The Memo: Trump’s media game puts press on back foot

President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE’s reality show presidency took a new twist on Friday morning, as he held an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters on the White House driveway for the first time.

It was the kind of event that simultaneously outrages his critics while enthusing his supporters, who see him as taking the fight to the media.

It also closed a week that had begun with a very different example of Trump’s fixation on media image. 

His summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore drew around 2,500 members of the news media and hit front pages around the world.


While the Singapore summit was mostly positive for Trump, putting him astride the world stage, Friday morning’s press gaggle was a much more mixed bag.

Trump’s performance including a number of false claims — 19, according to MSNBC anchor Katy Tur, who devoted a significant portion of her Friday show to fact-checking the president. 

Trump insisted that a Department of Justice inspector general’s report on the FBI “totally exonerates me” on allegations of collusion with Russia. It did not do so. 

Trump also claimed that he had “solved” the North Korean nuclear problem at the Singapore summit — a claim that is exaggerated at best.

But the occasion showcased Trump’s capacity to drive media coverage yet again. The apparent spontaneity of his public events, together with his eagerness to fan the flames of controversy, often seems to matter more — at least in terms of the volume of coverage he receives — than any lack of veracity.

“Trump has a knack for making news,” said Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action MORE (R-Texas), a Trump rival during the 2016 GOP primaries. “He knows what they [in the media] are looking for. He understands what is going to make news.”

But, Tyler added, Trump has an unusual edge of over politicians of either party.

“He’s not afraid of hypocrisy. Most politicians are afraid of being shamed — that is, being wrong or saying something inappropriate. He’s not troubled by any of that.”

Those traits were much in evidence during Trump’s campaign for the White House, from a June 2015 launch speech in which he suggested Mexico was sending “rapists” to the United States to later controversies about Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE’s (R-Ariz.) war record and Trump’s own proposal to exclude all Muslims from entering the country.

Trump’s taste for controversy, and the enormous media coverage that went with it, helped him to vanquish a field of 16 more experienced contenders for the GOP nomination. 

In the White House, his willingness to spark furors is undiminished — and it has done him little damage with his base, even as it has polarized the nation.

The most recent Gallup polling figures, for last week, showed him with a 90 percent approval rating among Republican voters. His overall approval rating, however, was just 42 percent.

Trump’s defenders insist that his unique mode of communication is one big reason for his political rise and staying power. 

Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayAides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book 7 conservative women who could replace Meghan McCain on 'The View' Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: 'No place like home' MOREin a CNN interview last month, demurred about speculation regarding a new communications director — a position that has been vacant since Hope HicksHope HicksUPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause Trump selects Hicks, Bondi, Grenell and other allies for positions Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tests positive for coronavirus MORE left the White House in March — by saying “President Trump is a wonderful communications director.”

Another key aide, Stephen Miller, lauded Trump’s ability to connect with an audience in a recent interview with The Atlantic. 

“He has incredible wit and speed, and he can just get the audience in real time,” Miller insisted.

But Democrats counter that Trump’s flamboyant personality and ability to seize the media spotlight might not be the panacea for other problems that his supporters think.

Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who helmed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, argued that Trump’s media performances were among the factors that have made him such a divisive figure.

“Everybody goes to their corners,” Trippi said, referring to Trump’s polarizing effect. “That’s what he’s really good at — he drives everybody to their corners.”

The Democratic strategist also noted, as others have, that Trump moved from the world of television — as the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice” — into politics, and that this created both upsides and downsides.

On one hand, Trump understands, from an insider’s perspective, what drives TV ratings and what keeps people watching. 

On the other, TV networks can have huge commercial success simply by serving a particular niche — a business model that seems to have limited usefulness when transposed to the traditional role of a president.

“Absolutely, that is part of all of this,” Trippi. “Fox [News], for instance, does not go out there and try to get 50 percent of Americans to watch it — and it is the same with him.”

Trump’s concentration on his base, Trippi added, “is very calculated but I think it may be a big miscalculation.”

Meanwhile the debate about how the media covers Trump rages on, with his supporters alleging bias and his critics complaining that journalists do not subject him to enough scrutiny. 

The president remains center-stage regardless.

“The media falls into the trap of having to say what Trump has said, and then saying he is inaccurate,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “They are repeating his untruths or his misstatements. But, honestly, I don’t know what the press can do about it, other than not cover him.”

The president, meanwhile, seems as eager as ever to use the media as a foil. 

“I’ve had to beat 17 very talented people including the Bush Dynasty, then I had to beat the Clinton Dynasty, and now I have to beat a phony Witch Hunt and all of the dishonest people covered in the [inspector general] Report...and never forget the Fake News Media,” he tweeted on Friday. “It never ends!”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.