From Wartime Prez to Hit Show 'Star,' Trump's Backsliding Ways

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Donald Trump has never adhered to the time-worn advice to leave well enough alone – even during the good times.  But after declaring himself “a wartime president” leading the charge against a global pandemic with tens of millions of Americans locked down in their homes, Trump showed a glimmer of restraint. The president surrounded himself with a team of leading scientific and health experts and, for the most part, publicly deferred to their advice and recommendations even if he disagreed behind the scenes. So far, so good.

During a fitful week of negotiations on a $2.3 trillion emergency relief bill on Capitol Hill, he let Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin serve as point man and kept the pot shots at Democrats to a minimum. He even sounded the rare grace note: The $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a Democratic request, was warranted, he said, because the “they do a beautiful job, an incredible job.”

Showing welcome restraint, the president didn’t mention that he and first lady Melania have skipped attending the Hollywood-heavy Kennedy Center Honors gala each of the last three years. And asked what he thought of lawmakers barring his businesses from getting any stimulus relief, Trump was downright sanguine.

“Well, that’s not happening. I mean, I think they wrote us out, and that’s all right,” he remarked.

Trump being Trump, there was still the performance-art bombast, as he gave himself a 10 out of 10 in leading the coronavirus response and regularly castigated reporters even on seemingly benign questions. But the president’s partisan button seemed to be on mute. His ready praise for New York Gov. Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom at times has felt surreal.  Trump actually praised former Secretary of State John Kerry as the two tag-teamed Kentucky GOP Rep. Thomas Massie for forcing 216 members of Congress to return to Washington last week to vote on a stimulus bill that was destined for passage.   

His recent poll numbers have rewarded the toned-down Trump, defying conventional wisdom and his harshest critics, who seemed in happy agreement that the coronavirus crisis was bound to hurt his reelection chances. A Gallup poll found Trump’s approval rating had ticked up to 49%, matching the best of his presidency and giving him a five-percentage-point boost since the outbreak started. Voters generally approved of his handling of the coronavirus too, with 60% giving his performance a thumbs-up.

But with all this going for him in a time of global tumult and the economy in freefall, Trump in one self-serving tweet on Sunday stepped on his own success, falling back on his old impulses. In the process, he gave his biggest enemies the exact ammunition they have been looking for. “The numbers are continuing to rise,” Trump tweeted, which may have easily been a reference to COVID-19 cases in New York and across the country.

Except it wasn’t. Instead, Trump was referring to the “astounding” television ratings bonanza of his daily press briefings, which he previously eschewed but began embracing since the coronavirus outbreak started hitting American shores. The White House coronavirus task force briefings have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million viewers on cable news, akin to the mass audience viewership of popular TV shows and sporting events, he crowed.

“Because the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football Type numbers,’ according to @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. ‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him,’ said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!” he tweeted Sunday afternoon.

Trump supporters and allies collectively cringed. The tweet coincided with grim news from the president’s top health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who predicted just hours earlier that the U.S. death toll could reach 100,000 to 200,000.

It also played right into the narrative of Trump’s enemies in the media. MSNBC and CNN had been cutting away from the revived press briefings, while Fox News has continued to air them in full, fueling a renewed debate on whether Trump was using the media after blasting them to essentially re-create his own reality-TV series aimed more at commanding a national audience than confronting the pandemic.

The media concern about covering unfiltered Trump livestreams dates back to CNN giving him virtually an open mic in 2015 and consistent blanket cable news coverage of his rallies during the 2016 campaign – ratings-driven decisions that his critics fault as helping hand him the election. The backlash this time was fast and forceful and wasn’t confined to the left.

“Why bother to tweet about this, of all things?” Fox News’ senior political analyst Brit Hume said in a tweet that earned 42,900 likes. Critics on the left were even less charitable.

“On CNN, I said people are dying while Trump is talking about his ratings,” said CNN media critics Brian Stelter. “It is beneath any human being. Trump’s inner circle needs to intervene.”

The harsh reactions to the ratings tweet didn’t seem to do much to keep the president on the straight and narrow. On Monday, he was once again back to his old ways. He overly characterized his own handling of the coronavirus crisis through a political lens. In an interview on Fox News, Trump was asked to react to speculation that Cuomo would be a better candidate for Democrats than Joe Biden.

“If he's going to run, that's fine," Trump said. "I wouldn't mind running against Andrew. I’ve known Andrew for a long time. I wouldn't mind that, but I'll be honest, I think he’d be a better candidate than sleepy Joe."

“I think probably Andrew would be better,” Trump continued. “I'm telling you right now, you know, I want somebody [for] this country that's gonna do a great job, and I hope I'm going to win.”

During his own daily press briefing, Gov. Cuomo has refused to take the political bait, even though he’s said he would be willing to “tangle” with Trump when he disagreed with him. The governor didn’t back down from several fights over the last two weeks in disagreements over the number of ventilators, masks and other personal protective equipment New York needs to combat the virus. But he kept the conversation on the response to the pandemic, not election-year antics.

“I’m not going to engage in politics,” Cuomo said Monday when asked to respond to Trump’s comments about him running for president. “Not because I’m unwilling to tangle, but because I think it’s inappropriate, and I think it’s counterproductive, and I think it’s anti-American.”

“Forget the politics!” Cuomo added. “We have a national crisis. We are at war.”

Cuomo, another brash, long-winded New Yorker, has personalized the crisis in a way many Americans, even those outside New York, appreciate. The governor spent several minutes in a Sunday briefing reminiscing about his family’s traditional Sunday night Italian dinner gathering, which he planned to hold – virtually -- that evening.

Trump, for the most part, has appeared to relish his self-appointed wartime president role. Delivering remarks at a star-spangled send-off of the Comfort, a U.S. Navy ship loaned to help New York City fight coronavirus crisis, he stuck to the script.

"This great ship behind me is a 70,000-ton message of hope and solidarity to the incredible people of New York," he added.

During his more free-wheeling media briefings in recent days, Trump has veered from fighting the virus to engaging in hand-to-hand combat with his old standby -- the media. On Monday, he bristled at several questions from the White House press corps, including his nemesis Jim Acosta of CNN, whom the president upbraided for asking a “nasty, snarky question.”

It was yet another reminder that although “The Apprentice” was supposedly reality TV, it was scripted. But there’s no scripting a White House press conference any more than a pandemic or a presidency. And even while Donald Trump was thanking American businesses for converting to a wartime footing and transforming their production models to manufacture ventilators and masks, a sudden gust of wind blew over a White House mult box and tousled the president’s famous mane.

“My hair is blowing around, and it’s mine,” he paused to say. A moment of levity, yes, and one for the Trump White House history books. But first, let’s keep the focus on fighting the virus.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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