An embattled President Donald Trump turned to his favorite medium, television, tonight to try to gain public support for his controversial wall on the United States’ Southern border.
But he did so in a highly unusual manner for him — a tightly scripted prime-time address of only about nine minutes from the Oval Office instead of a stream-of-consciousness monologue on cable TV or a free-wheeling spiel in front of a gaggle of reporters.
In TV terms, the primary result was a flat, hollow performance. His words were softened somewhat from the nasty snark of his tweets, but the themes are the same ones he has been hitting hard on social media and in TV interviews at least since the government shutdown started at midnight Dec. 22 as a result of an impasse between him and Congress over $5.7 billion he wants for a wall.
If Trump was thinking the symbolic trappings of a prime-time address from the Oval Office would lend him credibility and a sense of gravitas for his spurious claims of a crisis on the border, he was wrong.
I suspect the morning-after analyses will split along partisan lines with critics saying his choice of the Oval Office venue mainly showed how desperate he is to find some support for his claims as criticism against him mounts.
I am not sure what comfort his supporters will find in such an uninspiring presentation. Maybe the best that can be said about it is at least he didn’t declare a national emergency and shred whatever credibility he has left.
The Democratic response wasn’t much better than Trump’s in TV terms with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer standing rigidly side by side at a podium against a bank of American flags.
The presentation by Pelosi was especially disappointing as she had seemed recently to have learned some TV tricks the past two years in the media shadow of Trump. But she showed none of the fire she did in White House meetings with Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Schumer tonight.
On the plus side, their scripted arguments were better than Trump’s, and while the near-instant fact-checkers at CNN found six or seven inaccuracies from Trump, they cited none from Schumer and Pelosi.
In terms of rhetoric and logic, Schumer’s closing call for the president and Republicans to “separate the shutdown from argument from border security” were perhaps the wisest words spoken on either side. They challenged every argument Trump made in his address conflating the shutdown and the wall, and blaming the Democrats in Congress because they won’t give him $5.7 billion.
But many people watching TV don’t respond to logic and words the way they do to imagery, emotion, and the sound and style of the speakers.
When he’s free-wheeling and ad-libbing, Trump talks the language of television, and it helped get him elected. His flat, scripted performance tonight was not engaging, convincing or presidential.
Beyond the instant analyses, I think there might turn out to be a deeper problem for Trump in his choice of the Oval Office setting. Instead of the backdrop lending any of its grandeur to him, it made him look smaller, even less presidential.
As natural as he seems on a staged TV set or at a televised rally, he did not come across as someone who belonged in that office. Such reactions sometimes take hold unconsciously in viewers. But they ultimately shape perceptions profoundly. Trump might have done more harm to his chances for re-election than he knows with the Oval Office TV gambit tonight.