Trumped: 13 Resets in 13 Months

16 May 2017 — FAIR

Trump "reset" headlinesThe White House’s latest self-inflicted scandal—this time, the incredible allegation via multiple news reports that the president shared high-level classified intelligence with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office—isn’t just an indictment of Donald Trump’s general incompetence. It also represents another damning rebuttal to a recurring, fictional narrative that has been propagated by the press for well over a year—that Trump is just one new policy or staff shake-up away from being a normal president.

The latest iteration began over this past weekend, when Axios’s Mike Allen (5/14/17), the ne plus ultra of Beltway access journalism, offered up this juicy scoop for the process-obsessed press: “President Trump is considering a ‘huge reboot’ of his White House staff.” By Monday, NBC News (5/15/17), Fox News (5/15/17) and Vanity Fair (5/15/17) had all followed suit, focusing on the possible White House staff changes in advance of Trump’s first foreign visit as president later this week. This narrative, however, lasted all of 36 hours, going up in smoke as the White House tried to put out the five-alarm firestorm that was the news of Trump’s unwitting (or boastful) leak to the Russians.

That has become an all too familiar arc for the corporate media’s reboot framing. First, find a thinly sourced rumor of a staff reshuffle or a single, semi-normal political act. Next, ignore all the common sense and journalistic due diligence that would argue against drawing broad conclusions from random, anecdotal behavior. Then frame the piece in the form of a prediction or a forward-looking ‘What if?’ Finally—and this step is crucial—never run the risk of following up on the progress of your reboot storyline when it goes spectacularly wrong, spectacularly quickly.

Reuters: Trump takes steps to reset his campaign, tries to soften his image

Reuters (4/14/16)

While there were occasional questions from the press on whether Trump would moderate his behavior as the primary campaign progressed, this narrative phenomenon didn’t begin in earnest until the press began to seriously accept the prospect that Trump would be the Republican nominee. That moment arrived last spring, and, perhaps not coincidentally, that’s when Reuters’ political team ran a story (4/14/16) on how Trump was taking steps to “reset his campaign” and “soften his image.”

According to Reuters, Trump’s hiring of a top Republican operative, Rick Wiley, to be his national political director—after having just brought aboard Paul Manafort as campaign chair (more on him later)—were both steps that would “professionalize” his heretofore ad-hoc, undisciplined and extremist campaign. Of course, when Reuters subsequently reported on Wiley’s abrupt departure from the Trump campaign just six weeks later (5/25/16), the story included no analysis of how that “reset” turned out.

Once Trump effectively secured the Republican presidential nomination, almost one year ago, more resets were afoot. The Washington Post editorial board (5/4/16) took its turn dabbling in its own half-hearted version: “A Trump Reboot? Impossible.” Despite its skeptical headline, however, the Post still spent most of the op-ed theorizing what a “more presidential” Trump candidate might look like.

Weeks later, in June, The Atlantic (6/24/16) was among the many news orgs that resurrected the “Is Trump pivoting?” narrative. Its take, which at least possessed some semblance of self-awareness for the already dubious history of this genre, was entitled: “The Re-Re-Re-Re-Reboot of Trump.” But it too was prompted by a single, passable campaign speech—at one of Trump’s hotels, of course. CNN’s Don Lemon (6/24/16) joined in as well, talking about a “new, more presidential” Donald Trump.

In the lead-up to Trump’s RNC convention speech, a chorus of pundits began singing the same tune, of how it represented a chance for Trump to “pivot” to a more different, more serious, less combative tone. Politico (7/17/16) did its part to set that narrative: In a story that conveniently quoted RNC chair Reince Priebus essentially everywhere—including its headline, “Priebus: Convention Speech Is Trump’s Reagan Moment”—Politico included a long quote about how a “pivot” is so “important” to Trump. Of course, on the morning after Trump’s big convention speech, when the GOP nominee began insulting rival Ted Cruz once again, Politico (7/22/16) didn’t manage to get a quote from Priebus on how that Reaganesque “pivot” was going.

CNN: Donald Trump Attempts to Reboot

CNN (8/9/16)

Coincidentally, giving one, semi-coherent speech is what prompted CNN’s “Donald Trump Attempts to Reboot” story (8/9/16) last August as well. After a series of post-convention insults to a Gold Star family and his own party, Trump’s “on message” speech at the Detroit Economic Club somehow merited the soft bigotry of lowered media expectations. But not so fast: Not even two weeks later, CNN (8/22/16) was contradicting its own narrative  by saying Trump had been “floundering in recent weeks.” It went on to ask if Trump’s jettisoning of disastrous campaign chair Paul Manafort (remember him?) and—yes—giving one decent speech days earlier could result in a “reset [that] could last.”

To its credit, PBS NewsHour (8/10/16) ran a story in early August, “Reset It and Forget It: A Pattern in the Trump Campaign” that directly confronted the Groundhog Day nature of this constant reinvention and regression. PBS noted:

Trump’s campaign has attempted an unprecedented number of resets this year, according to presidential historians and political consultants following the election, in an effort to bounce back from a seemingly never-ending string of controversial statements and policy proposals.

But even this story lacked any broader self-awareness of the establishment press’s key role in feeding this vicious cycle of false reboots. That the media are not bound to buy into a political campaign’s transparently phony messaging, and that they have agency over how they choose to cover a candidate, were completely missing from the piece.

For the next few months, up through Trump’s election and transition, the reboot narrative was mercifully missing. But then a mere three days into his presidency, the Washington Post (1/23/17) was already talking “Fury, Tumult and a Reboot.” In a three-byline story, the Post detailed the new president’s public fight over his inauguration’s crowd size relative to his predecessor’s, along with new press secretary Sean Spicer’s bumbling, blatant lies about it. What’s not readily apparent in the story, however, is what exactly is worthy of characterizing as a “reboot,” other than Spicer’s single, not quite as shamelessly dishonest performance at his press briefing the following Monday.

Politico: How to Read Trump’s National Security Council Reboot

Politico (1/29/17)

Less than a week later, Politico magazine (1/29/17) ran a story on the new president’s national security “reboot.” This article at least had the advantage of being pegged to actual, if arcane, news: Trump had just revamped the status and attendees of the National Security Council, making his political adviser, white nationalist Steve Bannon, a new member of the Principals Committee, a position that would now rank him higher in importance than the director of national intelligence or the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Bannon would be ousted from that committee a few months later—but without a corresponding “unreboot” narrative in the press.) “It’s possible the Trump administration will settle into a less frenetic, more orderly pattern in the weeks and months ahead,” Politico surmised, based on zero evidence, before acknowledging that Trump’s “reboot” of the NSC more closely resembled turning it off and not bothering to turn it back on: “So far, the NSC’s formal structure has been of little relevance to his actual decision and action process.”

Less than a month into the Trump presidency, Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib (2/13/17) was ready to give the man in the Oval Office “a chance to reboot.” What followed in Seib’s column was a long list of suggestions that seemed completely oblivious to the realities of the human condition, or the campaign that brought their target to the White House: “Slow down. Stop acting as if everything that came before is flawed, by definition. Stop looking for chances to make enemies and make a few more friends.” Once again, Seib’s proof for Trump’s latest pivot rested almost entirely upon a single data point—this time, his administration’s release of a run-of-the-mill diplomatic statement condemning a North Korean missile test. But even this example soon unraveled; within hours, the country learned that Trump coordinated his sober response in the unsecured dining room at Mar-a-Lago, while members of his club at neighboring tables took snapshots.

Before the week was out, however, Trump was resetting yet again, according to the press. The Washington Post  (2/18/17), among others, talked of his “attempts at reset” at a campaign-style rally in Florida. Then, not even two weeks after that, his joint address to Congress produced another a deluge  of “Trump reset” predictions and reactions, among them from Time (2/27/17), Politico (3/1/17), AFP (3/1/17) and, naturally, Fox News (3/1/17). Yet again, the press’s short-term memory played right into the Trump White House’s messaging that the worst was behind them and the president’s focus was now on his party’s legislative agenda. Mere days later, though, the current president would be tweeting out the inflammatory accusation—without a shred of evidence—that President Obama illegally surveilled him and his campaign in Trump Tower.

Trump’s kabuki cruise missile strike on Syria, which earned near universal applause from  corporate media (FAIR.org, 4/7/17), also loosed another barrage of Trump-reboot stories. Whether it was CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria absurdly saying Trump finally “became president” (FAIR.org, 4/7/17) or Washington Post warhawk Jennifer Rubin (4/7/17) asking if the bombing will “reset his presidency,” nothing seems to get elite pundits to credulously reassess a president quite like bombing a Middle Eastern country. Right on cue, Sen. John McCain weighed in with his own upbeat outlook for a Trump “reboot” that drove fawning headlines across the media landscape (Yahoo, 4/7/17; NBC News, 4/7/17; The Hill, 4/7/17).

NBC: In Combative Interviews, Pres. Trump Vows to Reset Presidency

NBC (4/30/17)

Of late, the standards for marking a “reset” seem to have eroded even further. A fairly ordinary, coordinated PR push at the end of April was evidence of another broad reboot for the Trump White House (Yahoo, 4/30/17; NBC News, 4/30/17). That one was supposedly bracketed by two other, smaller, country-specific reboots Trump has had with China (Wall Street Journal, 4/4/17; The Hill, 4/13/17; Chicago Tribune, 4/14/17) and, just last week, Russia (Politico, 5/10/17). Of course, the latter has gained a whole new ironic cast in light of recent events, particularly this passage about Trump’s closed-to-US-press meeting with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office last week: “The images and upbeat statements from the two sides were in jarring contrast to the rising alarm in Washington among Democrats and some Republicans that Trump might be concealing Russian influence over his actions.”

If you’re counting, that makes at least 13 reboot moments (with a few side resets) since last April—an average of one a month. But the exact number is less important here than the overall trend, which finds that the media’s thoroughly flawed “Trump reset” narratives have not stopped, but instead have clearly accelerated since he has become president. Corporate media, in other words, still have not learned their lesson about the skepticism and diligence needed to cover Trump in power. He and his administration may make infrequent, isolated changes around the margins, but there is zero reason to believe that he or it will—or indeed, can—fundamentally change. To keep pretending otherwise only erodes the already crumbling trust in the press, and does a disservice to the American public during one of the most critical times in the modern history of our democracy.

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