I know this is going to sound crazy, but just one week ago, all of pundit-land was frantically competing to enthuse the loudest about how Donald Trump had finally become a president. “He became president in that moment, period,” declaimed CNN contributor Van Jones, referring to the fact that Trump had managed to get through a joint address to Congress without vomiting down his shirt front.
Jones was far from alone in these jubilations. “It was, by far, the best speech I ever heard Donald Trump give,” said Fox News’ Chris Wallace, later adding, “It was one of the best speeches, in that setting, that I’ve ever heard any president give.” ABC News’ Martha Raddatz insisted, “Not only was he more presidential, he was a politician ... he reached out to both sides ... he reached out to people who may not have supported him.”
Very low bars were cleared. Who’d have thought that simply saying that you were generically opposed to anti-Semitic crimes would earn you gushing praise?
And this wasn’t going to be a one-night-only thing, oh no! Over at CBS, John Dickerson very confidently asserted that Trump’s oration “wasn’t just a speech by a president,” but rather, “a decision by a number of people to go in a slightly different direction and also to embrace some of the limitations of the office.”
Trump, having the better part of two years to campaign and a month to actually govern, might have revealed this tone long before Feb. 28. But such observations were in short supply.
Oh, well. What was late in coming was not long for this world. Mere hours after Trump declared that “the time for trivial fights is behind us,” there was a sharp, harsh reversion to the mean that eventually ended with Trump making a new round of utterly basket-case accusations.
So let’s take a moment to remember how this pivot-to-presidentialness died a hopeless death in seven days’ time.
An Unexpected Boon
Reports suggest the Trump administration was completely caught out by the fact that the president’s speech had managed to garner such rave reviews. As The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported on Twitter, “Some sources in [the White House] are frankly surprised at how pundits are warming to the speech.”
Costa also provided a distant early warning that this was not to last, reporting that his sources indicated that “Trump has not changed” and that “no big shift in policy [was] coming.”
Nevertheless, the president wanted to linger a little longer in the afterglow of his speech. As the New York Daily News reported:
Amid an outpouring of praise for President Trump’s first address before a joint session of Congress, the White House apparently delayed the release of a new executive order for a revised travel ban, so the speech could continue to receive positive attention.
“We want the EO to have its own ‘moment,’” a senior Trump administration official told CNN, referring to the coming executive order, which had originally been scheduled to be revealed Wednesday.
This sort of gave the lie to the notion that the executive order was urgently needed for the sake of national security, an assertion the White House had made throughout its fumbling attempts to institute a Muslim travel ban. Other priorities took hold, apparently.
Members of the Trump administration almost managed to bask in the praise of the pundit class for an entire 24-hour period. But Wednesday night, they were assailed anew by reports that forced them out of their reverie. And chief among them was a Washington Post story that quickly created huge problems for Trump’s attorney general.
Get A Load Of This Clown, Jeff Sessions
On Wednesday night, the Post’s Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice spoken to Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, during the presidential campaign. The problem? This directly contradicted testimony Sessions proffered during his Senate confirmation hearing.
And for added significance, one of those meetings “took place in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race,” according to the Post.
The previously undisclosed discussions could fuel new congressional calls for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential election. As attorney general, Sessions oversees the Justice Department and the FBI, which have been leading investigations into Russian meddling and any links to Trump’s associates. He has so far resisted calls to recuse himself.
That resistance would not last. Pressure mounted from both sides in the buildup to Sessions’ announcement. While Democrats were more apt to call for his resignation, Republican lawmakers ― including some of Sessions’ former Senate colleagues ― stepped up their demands that Sessions recuse himself.
Amid mounting calls for inquiries into Moscow’s alleged interference in both “the election as well as the policies of the new administration,” Sessions officially recused himself from any further investigations and settled in for what many lawyers told Politico could be a lengthy “legal ordeal.”
Kislyak And Tell
As those capable of recalling the time before Trump’s great presidential pivot could have told you, when it rains in this administration, it tends to pour.
Before long, new reports documented the meetings key members of Trump’s inner circle had with Ambassador Kislyak. The New York Times reported that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law-cum-White House adviser Jared Kushner “had a previously undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador in December” for the purposes of “‘establishing a line of communication’ between the new administration and the Russian government.”
Prior to that, Carter Page, an oil-industry lobbyist with ties to the Trump campaign, had met with Kislyak in Cleveland on the occasion of the Republican National Convention, Politico reported. The timing was curious, given the fact that the Trump campaign negotiated a change in the GOP platform’s language about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine at that convention. On Thursday, J.D. Gordon, the Trump campaign’s national security representative at the convention, told CNN that he had been the one arguing for the language change on Trump’s behalf. (Hours later, Gordon would recant his story.)
Heck, Trump himself had an encounter with Kislyak in late April 2016, reportedly giving the ambassador a “warm greeting” at a VIP reception at Washington D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel. Minutes later, at the same hotel, Trump gave a foreign policy speech in which he told those assembled, “I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia ... is possible, absolutely possible.”
Throughout it all, the Trump campaign has repeatedly dismissed the idea that the sort of meetings that are now a matter of public record had ever occurred, despite the evidence to the contrary. But Sessions, having submitted to the demands that he recuse himself, put a crack in that fortress of denial.
And that, in turn, once again sent Trump into a rage spiral, and officially ended the pivot.
Another Friday Night Freak-Out
On Friday morning, reports emerged that Trump had taken a firm line on the ongoing Sessions contretemps, declaring in a statement that it was all a “total witch hunt” and castigating Democrats for “overplaying their hand.”
But behind the scenes, Trump was fuming about Sessions’ recusal. As ABC News reported:
Before heading to his so-called winter White House in Palm Beach, Florida, on Friday, President Donald Trump summoned some of his senior staffers to the Oval Office and went “ballistic,” a senior White House source told ABC News.
The president erupted with anger over the latest slew of news reports connecting Russia with the new administration — specifically the abrupt decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
According to ABC News’ sources, Trump “felt Sessions’ recusal was unnecessary and only served to embolden [his] political opponents.” He and a room full of advisers then had a conversation so heated that pool photographers noticed it and captured it with their cameras through the windows of the Oval Office.
CNN had its own source at the center of this dust-up, who explained that “nobody [had] seen him that upset, and that Trump was “showing increasing flashes of anger over the performance of his senior staff.”
The same source said that “Trump is upset because he doesn’t believe he is getting the credit he thinks he deserves for his time in office.” By the end of this Oval Office encounter session, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon were told to stay behind and not accompany Trump on his weekly excursion to Mar-a-Lago. (Bannon would make the trip the next day.)
With nothing but his emotions and his Twitter account to keep Trump company, things were inevitably headed toward a bad turn.
As Trump awoke on Saturday morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed back into whatever he was before he became “president in that moment, period.”
Unleashing a new torrent of nonsense, Trump took to his Twitter account to accuse President Barack Obama of masterminding either a “Nixon/Watergate” or a “McCarthyist” plot to wiretap (or “tapp”) his offices in Trump Tower during the campaign.
As is his wont, Trump offered no evidence that such a plot had ever taken place. And it’s pretty clear that this idea managed to implant itself into Trump’s head via his oddball media diet.
Over at Just Security, Julian Sanchez provides the necessary forensics:
Though Trump asserted he had “just found out” about this surveillance, he appears to be referencing a series of reports that began with a piece by Louise Mensch in Heat Street back in November, which was later corroborated by articles published by The Guardian and the BBC in January. The reports may have come to Trump’s attention by way of a Breitbart story that ran on Friday, summarizing claims of a “Deep State” effort to undermine the Trump administration advanced by conservative talk radio host Mark Levin.
If it were true that President Obama had ordered the intelligence community to “tapp” Trump’s phones for political reasons, that would of course be a serious scandal—and crime—of Nixonian proportions. Yet there’s nothing in the published reports—vague though they are—to support such a dramatic allegation.
Naturally, a spokesman for Obama denied the allegation. And intelligence officials, in conversation with Washington Post reporters, took a dim view of the allegation:
“It’s highly unlikely there was a wiretap,” said one former senior intelligence official familiar with surveillance law who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. The former official continued: “It seems unthinkable. If that were the case by some chance, that means that a federal judge would have found that there was either probable cause that he had committed a crime or was an agent of a foreign power.”
A wiretap cannot be directed at a U.S. facility, the official said, without finding probable cause that the phone lines or Internet addresses were being used by agents of a foreign power — or by someone spying for or acting on behalf of a foreign government. “You can’t just go around and tap buildings,” the official said.
As is often the case, the consequences of Trump playing fast and loose on Twitter came swiftly. FBI Director James Comey demanded that the Justice Department immediately refute Trump’s claim ― which turned out to be a tricky matter, given that Attorney General Sessions had only days prior recused himself from commenting on these very matters. And the media took up the matter with alacrity, buffeting clearly unprepared White House spokespeople with the story and further enmeshing Comey into a conflict that came from out of the blue.
Trump aide-de-camp Kellyanne Conway further muddied the waters by suggesting that Trump had “information and intelligence that the rest of us do not,” on the matter. Where he obtained it and what it was, no one could say.
But Trump seemed to contradict the very notion that he’d obtained critical intelligence about this alleged plot by calling on Congress to launch an investigation to find the evidence he supposedly already had. That all led to this rather insane exchange between NBC News’ Hallie Jackson and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer:
Meanwhile, Back At The White House
All this time, of course, the Trump White House was steadily taking actions that belied the notion that a presidential pivot had occurred. With the rosy glow of his speech’s reception fully faded, there was no reason for Trump to hold off his second attempt at a Muslim travel ban.
This time out, Trump consulted with the relevant agencies and pulled back on the draconian nature of the original ban a little bit ― revisions to the first executive order dropped Iraq from the list of banned nations and perplexingly included an insistence that the original “was not motivated by animus toward any religion.” But as the Guardian noted in a pair of reports, the new order also definitively “worsens [the] plight of refugees,” and those who mounted a legal challenge to the first ban were gearing up to make the same arguments in court a second time.
And the Trump White House continued to be a ethical trash-garden. ProPublica reported that the Trump administration was “either ignoring or exempting top staffers from its own watered-down ethics rules”:
As we have detailed, President Trump in January issued an order weakening Obama-era ethics policies, allowing lobbyists to work at agencies they had sought to influence. The Trump order did limit what lobbyists could do once they entered government, banning them from directly handling issues on which they had lobbied.
But the administration may not be even following that.
We’ve found three hires announced this week who, in fact, are working on the same issues on which they were registered lobbyists while in the private sector.
It would probably come as no surprise to learn that the Trump White House had “rejected a course for senior White House staff, Cabinet nominees and other political appointees that would have provided training on leadership, ethics and management.”
In case that does surprise you, Politico’s Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey document that this did, in fact, happen.
Meanwhile, the Trump White House continued to complain about Democrats holding up the process of confirming Trump’s Cabinet nominees, despite the fact that no secretary of labor or secretary of agriculture has been confirmed because the White House has not sent the Senate the paperwork necessary to begin those hearings.
In other words, a full week of High Trumpism followed his “pivotal speech,” crushing the dreams of cockeyed optimists with a full return to the anger, divisiveness, incompetence and conspiratorial ravings we’ve all come to expect from every other moment of Trump’s political career.
But there’s one more thing worth noting.
It Was A Con From The Beginning
One thing you become attuned to as you pay more attention to politics and political coverage is that you can tell when the media really wants to write a particular kind of story. And there’s nothing the political press loves more than the redemption arc. So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the media was practically gagging at the opportunity to write the pivot story well in advance of Trump’s speech.
Trump’s a pretty gifted con man, so he likely knows the old adage “You can’t con an honest John” only too well. On some level, the mark has to want to be taken. And when the press is all but praying that a hypothesis they’ve scouted out ahead of time is confirmed after the fact, they’re pretty easy to sucker.
And so, the Trump White House did its own priming of the pump. As The Hill’s Brooke Seipel reported, “Trump administration officials fed news outlets misinformation ahead of” his address to Congress, specifically about a kinder and gentler approach to immigration reform.
Ahead of Trump’s speech, he told numerous news outlets, “The time is right for an immigration bill, as long as there is compromise on both sides,” hinting that he may call for immigration reform, including a possible path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, in his speech to Congress.
But he made no such remarks Tuesday night, and CNN’s Sara Murray called it a “bait-and-switch.”
“Basically they fed [news outlets] things that they thought these anchors would like, that they thought would give them positive press coverage for the next few hours. A senior administration official admitted that it was a misdirection play,” Murray said.
You really can’t blame Trump’s team for doing this: It was right there for the taking. That little bit of misdirection, combined with a more gently delivered speech that ― importantly! ― contained none of Trump’s trademark attacks on the press, helped get the president his “pivot” story so cheaply that it basically caught his staff by surprise.
It would have been a pretty nice maneuver, too, were it not for the fact that Trump can’t help but revert to his old tendencies.
The only real question is whether or not the people who fell for this the first time, only to receive seven days’ worth of rude awakenings as a reward for their complimentary coverage, might fall for this con again at some ripe moment in the future.
And the answer is: probably!
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.