The Memo: Trump's media dominance challenged by 2020 Dems

The Memo: Trump's media dominance challenged by 2020 Dems

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE is facing new challenges when it comes to driving the media agenda.

Trump must now share the spotlight with the Democrats who are running to replace him. His capacity to make news by making law is stymied by the Democratic majority in the House. And there is a nebulous sense that his capacity to shock, via bellicose tweets and insults of his foes, has been diminished by familiarity and the passage of time.


Trump has talked of his own political career in terms of the audiences he has drawn. But even his big TV hit, NBC’s “The Apprentice,” saw its ratings decline over time. 

Could the same fate befall his presidency?

“Trump has dominated all of the media for several years, so maybe there is a sense of him starting to outstay his welcome, in terms of people paying attention to him,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “But it would be premature to count him out.” 

Developments such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE’s entry into the 2020 race on Thursday also nudge media coverage in different directions.

“Everything has realigned,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “There’s a new focal point that hasn’t really existed before.” 

At the same time, Trippi acknowledged, “I don’t think anybody can change Trump’s dominance of the media environment. He has got such an ability to do it, and everybody takes the bait, in social media as well as traditional media.”


Trump cast some more bait into the water on Thursday morning, soon after Biden made his decision public. 

“Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe,” the president tweeted, before going on to cast aspersions on the former vice president’s intelligence and warning him that the Democratic primary would be “nasty” against “people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas.”

“But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!” Trump concluded.

The characteristically Trumpian tone made sure that the president would not be ignored in the media coverage of Biden’s announcement.

Trump’s name-calling, which has included deriding other 2020 Democratic candidates such as Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Biden, Sanders tax plans would raise less revenue than claimed: studies MORE (D-Mass.) as “Crazy Bernie” and “Pocahontas” respectively, creates challenges for his opponents.

Do the people he targets respond? And can do they do so without wrestling in the mud with the president?

It’s a conundrum that many of his Republican rivals in the 2016 primary — notably Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhat to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Democrats' impeachment case lands with a thud with GOP — but real audience is voters Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on MORE (R-Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Apple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech MORE (R-Fla.) — never solved.

“He is willing to go where a lot of other people don’t go,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “A lot of Democrats don’t want to play that game, where there seems to be a lack of an internal check.” 

Zelizer said that the increasing media focus on the 2020 campaign, combined with the fatigue some voters may feel with the roller-coaster Trump presidency, does create some level of opportunity for his opponents.

“The potential is there to seize some of his attention but it’s going to be tough. I do think he has a good feel for the modern media and its needs and its rhythms. He knows, because he consumes it all the time,” Zelizer said.

Trump’s media-heavy habits — White House insiders have often noted how much cable news he watches, despite his proclamations to the contrary — do not, of course, translate into a fondness for reporters.

Trump is almost sure to sound his anti-media chord again on Saturday. He has declined to attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, a fixture of the capital’s social scene, which takes place that evening. He has also instructed staff not to attend.

Instead, the president will address a rally in Green Bay, Wis. Verbal jabs at the “fake news media,” replete with forceful reminders that Trump has chosen to spend the evening with voters in the Midwest rather than at a black-tie dinner in Washington, are virtually inevitable.

Trump’s anti-media attacks still rev up his most fervent supporters, political insiders say. But they question whether they have any utility beyond that.

“To motive his base? Sure,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “But outside of moving his base, it is not anything that speaks to where voters are or what’s on their minds.” 

There is no real possibility of Trump changing his style, however — either at rallies or on Twitter. In recent days, he has tweeted barbs against the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE, a Washington Post reporter and the government of Mexico.

The Twitter fusillades may not attract quite as much attention as they once did, but the president is not neglecting more traditional media. An interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News was scheduled to be broadcast Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents must grapple with how, exactly, to run against him.

“He still is driving media coverage because his Democratic opponents are making him half of their story,” said Berkovitz. “Some candidates realize, ‘I want to make this about my issues, about my policy.’ But others make it, ‘I want to be leading the charge to take down Donald Trump.’ 

"Every time any candidate mentions Trump, they are putting him right back into the spotlight."

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