoning that it’s foolish to get in the middle of what’s bound to be an entertaining Democratic brawl, but Trump could try to facilitate the brawling with his tweets. Instead of rolling out dopey jabs at “Sleepy Joe” or whatever, he could have his aides standing by ready to post some of the criticisms the candidates have thrown at each other during the campaign to stir things up between them in case they’re reluctant to engage. In other words, try to instigate a rhetorical barroom brawl from the comfort of the Oval Office.
But I don’t know that any of this is strategic. Trump being Trump, it may be as simple as our narcissistic president not being able to tolerate the thought of Democrats hoarding his media spotlight for two nights in a row. MSNBC’s putting on a big all-star political show — and he’s not in it. Worse, he won’t get a chance to participate in any debates himself this time around. So he’s going to virtually crash the Democratic production, essentially inserting himself as the 21st man onstage.
He’ll probably just insult them sporadically and retweet fact-check stuff that’s being posted by the RNC account. Most of the fun will come from watching Democrats weigh how to react. Someone like Warren who’s trying to distinguish herself as a serious wonk, the Candidate Of Ideas, will declare upfront that she won’t respond to anything Trump tweets because it’s beneath the dignity of the event. We have real problems as a country, she’ll say, and unlike the president I care about solving them. Biden, meanwhile, might choose to fire back at Trump while onstage just to prove to lefties that he’s a “fighter,” the sort of nominee who’ll give as good as he gets on the campaign trail next year. The DNC and various media commentators will likely harrumph and try to set ground rules about his tweets beforehand, most likely specifically barring moderators from referencing something Trump’s tweeted so as not to incentivize him to do it. (Joe Scarborough’s already pushing that, actually.) For all the hype about his Twitter reach, it’s undeniably true that television coverage of his tweets amplifies their reach many times over. A typical Trump tweet might earn, say, 20,000 retweets and 50,000 likes; anyone not on Twitter, which includes a *lot* of older Americans, would never see what he’s saying if not for TV news picking it up.
So Democrats, I’d bet, are going to take a simple approach to this: Don’t feed the troll. Moderators can’t ask about his tweets, candidates can’t reference them. We’ll see if either group follows that rule.