Last week, the Associated Press’ Jill Colvin noticed that Donald Trump had suddenly begun to handle the media as though he was winning. Today, ABC’s Jonathan Karl goes to the record book to confirm it. Since the beginning of October, Trump has been on a media tear, so much so that he’s been more available this month than any other president they can find:
Forget all that “the enemy of the people” talk, Donald Trump has been spending a remarkable amount of time with reporters lately. In fact, ABC News can find no comparable time period when a president of the United States has taken more questions from the news media than Donald Trump has over the past 11 days.
“He has no fear of talking to the media,” a senior administration official, who asked to be quoted anonymously, told ABC News. “He relishes it and he has instructed his staff he wants to do it more.”
Since Oct. 6, the president has done (at least) five interviews with print publications and eight television interviews. During the same time period, he has held six impromptu press conferences with the White House press on the South Lawn and at 18 separate White House events (alas only one with Kanye West), the president has taken questions from White House reporters.
What’s changed? For one thing, it’s the midterms. Trump believes that he alone in the GOP has power to motivate marginally engaged voters, and so he’s fully committed to the mission. As the Washington Post reports today, Trump has embraced the idea that the midterms are a referendum on his performance:
“I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me,” Trump boomed this month at a rally in Southaven, Miss. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”
He said much the same in West Virginia, where he was promoting the state’s GOP Senate nominee: “A vote for Patrick Morrisey is a vote for me,” Trump said, in a line that Morrisey’s campaign repurposed in a new ad.
And Trump’s namesake son, Donald Trump Jr., has been making a similar appeal, warning that while voters may not even know their local congressman, they intuitively understand that the Trump name is on the ballot. “The reality is for them, Trump is on the ticket in 2018,” Trump Jr. said during a recent campaign swing in Texas.
The issue for Trump is not just to tout his own record, but also to warn what will happen if Democrats take over the House. Unless he demonstrates that the election matters to him, Trump reportedly told his advisers, it won’t matter to those voters who vaulted him over the top of the GOP heap in the 2016 primaries and then past Hillary Clinton in the general election.
“He’s basically internalized the message that, ‘I’m so important that people aren’t going to go out and vote unless it’s all about me,’” said a former White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid conversations.
That’s one obvious reason for the sudden media engagement. Even when that provides opportunities for stumbles (such as the “horseface” comment), Trump figures that he can flood the zone with all sorts of commentary and suck up all the oxygen in the national political media. That worked brilliantly in 2016, and it might work again in 2018. Some might predict that Trump’s blitz will motivate the Democratic base, but they were already highly motivated. The downside to this strategy seems negligible, at least as long as Trump doesn’t seriously put his foot in his mouth.
Perhaps something else is in play, though. Karl pinpoints his time reference to October 6. Two days after that, Trump met with Rod Rosenstein about the status of his job, and likely the status of the Robert Mueller investigation. Trump not only kept Rosenstein in place, he praised the job Rosenstein was doing at the DoJ even while his closest allies in the House were demanding that Rosenstein appear under oath to testify about the NYT story. Eight days after that, Bloomberg reports that Mueller’s looking to finalize a report to Rosenstein next month.
The timing of the report may not tell us much, but does Trump’s newfound confidence in media handling indicate that he thinks he’s in the clear? The only mention of a “witch hunt” on Trump’s Twitter timeline on October (as of this writing at 10:36 am ET) came a couple of days ago in reference to Bruce Ohr and his continuing employment by the DoJ. Trump hasn’t mentioned Mueller at all this month, not even after yesterday’s Bloomberg report, nor the word “collusion.” That lacuna on the Russia probe might be another record.
Whatever the reason, Trump seems much more engaged with the media than at any other time in his presidency. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Or maybe he’s just convinced that the media doesn’t know better.