Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Reading anything into a short, grainy tape recording is difficult. But from the moment that CNN’s Chris Cuomo shared one of the Michael Cohen tapes, experts have sliced and diced the audio to figure out exactly what then-candidate Donald Trump knew about a payment to keep his alleged affair with former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal off the front pages.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the tape is just how normal Trump sounds when the cameras are not on. He carries on his conversation with one unnamed person (likely on the phone), as well as with his lawyer Michael Cohen, in a relatively controlled and deliberative voice. This is not the same Trump who we heard and still hear speaking in half-sentences. Nor is it the Trump who continually tosses out statements made on Fox News to his audiences, simply to stir up the base.
No, on this tape we hear a little bit of a methodical and controlled candidate who is trying to figure out how to handle a potential problem in his campaign – how to kill an embarrassing story. He listens, absorbs and responds. He knows what is going on, and he wants a workable plan.
While we certainly can’t read too much into this short piece of audio, it does create the possibility that Trump is much more strategic about how he conducts his business. Though many critics depict him as a deranged and unstable leader, while supporters love to think of him as “just being himself,” the tape suggests another possibility.
Namely, Trump is playing a part in front of the cameras – the norm-breaking, in-your face conservative populist who is attempting to maintain his razor-thin electoral coalition of loyal Trump fanatics, stalwart Republican voters and disaffected Democrats. When he conducts a press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he defends the Russians and attacks the American intelligence community, there is a thought-through rationale for why he does so. When he tweets out provocative statements about NFL players or political opponents, he is attempting to trigger certain responses and to push the conversation in specific directions. When he allows children to be separated from their families at the border, he is trying to send a harsh message.
The tape allows us to hear a Trump who has a game plan that will allow him to pursue policy initiatives that matter to him and control and direct the media narrative about his presidency – all the while working toward re-election in 2020. Whether it works is an unknown, but there is a plan.
And he is not the only president to be misjudged by his friends and foes. Political scientist Fred Greenstein once wrote a classic work in which he argued that Dwight Eisenhower conducted a “hidden hand” presidency during the 1950s. Although many commentators saw Eisenhower as an affable war hero who delegated his decisions to Cabinet officials, it turned out he played a much larger role than we knew. He dominated the policy machinery of the White House, and he never delegated much power to his staff. The President was more cunning and in control than the public ever imagined.
A similar story happened under Ronald Reagan, who was once dismissed as a lightweight, unintelligent actor who let his advisers do all the work. That was until archival findings revealed a President who was very much in command of every decision and every statement that came out of the White House.
It will be many decades until we know the truth about how Trump acts behind the scenes. Until we have the archival records from his administration and reliable memoirs of his White House, our interpretation of how he operated will depend on a few fragments of evidence.
But the tape provides one of those, and listening to it suggests that there is a method to his madness and that should be eye-opening for opponents who think there is no way he can possibly make it to the end of his term or get re-elected.