Trump doesn’t really want to be president. If he did, he’d nominate candidates to the 404 important but vacant administration jobs and get on with the job of governance. He doesn’t seem to want to be commander in chief of the armed forces, either, having outsourced Afghanistan troop-level decisions to Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Don’t burden him with foreign policy—which so daunts him that he’s postponed an official trip to Britain because (as some report) he fears the inevitable protests that will greet him. Nor is he much interested in upholding the oath he took on Inauguration Day, promising to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He proves this lack of interest every day by ignoring the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause.
Instead, Trump lusts for the job of White House communications director, a position that has been open since mid-May, when Michael Dubke resigned. By not replacing Dubke, Trump has telegraphed his preference to be his own communicator-in-chief and amplified that preference by constantly second-guessing Sean Spicer, his hapless press secretary. Trump’s unhappiness with Spicer has been public knowledge since the opening weeks of his administration, as the president has routinely contradicted him and reportedly bad-mouthed him behind closed doors. In recent weeks, Trump has expressed his dark discontent with Spicer by replacing him with Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House daily briefings—the way Casey Stengel used to platoon Moose Skowron and Joe Collins at first base.
To control and edit the messages radiating out of the White House is media hound Trump’s keenest ambition. He wants to conduct himself the way he did during those New York decades when he fed the tabloids items like Skittles from a fun-size bag. For his labors, he became the city’s most famous developer, and arguably the nation’s. In 2015, when he decided to run for president, he met with the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman for lunch and offered her the chance to break the story (not believing him, she declined). Trump kept calling her throughout the campaign and well after, as CNN’s Dylan Byers writes, seeming at times to lay siege on her phone in a scheme to win her over. During the presidential campaign, Trump earned a reputation as “leaker-in-chief” among his staff for blurting out sensitive information over the phone.
As the Times noted early in his presidency, Trump immediately drafted himself as his own best messenger. He’s always loved to lie (I mean, talk) to reporters because he lives for having an attentive audience, and now that he’s president reporters would line up to transcribe his words even if he started reciting a Maytag washer repair manual backward. He’s given an “after hours” tour of the White House to Time magazine and placed calls directly to reporters to talk about legislation or Susan Rice’s “crimes.” He’s met reporters in the Oval Office in hopes of spinning them. He’s praised his Fox & Friends sycophants and live-tweeted their show. He’s held forth at a marathon news conference and given windy, disjointed, Maytagian interviews to NBC News’ Lester Holt, CBS News’ John Dickerson, the Financial Times, Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo, The Associated Press and others. He once even fielded a late-night call from the Times’ Pat Healy just so he could trash actress Meryl Streep.
And most industriously, he’s poured huge gouts of text into Twitter, battling the Russia investigations, ripping former FBI Director James Comey or Qatar, defending the travel ban, opining on the filibuster debate, keypadding out teasers on the climate pact and the existence of White House tapes, promoting the border wall, defending Michael Flynn, and more.
And nobody watches more TV news than Trump. “This is one of the great inventions of all time—TiVo,” he told Time as he fast-forwarded through a congressional hearing. He’s been known to record the morning talk shows so that he can watch them at night. Communications director? Who needs a communications director? The president needs a couple more TiVos.
One way to read the ongoing ballyhoo about Trump wanting to snuff the White House press briefings or move the briefing room out of the White House: It’s a reflection of the president’s notion that he and not they should construct the news. “The media here is the opposition party,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, told the Times in January. This dovetails with Spicer’s move in February to exclude select outlets (CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, et al.) from a gaggle. It also harmonizes with Spicer’s bizarre move this week in which he ordered reporters to shutter both their video cameras and their audio recorders.
The press corps, quite naturally, had a collective grand mal over what they saw as Spicer’s attempt to starve the American people of information. But there’s a substantive difference between throttling news—excluding reporters from a gaggle—and forcing them to take shorthand. The first violates the spirit of the First Amendment. The second only inconveniences reporters who aren’t fast with a steno pad.
The target of these selective blackouts and hushed mics might not be John and Jane Q. Public but the most vigilant and vociferous press critic in the nation, Donald Trump, who hates reporters in general but craves their approval and demands their subservience. It’s my theory that Spicer’s intent isn’t to keep information from the public (although he’s doing that) by yanking all the plugs but to take away the cameras so that Trump can’t observe or listen and then micromanage his wrangling of the press wolverines.
The current White House differs from other White Houses in many ways. When Trump’s men and women don makeup to go on television to represent the president, they’re not actually speaking to the public. They’re performing for the “audience of one” who lives on the second floor of the White House. This idea was first articulated in August 2016 by CNN’s Brian Stelter, who applied it to Kellyanne Conway’s slavish defenses of then-candidate Trump. But it helps us understand Spicer’s efforts as attempts to shield himself from Trump’s critical eyes.
By blinding Baby Donald’s eyes and stoppering his ears, Spicer might have bought himself a few more minutes as press secretary. But communications directors can be a fickle lot, and there is nobody fickler than our acting communications director.
Read this column while listening to “Pinball Wizard,” by the Who. Send hot tracks to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts will take another question, my Twitter feed won’t call on CNN, and my RSS feed is digging Jim Acosta’s socks.