It was another seemingly deft political deflection by an expert in the practice. Just as the media were getting worked up about U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent firings of several government watchdogs, most pointedly the one overseeing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump did what he often does at such moments: He sent everyone on a detour.
He announced, unprompted, that he was taking the controversial anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which he has touted as a treatment for COVID-19. Sure enough, this became the big media story in the ensuing days.
The Democrats, focused on the watchdog controversy, were left frustrated – sidetracked once again by the gyrations of “the master of diversion,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called him.
Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former top adviser, once told author Michael Lewis about the strategy. “The real opposition is the media,” he said. “And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Mr. Trump can be counted on to create a maze of storylines and perform any number of circus acts. He floods the zone on almost a daily basis to try to prevent any negative story from standing alone and lasting.
Recall from a month ago his monumental embarrassment in recommending bleach be ingested to fight COVID-19. With his tweet storms and press conferences since then, he has piled on so many other saucy news offerings that his mentioning of disinfectant has pretty much been forgotten.
No president has dominated the news cycle like him. The closest may have been the immensely learned Theodore Roosevelt, a non-stop talker who made himself a magnet for coverage. T.R. engulfed listeners, as a biographer put it, “in a tidal wave of erudition.” Mr. Trump does so in a tidal wave of a different nature.
In the case of hydroxychloroquine, he will likely be having second thoughts about his decision to announce that he’s been taking the drug. A study released Friday in the medical journal The Lancet showed that those who take it are more likely to develop abnormal heart rhythms and are more likely to die.
With the coronavirus crisis hounding him and an election coming, Mr. Trump’s diversions are of even greater necessity. He’s been flooding the zone by alleging an “Obamagate” scandal. He hasn’t really been able to explain or justify the charge, but throwing it out there is smart politics. It’s getting a considerable amount of media attention, putting Democrats on the defensive.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has been a target as well. Senate Republicans voted Wednesday to issue a subpoena as part of their investigation into the Ukrainian energy firm that hired the former vice-president’s son, Hunter Biden. Mr. Trump was impeached in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives for his alleged scheme to extort Ukraine into investigating Mr. Biden and is now determined to flip the script by pinning suspicions of nefarious dealings in Ukraine on the Biden family.
With respect to the pandemic’s heavy toll in the U.S., Mr. Trump’s blame-shifting has been on full display. He has blamed China, he has blamed the World Health Organization, he has blamed governors, he has blamed the Obama administration, he has blamed the media.
A study by Columbia University researchers released this week said that if physical distancing had been put into effect just a week earlier in the U.S., about 36,000 lives could have been saved. Such is the extent of political tribalism in the U.S. that Mr. Trump could readily brush it off. Columbia is a “very liberal” institution, he said. It’s “a political hit job.”
The most egregious example of how he is able to get away with pretty much anything came about during his 2016 presidential campaign. Footage from a 2005 Access Hollywood interview showed him boasting about his gross treatment of women. Democrats thought they had him cornered and beaten. But in an astonishing move, in the ensuing televised campaign debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump brought in several women who had accused former U.S. president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment. He staged a pre-debate news conference with the women and then invited them to sit in the audience.
The four-part documentary series Hillary, which is well worth watching, shows how she and Democratic strategists were at a loss for how to deal with this shatterer of so many political norms.
Four years on, little has changed. One constant about Mr. Trump is his constancy. He pulls the same stunts all the time. It’s one thing the Democrats can count on. But as unremitting as his tactics have been, the Democrats, with an election just five months away, still haven’t figured out how to potently deal with this president.
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