WASHINGTON >> Whether by whim or design, President Donald Trump keeps adding fuel to his incendiary Twitter battle against the media. The press is an easy target for the Republican president, and one his supporters love to hate.
But the escalating conflict has diverted attention not just from Trump’s failures but his claimed successes as well.
Trump tweeted today that “at some point the Fake News will be forced to discuss our great jobs numbers, strong economy, success with ISIS, the border & so much else!”
It’s his own campaign against the press, though, that keeps changing the subject from that more substantive policy debate Trump claims to crave. And it has hindered Trump’s ability to push his agenda through Congress, where Republicans complain about the president’s lack of focus as his health-care plan is struggling, work on next year’s budget is stuck and talk of a big infrastructure deal is fading.
Trump’s latest bash was a repurposed old video he tweeted on the weekend of him fake-pummeling a wrestling promoter whose face had been replaced by the CNN logo.
It was unprecedented, even for Trump: a sitting president, in effect promoting physical assault of a media stand-in. Media watchdogs quickly called him out.
Unrepentant, Trump argued over the weekend that his outsized Twitter presence was part of a calculated redefinition of the presidency.
“My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL,” he tweeted.
Trump spent the weekend at his private golf club in New Jersey. None of his top advisers traveled with him and his activities were closely held. There was no telling how much of his anti-press drumbeat was a calculated strategy to divert attention from his policy struggles vs. a capricious reaction to criticism.
But Trump was clearly being egged on by his supporters, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., a frequent attack dog for his father.
The younger Trump today contrasted the more accepting way the media have treated a New York production of Julius Ceasar, in which a Trumpian Ceasar dies in a bloody group stabbing, with the outcry over the wrestling clip.
“CNN & dems calling Trump assassination play ‘artistic expression’ but WWF joke meme is ‘a call for violence’? Hilarious reinforcement of FNN,” the younger Trump tweeted today, using an acronym for what the president has begun to refer to as the “Fake News Network.”
When a CNN reporter tweeted, “Isn’t pro wrestling fake?” Trump Jr. responded: “Yes, just like your coverage.”
Senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also piled on, tweeting that lately the “role of the media has been to retract false stories & fire liars” and that “patriotic vets died” so the press can “talk nonsense.”
Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer said that while presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon and George W. Bush have long distrusted and made derogatory statements about the press, Trump’s sustained and personal attacks are something entirely new.
“We haven’t really seen a president who seems totally consumed, which he’s been since the election, with the press as his adversary,” Zelizer said, describing the wrestling tweet as unprecedented.
While Trump’s electoral base may be urging him on, Zelizer said, the president risks alienating many Americans who have real problems.
They may get a rise out of Trump knocking the unpopular press every once in a while, he said, but “when you’re focusing on ‘Morning Joe’ instead of health care, it could alienate voters” and make them think the president is not engaged in issues that affect them.
“This does have consequences,” he said.
Likewise, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that by provoking a running battle with the press, Trump has “minimized accountability for his failures but he’s also not getting credit for his successes when he distracts us.”
Jamieson blamed Trump for stoking the battle, but also chided the press for giving it undue attention.
People care about jobs, defeating terrorism, preventing election hacks and the like, she said.
“Trump’s shenanigans in his relations with the press” would be very low on the list if the public were given a checklist of priorities to choose from, she said.
“If everything was fine all around the world, we would have the luxury of these sorts of distractions by the president and the press,” she said. “In the current world, we do not have that luxury.”
It remains unclear exactly how the wrestling video found its way onto Trump’s Twitter feed. Social media director Dan Scavino and the White House press office did not respond to emailed questions. A version of the video had previously appeared on Reddit, though a member of the president’s team appeared to add sound and convert the file from its original format to post it.
It’s not the first time that a meme has found its way from an obscure online channel to Trump’s Twitter feed. The president was criticized during the campaign for tweeting an anti-Hillary Clinton image featuring a Star of David and piles of money that had appeared in an internet forum featuring racist and hateful imagery.