President Trump has a flair — perhaps a genius — for counter-programming, which can be described as the art of upstaging your rivals just when they think they’re about to have their spotlight moment.
He did it countless times as a candidate, eclipsing all the other Republican contenders and the Democrats as well. He demonstrated his prowess again on the 100th day of his presidency, rallying a blue-collar crowd in Pennsylvania and shunning the annual black-tie White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
On the basis of visuals alone, Trump was the man of the people at war with the elite of the capital. It was the split-screen reality show par excellence.
But the president has since spent three days and nights in a frenzy of mixed messaging that has counter-programmed not only his rivals but his own administration, his own party and even himself. The result is a new level of confusion and disarray at a moment when many had expected the White House team to find its groove and go forward.
The disruptions began Sunday, on the morning of Trump’s 101st day in office, as eye-popping items from Trump’s various interviews spread out on all platforms. We learned the White House welcome mat would be out for Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, a man said to have ordered thousands of extra-judicial killings in his war on drugs.
Trump’s chief of staff explained that the U.S. needed Duterte as part of a campaign to isolate Kim Jong Un, but then we also heard the president say the North Korean dictator was “a smart cookie” and that Trump would be “honored” to meet with him.
So, just as the “dancing with dictators” storyline got going, the White House doors were opened to the morning hosts of CBS News, who talked with a gaggle of top Trump advisers — the ones from Manhattan who reassure Wall Street and the GOP mainstream. Even Ivanka Trump “dropped in” to chat and to charm.
In his flurry of interviews, the president said, “We’ll take a look at” breaking up the biggest banks. But his Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had already told a meeting of investors they should thank him “for how your bank stocks are doing.” Indeed, the financial sector has led the post-election rally; and bank shares recovered and climbed, brushing off Trump’s own off-hand threat.
Making the rounds of the TV networks, the president made various claims about the latest version of the House bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. He said he had ordered that the bill “take care of sick people” and protect those with pre-existing conditions. Never mind that the latest version would allow states to opt out of key provisions affecting just those kinds of people.
Monday, the debate over pre-existing conditions was hopelessly confused, yet White House officials were boldly predicting passage this week.
We have also seen endless TV replays of the Oval Office confrontation with CBS’ John Dickerson, with whom Trump doubled down yet again on his accusations that former President Obama had him wiretapped at Trump Tower last fall — an often debunked charge for which Trump once again offered no evidence.
One theory about the president’s most recent static storm sees it as strategic, designed to distract from the spending deal reached by House and Senate negotiators from both parties over the weekend — a package they will vote through this week to keep the government operating.
Why distract from news of a bipartisan, bicameral agreement? Was it not good news that there would not be a shutdown? Well, perhaps, but the price for that news turned out to be heavy indeed.
The administration had to give in on spending for the border wall (which was specifically ruled out), got only half the increase Trump wanted on defense spending and failed to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood or subsidies for health care insurance under Obamacare. Deep cuts proposed to the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and public broadcasting went away.
Spending for domestic programs, a category the president had previously vowed to freeze, rose.
It is not hard to understand why the White House wanted everybody talking about Duterte, health care and phone calls to Vladimir Putin instead of the details of that spending deal.
Moreover, we need to remember that Trump’s messaging uses different media to reach different audiences. While official Washington might have been glad to have the government keep running another five months, Trump was mindful of those who see things differently.
The president took to Twitter to blame the spending deal on the Senate and its 60-vote threshold for major legislation. “Either elect more Republican senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%,” said the president in a tweet.
Current GOP senators quickly disassociated themselves from that notion, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flatly ruled it out. No chance. Zero.
Still, the president was not done. He added: “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
Never mind that this same man had just signed a stopgap bill last Friday to avoid just such a shutdown. And never mind that he would be signing the larger spending deal this week to fund the government through September.
And so we wonder: when the cameras are shut off and he puts down the smartphone, is there a long game, a larger vision? Does all the counter-programming recede and a presidential program emerge?
He can only spend so much time going to Pennsylvania in his mind.