Tuesday night was a major moment in the presidency of Donald Trump.
In fact, depending on how things shake out between now and the release of the Mueller probe and the 2020 elections, media and political historians might come to think of it as a landmark: the night Trump lost his media swagger.
The moment’s importance comes not just from Trump making his first prime-time TV address from the Oval Office in a failed attempt to tap into what had been perhaps the bulliest of the bully-pulpit powers of the presidency in the Television Era. But rather the significance of the telecast comes from what it potentially revealed to millions of viewers about what has been widely considered his mastery of media, particularly television, the medium that made him a familiar face to Americans.
As tempting as it must have been for Trump and his advisers to try to claim the gravitas and TV power of the Oval Office as he came under increasing criticism for a government shutdown driven in large part by his intractable demand for a border wall, using that iconic setting was a big mistake in several critical ways.
Choosing to speak from the Oval Office not only shows Trump losing his media touch, but perhaps worse, his media judgment and even nerve.
Live TV loves energy and passion above all else. Think back through the seas of talking heads you’ve seen on cable news TV and ask yourself which ones caught your attention and made you go online to find out more about them. TV is not the place to go if you think being thoughtful, reflective and speaking slowly is the way to come off as the smartest woman or man on the screen.
Trump seemed to know this when early in his presidential campaign he tagged front-running GOP candidate Jeb Bush as “low energy” repeatedly on live TV. The insult found such traction that Bush spent much of his final time in the race defending himself against the charge and trying to look more energized.
But in choosing the Oval Office as a setting and delivering a tightly scripted 9½ minutes meant to make him seem more presidential, Trump came off as somewhere beyond low energy. His performance was closer to what someone might see on a hostage video than a TV call to action for Democrats to end the government shutdown and support his demand of $5.7 billion for his wall.
A plausible explanation for the lack of energy and commitment to his message in Tuesday’s address was provided by The New York Times reporting on what was supposed to be an off-the-record meeting among Trump and TV network anchors Tuesday afternoon. In that meeting he reportedly said he did not want to do the Oval Office speech or a planned visit to the southern border later in the week.
“In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors hours before the address, he made clear in blunt terms that he was not inclined to give the speech or go to Texas, but was talked into it by advisers, according to two people briefed on the discussion who asked not to be identified sharing details,” Peter Baker wrote.
So, if he didn’t want to do the Oval Office turn, why did he? That’s the question that matters most about Tuesday night’s performance.
Book after book has reported how Trump, in his narcissism, listens to almost no one in the end except himself, particularly when it comes to TV. He has convinced himself that no one knows TV better than him, except maybe Mark Burnett, the producer who took an obnoxious businessman with multiple bankruptcies to his name and turned him into a reality TV star on NBC’s “The Apprentice.”
But now, Trump is allowing himself to be “talked into” taking this huge risk of placing himself in an iconic TV setting by the likes of Bill Shine, his director of communications who was reportedly forced out as co-president at Fox News, and Sarah Sanders, one the most poorly spoken and least trusted press spokespersons in White House history?
That’s someone who has lost confidence in his own instincts, someone who is feeling vulnerable and shaky enough to take bad advice about how best to use the very medium that he manipulated so effectively to get elected.
Speaking from the Oval Office was such bad advice that a producer of news at the local level could have seen and understood how problematic it was the moment she or he looked at a monitor and grasped the image on Trump seated behind his desk staring into the camera.
Trump, who is a rather large man, looked small on the screen. He looked to be slumping down in his seat away from the camera instead of sitting higher in his chair and leaning toward it. As I wrote in my Tuesday night review, instead of Trump appropriating some of the grandeur and power of the Oval Office, the setting diminished him.
He did not have a big enough TV presence to fill that media and memory space where some of us had come to see and hear John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford or Barack Obama talk to us about real crises, as opposed to what many believe is a phony, racist one ginned up for political reasons. This perception of Trump as not “big” enough for the Oval Office, as unconscious as it might have been while watching, could be deadly if Trump winds up running for re-election in 2020.
Trump himself showed an understanding of the difference between his highly effective, free-wheeling TV style at rallies or press gaggles and the stern, scripted mode of the traditional Oval Office address. He even mocked that style of performance at a rally in March.
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” aired a deftly edited montage showing Trump performing Tuesday night in the very mode he had mocked as “presidential” at the rally.
So, again, why did he try to perform Tuesday in a manner he called phony only a few months earlier?
Trump and his performance were further diminished by other TV methods for dealing with his contradictions, disinformation and lies.
Cable news executives and producers at MSNBC and CNN have been wrestling at least since the inauguration for ways to fact-check Trump in real time.
Real-time seems like a lot to ask in a 9½-minute live address, but CNN was on minutes after the Democratic response to Trump with a fact-check by John King, the channel’s chief national correspondent, and Daniel Dale, Washington bureau correspondent and fact checker for the Toronto Star. They ticked off seven dubious claims by Trump in the speech.
And as the night wore on, several panelists explored the disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric citing “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul” at the southern border and his administration’s widely criticized policy of separating children from their parents without an adequate way or protecting or even keeping track of minors.
In short, the scripted words rang empty and false coming from Trump’s mouth, given the preponderance of what he had said and tweeted in the past. His robotic delivery made such rhetoric feel all the more hollow.
The word “desperate” was used Tuesday night by some analysts in describing the Trump they saw.
I don’t dispute that. But, to me, the desperate attempt to appropriate the gravitas and credibility of a prime-time, Oval Office address was the symptom of something deeper: a loss of nerve by the president in his ability to ride the tiger of live, improv TV and make it eat others instead of him.
Losing one’s nerve happens to some people at Trump’s age. For most of them, though, it doesn’t happen in front of live cameras before a prime-time audience.