Starting in the final year of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, President Donald Trump would periodically repeat to his personal lawyer and political advocate Rudy Giuliani a key, three-word phrase. “Control the agenda,” he’d privately tell his attorney, according to three people who’ve heard the president say this.
Trump would deploy the phrase specifically when commenting on, and attaboying, Giuliani’s latest television appearances, media hits that would at times turn comically combative, careen off the rails, and seem to create bigger public-relations headaches than they were worth. No matter, the president typically advised. So often, the point wasn’t to keep the peace but to kick up dust, take the fight to the media, and to try to force news outlets to cover and discuss topics on Trump’s terms, all in the hopes of swaying, or muddying, public opinion.
It’s one strategy that has served this president well on and off, with perhaps the biggest payoff the outcome of the 2016 election. But the president’s preferred media strategy of omnipresence doesn’t always pay off. It didn’t stop the House from falling to the Democrats in the 2018 midterms, and Trump and Giuliani’s devotion to the tactic arguably triggered the chain reaction that led to the president getting impeached.
Especially if Trump is in an electoral or political bind, as with the midterm elections, he will demand to his staff that he get as many interviewers into the Oval Office as possible, and that as many of his “exclusives” on TV and cable news get aired as quickly as possible. To Trump, virtually all of his political woes can be fixed if he can just command an ungodly amount of media attention. He clings to this notion even when it is dramatically challenged, such as earlier this year when his regular presence at the White House coronavirus briefings ravaged his poll numbers, led to senior aides begging him to stop doing them, and eventually resulted in the president halting his appearances.
But now, with his daily on-camera briefings long gone—and his 2020 campaign struggling against Joe Biden in the midst of Trump’s handling of a global pandemic, a shattered U.S. economy, and a mass protest movement—the president and his White House are once again returning to the familiar game plan and mounting yet another media blitz to satisfy Trump’s impulses. Several sources close to the president say he feels the move will improve his 2020 chances, as various other attempts at a campaign reboot and retooling fell flat or ended in utter disaster.
So far, there’s no evidence the media blitz is working.
Since late last month, Trump has done interviews with Telemundo, Gray Television, CBS, Townhall, The Washington Post, Sinclair, Fox News, and Fox Business. As of this weekend, the president’s standing in most of the public polling against presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Biden remained at a punishing low. And on Sunday, Fox aired yet another sit-down with Trump, which even some of the president’s closest allies saw as a waste of time.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, whom Trump has previously derided as a “Mike Wallace wannabe,” the president claimed the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases in the United States were merely young people “with the sniffles” and said of the rising death toll, “It is what it is.” Elsewhere in the interview, Trump got into a strange debate over his recent cognitive test results, with Trump claiming that the exam questions “get very hard” and Wallace clarifying that one of those questions just asks the patient to correctly identify an image of an elephant.
“No, no, no,” the president snapped back at the Fox News anchor. “You see, that’s all misrepresentation.”
Not everyone dwelling in Trumpworld or serving the president found the back-and-forth helpful. A senior White House official told The Daily Beast on Sunday afternoon that there is no “rational reason” for the president to have done Wallace’s show at this time. Asked why Trump decided to do Fox News Sunday now, another source close to the president immediately replied, “I don’t fucking know.”
This person added, “He’s going to get a certain percentage of Fox viewers voting for him no matter what, so it makes no sense to take a risk like that this late in the election cycle, especially when he’s not winning.”
And on Sunday, Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former White House communications director who has since become a vocal Trump foe, posted to Twitter that the “Chris Wallace interview is Biden’s campaign ad.” (Later in the day, the former vice president’s campaign officials indeed seized on soundbites from the sit-down.)
Still, others in the president’s orbit sought to work the refs and simply make Wallace the problem.
“Chris Wallace seems to have been taking lessons from Jim Acosta. He’s focusing on petty and divisive levels rather than get into the real issues,” former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a current Trump surrogate, told The Daily Beast on Sunday evening, adding, “I would like to see a similar no-holds-barred interview of Joe Biden.”
Elsewhere in the “no-holds-barred” interview, the Fox host told the president that, with less than four months to go until the election in November, “at this point you’re losing.” He described the results of a new Fox News poll that had Biden leading Trump, 49 percent to 41 percent, among registered voters.
“First of all, I’m not losing because those are fake polls,” the president replied. “They were fake in 2016 and now they’re even more fake.”
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