Donald Trump is the first president in U.S. history to have been baited into undermining his own negotiating position by negative TV coverage.
Less than 12 hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained that the administration is ending DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — because it’s unconstitutional, Trump tweeted that he might revive the program if Congress doesn’t act.
This was an implicit admission that he’s bluffing on DACA, which gives Democrats every incentive not to trade anything meaningful for a codification of the program. Why make any painful concessions to save DACA if the president is loath to truly terminate it?
Surely, Trump wasn’t thinking of any strategic or legislative imperatives; he was thinking only of how to push back against commentators calling him heartless. The time of the tweet — 8:38 p.m. — suggests that he was watching TV, and reporting has confirmed as much.
Which raises the questions: Doesn’t the president have better things to do than watch political punditry on cable TV shows? As one of the most famous and powerful people on the planet, why does he care what pundits say about him? And doesn’t he realize that his immigration agenda will get attacked by most commentators no matter what?
President Barack Obama famously described himself as having a pen and a phone (that’s how we got DACA). Trump has a phone and a remote control, and often works them in tandem as he criticizes, praises and comments on things said about him on air.
Trump is the most unusual combination of a politician who, on the one hand, was elected president by thumbing his nose at media elites and, on the other, is obsessed about what media elites write and say about him.
It’s understandable that John McCain, who joked about the media being his political base, would care about his press clippings. But Trump? Who every other day broadcasts his contempt for journalists and is unafraid to take actions — pulling out of the Paris climate accord, revoking DACA — guaranteed to generate media outrage?
Trump is experiencing the agony of the media-bashing media figure. He follows what’s said on cable TV more closely than many people who make a living as commentators on cable TV. He sometimes knows more about the industry gossip than people who work in the industry.
This reflects his background as a TV star who leveraged his fame into the presidency. But it is, needless to say, highly unusual.
George W. Bush didn’t pay much attention to his press coverage, confident that history would get it right and unwilling to get diverted from doing more important things. Barack Obama had an Olympian disregard for political punditry (as for many things).
Trump time and again demonstrates that he is wounded by what he hears on TV. The irony is that he is reflexively incapable of fully absorbing some of the key lessons of his own success: The media are in a bubble, they aren’t nearly as important as they used to be, and whatever they are hysterical about in this six-hour news cycle will soon fade in the next. Trump, though, can’t get enough of the bubble and is as shortsightedly consumed with the latest thing as his media nemeses.
Trump clearly feeds off the attention and considers the negative coverage, in part, as a motivator (I’ll show those bastards on CNN …). But his obsession with the coverage also distorts his judgment. The DACA tweet was an unforced error, or, to be more precise, an error forced by cable chatter he should be ignoring.
There are a couple of ways out of the dilemma. Trump can abandon his program and perhaps get some praise for “growing in office” (while destroying his presidency). He can continue, agitated by the coverage, to lash out, sometimes self-defeatingly. Or he can turn off the TV.
The right answer is “Click!,” but he’s as unlikely to give up the remote as he is his phone.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.