The best way to understand Donald Trump’s presidency is this: He views himself as the producer and star of a daily reality show, a show in which the only connection from day to day is the presence of Trump himself.
Any attempt to connect the dots – from a policy or strategic perspective – between yesterday and today or even from month to month – is a fool’s errand; Trump does what he wants, generally speaking, every day. If he latches on to something he thinks is working, he, like a good reality TV show executive, does more of it.
And, of late, Trump has moved into an even more high-profile starring role – even as he steps up his producing involvement as well.
Which brings me to the last few weeks – in which Trump is leaning very hard into his dual role as producer and star.
Beginning in late September with his press conference at the United Nations general assembly meetings in New York, Trump has been on a streak of campaign rallies, impromptu press chats, media interviews and staged events seemingly designed to draw buzz and attention as opposed to drive any sort of broader message.
Take this week alone.
On Monday night, Trump held a ceremonial swearing-in for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It amounted to a televised celebration of Trump and what he has done in office. The President spoke for 20 minutes about how he and Senate Republicans had beat back the liberal horde who were trying to defeat Kavanaugh. When Trump turned things over to Kavanaugh, the newly-minted Supreme Court Justice effusively praised Trump for his “steadfast, unwavering support throughout this process.”
On Tuesday, as news was breaking that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was resigning, Trump held an open-press conversation between himself and Haley – in which she, you guessed it, praised him repeatedly. “She’s done a fantastic job and we’ve done a fantastic job together,” Trump said in response. “We’ve solved a lot of problems and we’re in the process of solving a lot of problems.” The event was carried in its entirety by all the cable networks. (We also later learned that Trump had held a kind-of, sort-of press conference featuring his vice president and chief of staff – among others – for New York Magazine reporter Olivia Nuzzi. Trump’s goal? To convince Nuzzi that chief of staff John Kelly wasn’t on his way out.)
That night, Trump did a rally in Iowa – delivering his standard stream-of-consciousness speech larded with the red meat the crowd loved.
On Wednesday, Trump did another campaign rally – this time in Erie, Pennsylvania. On the way, he chatted with reporters. Once he got there, Trump let fly with another base-aimed address in which he blasted the media and Democrats for the Kavanaugh confirmation fight and repeatedly insisted he had been more successful in his first 20 months in office than any past president. Afterward, he talked with Fox News host Shannon Bream, touting many of the same supposed victories he had talked about in Erie.
Thursday began for Trump with a 46(!)-minute phone interview with “Fox & Friends.” (As CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, that was the third phoner between Trump and Fox News in the last five days.) Then came the surreal Oval Office meeting with rapper Kanye West (and Jim Brown.) And, as we learned this morning, Trump also taped a sitdown with “60 Minutes” anchor Lesley Stahl on Thursday. (The interview is set to air on Sunday night.)
On Friday night, Trump will be back on the campaign trail – this time speaking to a rally in Cincinnati.
Writes Mike Allen in Axios of this week’s blitz: “President Trump is finally fully merging his presidency with television, relishing the mounting amount of time that he’s devoting to filling the airwaves – while also ravenously consuming his productions.”
Put another way: Trump has spent the first 20 months of his presidency grappling for full operational control. Not of the levers of policy. But of the levers of the visual, the image of him – and his White House – that was being sold. Now he has that control. And he is loving it.
Think about the arc of Trump’s presidency to date. He attempted to bring in so-called “trusted hands” to help him manage the bureaucratic behemoth of official Washington. But Trump chafed over being told what to do and how he was supposed to act. So he made a series of changes to surround himself with more loyalists – most notably John Kelly as chief of staff. But for all of Trump’s fascination with Kelly’s orderly, rigorous approach to issues, that too began to wear thin – as the chief of staff’s attempt to control the information flow to Trump (and his ability to talk to whoever he wanted whenever he wanted about whatever he wanted) annoyed Trump.
In recent months, Trump has largely become what he always wanted to be: Not only the president, but also the lead adviser to the president. Kelly has been marginalized – but remains on the job. Trump’s other closest advisers – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner – are either a) yes men who have risen in the Trump ranks due to their willingness to back him up on everything and b) members of his family.
And into that mix, Trump has added Bill Shine, the former boss at Fox News, as a communications adviser. Shine, like Trump, cares primarily about how things look and how they translate on TV. (Shine has been an advocate of Trump’s short videos with a message to supporters that are shot on the White House grounds.) Shine’s influence on Trump – a bolstering of the President’s natural instincts for the showmanship and performance elements of the job – hasn’t been adequately understood due in large part to the fact that the former Fox exec keeps a very low public profile.
Take one big step back from the last month – or so – in this White House and what you see is this: A free-wheeling president doing exactly what he loves to do. And that is a) hold rallies where supporters hang on his every word b) pal around with celebrities and c) joust with the media.
It’s taken Trump 20 months to get to this point. But he now has the presidency he always envisioned: One in which he is producing and starring every single day.