Donald Trump is a master media manipulator.
Whatever else you think of him, it’s hard to dispute that fact. Drawing on his decades of experience navigating New York City’s media maelstrom – the roughest in the country –Trump has spent the last three and a half years implementing the lessons he learned. At the top of that list? If you don’t like a story or narrative out there about yourself, give the media something else to chew on – something that works better for you.
It’s the Shiny Object Strategy. The media, like a cat, is often easily distracted. So put something in front of them that they can’t resist and they will follow it, forgetting all about that other thing that was super important to them five minutes before.
The last 36 hours illustrate Trump’s approach.
Since last Monday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump has been crushed with negative headlines about his statements in that meeting. He repeatedly refused to condemn Russia for its meddling in the 2016 election and instead said that both Russia and the US bore blame for the situation. Attempts to clean up that performance led to further problems – with Trump still unable to say directly that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election and seemingly suggesting later in the week that Russia was no longer targeting the United States for future election meddling.
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The media coverage worsened. Many outlets – and me – declared it the worst week of Trump’s presidency to date. Behind the scenes the President, an absolutely avid consumer of cable TV and headlines, fumed. And planned a way to change the story, to turn the page.
As he has done so many times before, that page-turning came via Twitter – at 11:24 p.m. ET Sunday night. Tweeted Trump:
“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
Threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered” is a hell of a way to change the story from Russia. Iran is an aspiring nuclear nation with a long history of enmity toward the United States. A tweet like Trump’s seems certain to further destabilize the already fraught relationship and the chances at moving Iran away from their nuclear path. (Already the Iranians are responding; “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED,” tweeted Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Monday night.)
But Trump wasn’t done with his distraction campaign. At Monday’s daily briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about a tweet from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in which he proposed stripping John Brennan of his security clearance due to critical comments the former CIA chief made in the wake of the Trump-Putin summit.
Clearly ready for the question – and wanting to make news – Sanders read off a list of six names, including Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey, that she said Trump was considering for the revocation of their security clearances.
The practical effect of the security clearance gambit would be minor: Comey and his former deputy, Andrew McCabe, no longer even have security clearances while Clapper and former NSA chief Michael Hayden no longer even attend classified briefings.
That, of course, is beside the point. Like the Iran tweet, the floating of security clearance revocation is meant to change the subject, to allow Trump to fight on what he believes to be more favorable ground.
In the case of Iran, Trump can come off as tough and unintimidated by threats from Iran, a rogue nation that has plagued American presidents for decades. He can draw on comparisons to how his tough talk turned into a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The security clearance fight, while almost entirely symbolic, allows Trump to poke at the idea – beloved by his supporters – that the so-called “deep state” is out there and working to undercut him because he poses such a threat to their permanent rule of government. The idea of a cabal of intelligence and national security officials who worked under President Barack Obama getting rich off of their access to secret information is a powerful one that Trump knows, intuitively, his base will respond to.
Trump isn’t wrong. Coverage of the Iran tweet was everywhere on Monday and, so far today, his security clearance idea is leading most websites and cable channels.
But there is danger for the country when the President is willing to float the idea of a war with Iran or the creation of an enemies list in order to keep us from talking about his odd behavior with the Russians and the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.
Why danger? Because Iran, judging from their initial reaction, doesn’t take Trump’s threat lightly – or see it solely as a way to change the subject domestically from Russia. And because suggesting that people who disagree with you but have done nothing else wrong should be punished solely because they are willing to speak out about their issues with your decisions sends a chilling message to the country (and the world) about how the world’s greatest democracy handles dissent.
It’s not clear whether Trump understands – or cares – how dangerous a game he is playing here. His needs seem more basic: He hates the Russia story and knows he is losing on it. So he finds better ground to fight. He seems entirely unconcerned how those new fights reverberate around the world so long as the cable TV chyrons aren’t all Russia, all the time.
Mission accomplished – at least in the near term – for Trump. But at what cost?