Who would have thought that after his first two months as president in daily public combat with big media over everything he said and did, at the end of the day of what was reportedly his biggest political setback, President Donald Trump would make a couple of spontaneous, surprise phone calls to reporters at the two biggest newspaper outlets perpetuating what he labeled “fake news”, to chat about it?
My first thought was ‘seems like what Pope Francis has been doing since he was elected pope‘, in February 2013. Really. Early. And often. And to popular media. It’s a way to control the message, even though both leaders have media handlers.
President Trump had to have thrown the New York Times off their footing when he phoned them to talk about the failure to get the GOP health care reform bill to a vote on Friday. ‘He’s blaming Democrats’, the Times said in this story about the call.
The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, was preparing to tell the public that the health care bill was being withdrawn — a byproduct, Mr. Trump said, of Democratic partisanship. The president predicted that Democrats would return to him to make a deal in roughly a year.
“Look, we got no Democratic votes. We got none, zero,” Mr. Trump said in a telephone interview he initiated with The New York Times.
“The good news is they now own health care. They now own Obamacare.”
Mr. Trump insisted that the Affordable Care Act would collapse in the next year, which would then force Democrats to come to the bargaining table for a new bill.
“The best thing that can happen is that we let the Democrats, that we let Obamacare continue, they’ll have increases from 50 to 100 percent,” he said. “And when it explodes, they’ll come to me to make a deal. And I’m open to that.”
To some degree, this had to have flummoxed Trump’s most hostile detractors.
“I’m not disappointed,” he insisted. “If I were, I wouldn’t be calling you.”
The Washington Post had a great attention-grabbing headline: ‘Hello Bob’: President Trump called my cellphone to say that the health-care bill was dead‘. Well known journalist Robert Acosta recounted the moment the call came in, and the exchange he had with the president when he answered it.
At first I thought it was a reader with a complaint since it was a blocked number.
Instead, it was the president calling from the Oval Office. His voice was even, his tone muted. He did not bury the lead.
“Hello, Bob,” Trump began. “So, we just pulled it.”
Trump was speaking, of course, of the Republican plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, a plan that had been languishing for days amid unrest throughout the party as the president and his allies courted members and pushed for a vote.
Before I could ask a question, Trump plunged into his explanation of the politics of deciding to call off a vote on a bill he had been touting.
The Democrats, he said, were to blame.
“We couldn’t get one Democratic vote, and we were a little bit shy, very little, but it was still a little bit shy, so we pulled it,” Trump said.
Trump said he would not put the bill on the floor in the coming weeks. He is willing to wait and watch the current law continue and, in his view, encounter problems. And he believes that Democrats will eventually want to work with him on some kind of legislative fix to Obamacare, although he did not say when that would be.
I’m trying to picture Bob Costa at that moment, and those cold calls from Pope Francis kept coming to mind.
In sports, an artful move can result in ‘wrong footing’ an opponent. It means a player is lunging right when the ball goes left, or vice versa. You are thrown off your game. I thought of that, too.
These calls had to have thrown off two of the major media outlets Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer and other surrogates have targeted for perpetuating “fake news”. They and their entertainment media have played that up, to the point when Saturday Night Live’s string of opening skits satirized White House spokesman Spicer among others, and then Spicer refers to it in his daily press briefings, sometimes playing it up and using lines from the SNL skit, other times fitting right into that caricature. To the point where one TV news roundtable participant said he didn’t know whether it was ‘art imitating life, or life imitating art imitating life, or what’.
Which raises the real consideration of what is news, really. And Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The chapter titled ‘The Implosion of Meaning in the Media’ opens with this quote:
We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.
Provocatively, he explores and analyzes basically what we’ve been seeing, experiencing and consuming in news media for decades.
What is news, and what is reality?
Politics right now seem to be operating more feverishly on perception becoming reality. Whether that played into President Trump’s calls to the Times and Washington Post, or to what degree it did, is hard to tell, he’s such a wild card.
But his call to Robert Costa at WaPo was certainly interesting. And lengthy. It’s a back and forth exchange on the politics of trying to get, or stop, health care reform done and who tried to stop it and what comes next, and later down the road, and what it would take to get anything done.
And then Trump said this:
“Well, look, you can say what you want,” Trump said. “But there are years of problems, great hatred and distrust, and, you know, I came into the middle of it.”
So Costa says he wanted to get some clarity before wrapping up the call. It”s easy to imagine how head spinning this was at that point.
As Trump tried to hang up the phone and get back to work, I asked him to reflect, if at all possible, on lessons learned. He’s a few months into his presidency, and he had to pull a bill that he had invested time and energy into passing.
What was on his mind?
“Just another day,” Trump said, flatly. “Just another day in paradise, okay?”
It’s all in how you take it.
Sheila Liaugminas writes from Chicago. She is a journalist, author and host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio.