How long will journalists continue to do this?
The New York Times reports today that the disaster caused by Harvey offers President Donald Trump “an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.” His planned trips to Texas and Louisiana this week demonstrate that he “is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.” He “used the dulcet, reassuring and uplifting language of prior presidents” in announcing the trips, in a manner “strikingly different” from his near-defense of white supremacists and neo-Nazis earlier this month. At a news conference yesterday, he “repeatedly praised the joint response of federal officials, echoing his upbeat tweets over the weekend.”
All Trump has to do is the absolute minimum expected of a president -- say he’ll show up at a disaster site, and manage to discuss the disaster without insulting anyone -- and visions of “the pivot” dance in the heads of White House political reporters. That’s how low the bar is now being set.
We’ve seen this before, over and over again. The pivot isn’t coming. Inevitably, Trump will revert to form.
And indeed, Times reporter Glenn Thrush, an experienced journalist who is extremely familiar with the president’s faults, knows this, warning of the “unpredictable element of Mr. Trump’s emotional weather, which can shatter the prevailing harmony in an instant, through a tweet or a taunt.” In fact, Thrush writes, that’s already happening -- “the storm has done little to diminish Mr. Trump’s propensity for muddying moments of presidential leadership by picking fights with the news media or his political opponents,” as seen at yesterday’s press conference. And yet, Thrush continues:
But this time is different, people around Mr. Trump insist.
The president, who prefers to skim rather than delve, has seldom been more engaged in the details of any issue as he is with Harvey, according to several people involved in disaster response.
Left unanswered is why we should believe those sources, who likely have every interest in promoting the image of an engaged chief executive. Or whether those sources differ from the “many of those in the president’s orbit” who Thrush reports “are worried Mr. Trump will not be self-controlled enough to maximize the moment.” Or how Trump could be “behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right” while simultaneously “picking fights with the news media or his political opponents.”
The Times is crafting a narrative, assembling a series of facts in a way that suggests Trump is making great progress toward seizing the opportunity that Harvey presents to him. But there’s another way to write a story based on the same facts Thrush assembles -- a story focused on how, at a moment of crisis, the president can’t stop feuding with his enemies or watching cable news, a story of a man consumed by his appetites and struggling to maintain focus, surrounded by aides who worry that he could explode at any moment.
That’s at least as well supported by the evidence as the Times’ narrative. And given Trump’s past performance, it’s also much less likely to blow up in their faces.