Two days ago, in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, Trump held an extended press conference – it lasted over an hour – that once more showcased his uncanny ability to run circles around the media. Trump began the conference by pointedly noting that “It has been 235 days since Crooked Hillary has held a press conference” – an observation not lost on the press. Say what you will about Donald – he’s not shy about mixing it up with journalists. Thereafter the press conference turned into Donald performance art – he took all questions, and responded in his usual rambling, bombastic, speak-first-think-later mode. And, as is generally the case, he made news that led most of the major media outlets that day. In this case it was his response to a question regarding whether he had any knowledge of Russians hacking DNC emails. I want you to listen to his response to this question. This is the portion, particularly the last 17 seconds, which was replayed endlessly on television and radio for the next 48 hours.
After this statement, Trump went on to say, “”They probably have them. I’d like to have released. ..Now, if Russia or China or any other country has those e-mails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.” However, this follow up remark didn’t get as much press coverage.
Almost as soon as he finished the last sentence in the video about the media, my twitter feed exploded in righteous indignation. According to the denizens of my twitterverse, Trump had just invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account! How could any real American countenance such an act? In the hothouse environment of social media, the ramifications of Donald statements expanded wildly. Had he committed treason? Was this a felony? Could he be prosecuted? According to many commentators, The Donald’s statement immediately disqualified him from receiving national security briefings – if not from running for the Presidency at all. (Senator Harry Reid suggested Trump be given false security briefings.) Mainstream media outlets joined the fray running stories with headlines proclaiming Trump had invited Russians to meddle in U.S. politics. Clinton’s campaign was only too happy to pile on, claiming that Trump’s statement was a clear indication of his disloyalty to America. During his speech at the Democratic Convention, former CIA director Leon Panetta made direct reference to Trump’s remarks as evidence that he was unfit to be president.
Meanwhile, Donald’s campaign put out a statement arguing that Trump was merely asking the Russians to release Clinton’s missing emails if they had them. This excuse went nowhere with Trump’s critics, who dismissed it out of hand and continued their full-throated prosecution of what they viewed as his clear invitation for the Russians to conduct an illegal act and hack Clinton’s emails. As is his wont, rather than roll his comments back, Trump used twitter to double down on his initial comments:
If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton's 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2016
He later claimed that he was being sarcastic when he made the comments, but the denizens of my twitter feed were having none of it.
At first glance it would seem that this type of negative coverage would prove damaging to Trump’s campaign. But I don’t think that’s the case – in fact, I think it probably helped him. Here’s why. If you are wearing partisan blinders, remove them now, and then go back and listen to the video excerpt I posted above. Try to listen to it as if you were my neighbors, Joe and Jane Sixpack – a hardworking couple who have only a mild interest in politics, use social media just to keep up with their kids and religiously avoid cable news talk shows. Their political leanings run moderate, they love watching The Big Bang Theory and Love It or List It, and they are only now beginning to tune into the presidential race. My guess is that this excerpt is not going to trigger a deep conversation on their part about whether Trump broke treason laws. Instead, to the degree that it triggers any response at all, I think Joe and Jane Sixpack will be reminded of Hillary’s missing emails and will link that back to her email server problems. And that probably will be the end of the conversation about this event – they will file it away as one more data point regarding her untrustworthiness and move on.
I understand the need for hard-core partisans to frame media events, like Trump’s press conference, within a preconceived world view. But for most Americans who only tangentially pay attention to politics, Trump’s excerpted comments will likely be viewed for what it appears to be on first listening, without any effort at deeper analysis: a straightforward question referring to Hillary’s missing emails. Yes, I realize that partisans don’t see it this way – but their views on Trump are already baked in. It is the less ideologically committed voters who both sides need to appeal to, and my guess is they aren’t going to see Trump’s statement as a sign of disloyalty.
I long ago gave up trying to decide whether Trump consciously thinks through his media strategy, or he is simply acting on instincts honed through years of being in the media spotlight. But whatever the motivation, this most recent press conference, and the ensuing debate over his remarks, is the latest reminder of how he has successful parlayed overblown media coverage into his current position as the Republican nominee for president. Months ago, when Trump first announced his candidacy and it was clear his polling numbers were on the rise, I made a gentle plea for pundits to try to cover him as just another candidate, rather than giving him the outsized exposure they had been prone to do, and that he so craves. Alas, as always, my voice went unheard, and here we are.
Next up: how Trump’s four-point post-convention poll bump proves the event in Cleveland was a total disaster.