Does Donald Trump have a message discipline issue, or a media bias problem? That question produced some fireworks yesterday between CNN’s Jake Tapper and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. “What do you say to Republicans,” Tapper asked Manafort on yesterday’s State of the Union, “when they call you up and say ‘please get Mr. Trump to focus’?” Manafort immediately challenged the question’s premise and eventually Tapper’s fairness, which is when the conversation got interesting (via The Hill):
MANAFORT: … I mean, there’s plenty of news to cover this week that I haven’t seen covered. You had information coming out about pay-for-play out of e-mails of Hillary Clinton’s that weren’t turned over, by the way, to the Justice Department for her investigation. That’s a major news story. You had — you had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists. You had a number of things that were appropriate to this campaign, were part of what Mr. Trump has been talking about. You had economic numbers coming out this week that showed that productivity is down, housing ownership is down, unemployment, you know, is at the — at over 102 million. These are all things that could have been covered this week.
MANAFORT: Instead, you took an aside that the Clinton narrative told you was something, Mr. Trump told you he didn’t mean, and you played it out for two days.
TAPPER: OK. First of all…
MANAFORT: And that’s what we’re talking about.
TAPPER: … and the — but, just as a factual matter, on Monday, my show covered Mr. Trump’s speech, OK? We did. We covered Mr. Trump’s speech. We covered the narrative. And we did cover those Hillary Clinton e-mails. So, when — these things, just because you say them, they’re not — they’re not true. I mean, we have been covering the substance. We have been covering the things that are bad to Hillary Clinton.
MANAFORT: Jake, we — we — Jake, we have been talking about these messages all week. You covered it one day, and you covered this aside about the Second Amendment for three days. I mean, come on. There’s not a comparison here. You had a chance to have a serious discussion about the two economic programs that were presented this past week, this very week, by the two candidates. There was no discussion. There was no comparison. Instead, you took these asides.
Why did the media cover it for three days? Tapper argues that in large part the Trump campaign kept it afloat by not dealing with it promptly:
TAPPER: And you — and Mr. Trump bears no responsibility — and Mr. Trump bears no responsibility for his campaign being off-message? He is not the — his comments about the Second Amendment had nothing to do with why we weren’t covering the economic message?
MANAFORT: His point about the Second Amendment was that people who cared about the Second Amendment should be concerned about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and that those who are concerned probably would take up the cause. Now, there’s — you can interpret it, which I certainly didn’t, as a threat. But if you want to go back and look at threats, then you ought to look — go back to 2008, when Hillary Clinton was running against Obama, and in May of that year, when she was clearly the loser and asked, why are you still in the race, she said, well, remember, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. I mean, that’s a much more direct reference, and laid at the feet of Hillary Clinton.
TAPPER: We did cover — I did cover that in 2008. I did cover it in 2008. And Hillary Clinton, you know what she did? She issued an apology. She said: I’m sorry my comments were meant that way, construed that way. That’s not how I meant it.
That criticism applies more to the controversy surrounding the Khans than Trump’s Second Amendment comment. Trump didn’t keep making the comment, although he did keep defending it rather than just offer a “sorry it got misinterpreted” non-apology apology to dial down the story. It seems doubtful that the media in this cycle would have gotten over it as quickly as they did with Hillary Clinton eight years ago either, although we will never know that for sure. With the Khans, however, Trump kept doubling down on his attacks long after the First Rule of Holes applied, giving the media lots of material for that coverage.
Ironically, Manafort attacks one of the few national news figures who actually has tried to apply equal attention to Hillary Clinton’s scandals. Perhaps Manafort felt that he needed to maintain message discipline on the media-bias argument no matter where he appeared, but in this case Manafort doesn’t seem cognizant that he might have had an ally on that argument had he praised Tapper for his balanced coverage and contrasted it with everyone else. Manafort has a good argument, but picking one’s ground for a fight is just as critical.