Trump may not be able to control the narrative this time
For most of his life, Donald Trump has wielded an immense superpower: the ability to bend and twist reality to meet his needs of the moment.
But now it seems he’s losing that magic touch, especially with a group of allies that has been with him since the very beginning — the media.
In the last couple of weeks, Trump has scrambled to shift the narrative around the document stash uncovered at his Mar-a-Lago residence. But nothing seems to stick. And that’s very foreign territory for a Manhattan real estate developer who has, over the decades, displayed an uncanny ability to use the media to mold public perception.
As far back as the 1970s, Trump reportedly placed stories in the New York press by pretending to be a hot-shot publicist named “John Miller” or “John Barron.” That character regularly sold tabloid gossip columnists and city desk reporters on the latest Trump triumph, real or imagined.
Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post became a particularly ardent patron, consistently splashing Trump’s boasts in enormous typeface on its front page, including Trump insisting the NFL offered him a franchise, Trump declaring he was buying the New York Daily News, Trump planning to build a new stock exchange complex with the world’s tallest building and, most famously, then-girlfriend Marla Maples’s supposed claim that Trump was “the best sex I ever had.” (On the very next day’s Post front page, Maples denied ever saying that.)
Press attention quickly spilled into television. He was interviewed by Tom Brokaw on the “Today” show and was a guest on David Letterman’s late-night program more than 30 times. There, Trump presented himself as a relatable billionaire who could speak expertly on any topic, from his own complicated love life to the economy and national politics. Starting in the 1980s, Letterman would regularly ask Trump about possible plans to run for president.
It’s uncertain whether journalists and interviewers actually believed any of Trump’s claims. But this much does seem clear: No one appeared to care all that much. Trump was great copy and good for ratings.
Then in 2004, Trump hit the jackpot: NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice.” It was a perfect marriage between two forces determined to shape real life into something else entirely.
Reality producers deal with many things, but genuine reality is not often one of them. Every episode is planned and structured in detail; villains and heroes are carefully selected in the casting process. Into this world stepped Trump, whose outsize reputation was often a similarly well-orchestrated, made-for-television creation.
“The Apprentice” became an instant hit for NBC — and, once again, Trump was ratings gold. But what he got in return was perhaps worth even more: The show was the culmination of Trump’s decades-long media manipulation. For millions of people, “The Apprentice” established as rock-solid truth his carefully constructed larger-than-life image.
That carried over into the 2016 presidential campaign and throughout his years in the White House. Rallies replaced his reality show as viewer magnets; his every word on social media was consumed by millions. As always, Trump was a good business to be in.
That long trend line may be shifting.
Significant cracks first began to appear during the Jan. 6 hearings. The former president worked hard to shape that story, but, as the hearings raced forward with a narrative velocity unheard of in Washington, allies began to face actual reality — and pull away.
Editorials in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and New York Post decried Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021. The Post, whose love affair with the billionaire traces back a couple of generations, was unsparingly direct: “As a matter of principle, as a matter of character, Mr. Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.”
The FBI’s search of Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago, at first brought many supporters back into Trump’s fold. Yet, as details leaked out, some conservative media began to hedge their bets. Prime-time hosts on Fox News went all-in for Trump, but Fox’s Steve Doocy wondered on the air exactly why Trump needed all that “secret stuff” in his home. Editorials in the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal demanded greater transparency from Attorney General Merrick Garland but also admitted that Trump “brings much of his trouble on himself.”
Suggestions in court filings this past week of possible obstruction by Trump or his Florida functionaries make it even less likely that the ex-president will be able to recover his superpower and cement control over the story.
Still, it’s always hard to count Trump out. Obviously, things could still break his way; any slip-up by Garland and the FBI, big or small, could rapidly shift the plot in Trump’s direction. But there’s no question that — for now — the former media darling finds himself on unfamiliar terrain: He’s still a great story. It’s just not the story he wants to tell.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.