Donald Trump is good at many things, but his greatest gift may be his ability to distract
the newshounds by shouting “Squirrel!” and sending them sniffing for a new story. But this week, the dogs wouldn’t stop gnawing on the president’s leg, no matter what he said.
His Cabinet secretaries might be grateful. The crying-babies, kids-in-cages news coverage about the U.S.-Mexican border pushed a Forbes story about Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ foreign investments to the inside pages. And as for every reporter’s favorite Trump administration piñata, the border story has been as great for Scott Pruitt as it has been horrible for Donald Trump.
A couple of months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator was Washington’s hottest copy, with the press corps lighting him up again and again for his profligate, unethical and dodgy ways. Reporters busted him for everything from dispatching aides to run personal errands to giving political aides huge backdoor raises to renting (at a steep discount) a condo from a lobbyist’s wife.
As Pruitt’s rap sheet expanded and the news momentum gathered, he looked like a goner. Calls for him to resign came from the usual liberal voices in the environmental protection-industrial complex as well as from unexpected places, including slews of Capitol Hill Republicans, the Weekly Standard, National Review and even a minor Fox News host. As Pruitt twisted in the wind and the media morticians measured him for interment, he was saved twice by other news storms that displaced him as Topic A: The April Bill Cosby verdict and then the on-again, off-again North Korea talks, both of which clogged the headlines like bacon fat poured down the drain.
Then the border crisis shifted the press’ gaze once more, turning Pruitt into a three-peat winner. But perhaps for the first time in Donald Trump’s presidency, thanks to contradictory policy moves not even his supporters could understand, the president came out the loser.
The border story couldn’t have arrived at a worse time for Trump. After the inspector general’s report on FBI handling of the Clinton email investigation came out on June 14, Trump seized on it with his demagogic tentacles and started to score points with his misguided supporters about how the deep state had attempted to block his election. He falsely claimed that it “totally exonerates me,” when it does no such thing, and asserted that it “totally discredited” special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, which is also a lie. Given that few of his supporters were ever going to fact-check his bluster by reading the 568-page report, Trump profited politically with his early obfuscations and manipulations of his bases’ prejudices.
But when the border story took over, two things happened. Just as Cosby, North Korea and the border saved Pruitt by pushing him out of his top news ranking, the border story nullified Trump’s howling about the IG report and the evil James Comey. Nobody wanted to hear about the IG anymore; they wanted to hear Trump justify the border policy. Trump was now facing a story that couldn’t be diluted or contaminated with Twitter truculence.
Oh he tried. First he blamed family separations on the Democrats, but nobody believed him. Then he tried to pass the buck to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and that didn’t work at all. As much as he howled, his message about “enforcing the law” couldn’t find footing. His blather was overwhelmed by the emotional punch carried by the pictures and the stories about families breaking up. (MSNBC pushed the story the hardest, applying almost a Fox News thoroughness to nurturing, advancing, and yes, sensationalizing the story.) Even congressional Republicans peeled off in great numbers. It was all too much for the president. On Wednesday, he waved the white flag by signing an order in a stagy TV performance that was supposed to indicate that he was “solving” the problem.
But what he really did was surrender while declaring victory. For all his constant talk about strength, Trump came off weak and depleted. After he went to Capitol Hill to sell his version of the immigration bill, it failed. And his intervention in the furor over Melania’s jacket — in which he contradicted her office’s explanation of what the jacket slogan meant — came off as doddering and hopeless.
For three years now we’ve been told that nothing bad sticks to Trump, that his mind games and double-talk make him invulnerable to the protestations of the righteous. That no matter how tight his detractors tie the knot, he’ll always slip out of it. This week we learned differently. Trump can reliably win the battle if it’s fought with words. But against images and descriptions of distraught and traumatized children and parents, Trump’s superpowers fail. If you want to beat Trump, hit him in the heart because he doesn’t seem to have one. He’s a man with zero emotional intelligence.