President Trump just can't seem to help himself. The morning after Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, released a sketch of the man who allegedly threatened her and her child, Trump tweeted: "A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it!)."
About two hours later, he shared his thoughts on former FBI Director James Comey, who appeared on Stephen Colbert's show Tuesday night to promote his book about the damage Trump has been inflicting on our democracy. "Slippery James Comey," the President wrote, "the worst FBI Director in history, was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation where, by the way, there was NO COLLUSION (except by Dems)!"
One would think the President might not want to give more attention to either of these stories, which seem to have been causing headaches for his staff. But as usual, rather than taking a low profile, he jumps right into a scandal head first.
Typically, Trump uses scandal -- even when it's about him and his team -- to distract the public from policy and political challenges he faces. Better to talk about Stormy Daniels than his administration's chaotic few days making decisions about sanctions on Russia.
Indeed, the President has turned the 1997 film "Wag the Dog" right on its head. In that powerful satire, Robert De Niro famously played a political spin doctor who reaches out to a Hollywood producer, played by Dustin Hoffman, when the President faces a major scandal involving his making sexual advances on an underage girl in the Oval Office just a few weeks before the election. The two men manufacture a fake war in Albania so the public won't ever know about the allegations.
The strategy was simple: Distract the public with a big move on foreign policy. The movie came out right before Monica Lewinsky's story about her sexual relationship with President Clinton while she was a White House intern emerged on the front pages of newspapers. When House Republicans were moving to impeach President Clinton for lying about his relationship to Lewinsky, and he announced missile strikes against Iraq, many commentators couldn't help but conclude he was recreating the premises of the movie by distracting the public.
But what if a political sex scandal is actually the better distraction? That's what Trump seems to be trying to do.
Not only does he have a rapid and aggressive response to accusations, but he also intentionally stokes the scandal fires with inflammatory statements, just as he has done this week during Comey's book tour. Surely, there is a small part of the commander in chief that understands his suggesting the former FBI director should be imprisoned, as he did a few days ago, will cause controversy and give Comey's story more staying power. That, though, is an incentive rather than a deterrent. As he anticipates, the media is consumed by these moments and gives them 24-hour coverage.
What Trump understands best of all is not simply that the media can't resist covering scandals, but that the American public can't stop following. He assumes, correctly, that we are not a nation of policy wonks. Multiple generations of Americans who have grown up watching reality television, daytime talk shows and political fiction series like "Scandal" are usually more likely to tune in to discussions about his latest personal scandal, in or out of Washington, than the nuts and bolts of policy or congressional campaigns. While we might yearn for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in reality, as Trump senses, most Americans would rather be taking selfies and scrolling through their Twitter feed.
Thus the tweets about the scandals may be Trump's way of keeping the public's eye off the very real policy changes he has been making, policy decisions that might not be particularly popular. For instance, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has made aggressive moves to roll back popular environmental regulations that have been put into place over the past few years.
The President has also freed up the business community from workplace protections that many of them found burdensome.
The President's most controversial foreign policy decisions, such as this week's decision to back away from tough sanctions on Russia, are frequently drowned out by the debates over the most recent revelations in the Russia investigation.
The Michael Cohen-Sean Hannity "bromance" was the top story on the very day that administration officials sent word to the press knocking the knees out from under UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and the Daniels tweet came on the day Haley made some tough statements in response. Many of President Trump's ardent supporters might be upset to learn about how he has spent far more energy cutting corporate taxes than working on an infrastructure plan that could bring jobs back to struggling districts.
It is not only policy decisions that get buried in the Trumpian chaos but political problems as well. There is substantial evidence that Republicans could be facing a wave election. The kind of damage the President is inflicting on his party is less appealing for President Trump to watch than seeing the television anchors speak about the sketch of the man who allegedly threatened a porn actress.
The radical conservatism that President Trump has pursued, his failures to deliver on key campaign promises, and the rather significant mistakes he has made might be the most important stories of the past year and a half. And it is not that reporters are not tracking any of this. Indeed, they are. In a recent New Yorker, for example, Margaret Talbot published a powerful expose of the kinds of deregulatory policy changes Pruitt has been pursuing.
But the scandal machine has the capacity to perpetually relegate those stories to secondary status. President Trump floods the zone with so much scandal that they can't compete. Although we can't say for sure, it might be that the President, who has such a keen feel for the rhythm of the modern media and the uglier side of the public psyche, is purposely keeping our eye off the ball. Given that he is someone who feels little shame, President Trump might be willing to withstand the impact these stories have on how the public perceives his character.
None of this is to say that his strategy will work. History shows that scandals are unpredictable and difficult for a president to control. The FBI raid of Cohen's files and Robert Mueller's investigation should both be reminders to the President that you can't really determine how a scandal might unfold.
Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both learned that scandals can take turns that pose serious dangers for a president that were not anticipated (like the obstruction of justice part of Watergate or the Lewinsky development that grew out of the Whitewater investigation). It's a high stakes gamble.
Regardless of the outcome, we should however stop assuming the President would prefer for all these scandals to go away and reporters should be tougher in trying to think about which stories recede when these stories flare. After all, if stories like Stormy Daniels started to fade, more of the public might actually start paying attention around the water cooler to how Trump is impacting public policy, electoral politics and our government institutions.
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