How would you grade President Donald Trump’s job performance so far? At least when it comes to turning the tables on his political enemies, he gets a solid “A.”
Two days after a firestorm of controversy over Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose less-than-truthful testimony during his confirmation hearing forced him to recuse himself from any investigation into Russia and the 2016 election, Trump suggested without evidence that his predecessor pulled a Nixon and bugged his phones. Then, a day later, the White House asked Congress to look into the wiretap allegations.
In a statement to the media on Sunday morning, White House Press Secretary Sean “Spicy” Spicer said the president is requesting that Congress “exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.” Spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders ran with that line during her appearance on ABC’s This Week, all but saying that if Trump’s phones were tapped, it would be the biggest political scandal in American history. Congress had to probe the issue, she said, it would be malpractice if it didn’t.
The administration certainly gets points for deflecting. The combination of Trump’s weekend tweet that President Barack Obama may have broken the law for political advantage and Spicer’s statement that Congress needs to spend time investigating what the president himself alleged have changed the story markedly over the past 72 hours. The headlines on the front page of the New York Times and the leads in Politico are no longer about Sessions’ recusal, Trump berating his subordinates for bad performance, or pervasive worries within the bureaucracy. They’re now all about the fanciful notion that the Obama White House ordered surveillance of the president-elect.
The media is buying right into the narrative.
For all of Trump’s disdain for “fake news,” he sure has a talent for manipulating what the media covers. This has been observed before by political pundits left and right, and we need only go back to the grueling campaign last year for numerous examples of when Trump said something outrageous in order to send reporters running after a shiny object. The most memorable example came when Trump brought President Bill Clinton’s accusers to a hastily arranged press conference on the eve of the second presidential debate, a period of time when the Access Hollywood tape could very well have cratered his candidacy.
Trump is a master manipulator. He’s been interacting with the media for decades, and he recognizes that all he needs to do is start another fire to send the firefighters running down the street.
Trump and his advisors in the White House know the Russia coverage isn’t going away as long as more stories about more meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials are published. He realizes that as long as multiple investigations are being conducted by the intelligence committees and the Justice Department, there is a risk that more damaging developments will see the light of day. He hasn’t done a particularly good job of defending himself on the merits, and if public reports over the first five weeks of his presidency are anything to go by, he doesn’t believe that his staff is doing a decent enough job either. Deflecting, distracting, and causing controversy may be the only for Trump to fight back.
Fortunately for him, the media is eating it up.