The lessons from Donald Trump’s first press conference should be worrying for those who value the role of our institutions.
Yesterday saw Trump’s first press conference in 167 days, and boy did it deliver. Despite his unerring vagueness, we learnt a few things in the hour or so he graced us with – for the first time he agreed that Russia did play a role in influencing the election, and he detailed exactly how he will distance himself from his business interests. He reiterated his pledge that Mexico will pay for the wall, most likely in the form of a tax, and he sent word that a “very large border tax” would be imposed on US companies moving factories outside of the country. For me though, the most interesting insight from Trump Tower arose from the aftermath of what had threatened to overshadow the whole press conference.
Let’s set the scene. Buzzfeed published a full 35-page dossier claiming that Russia has compromising material on Trump, including video evidence of him using prostitutes. These allegations were reported by CNN but were not taken up by most other news organisations – and indeed, the smart money does suggest that this was nothing more than flimsy, low blow reporting. This non-story, as it seems, was not valuable in itself – it needlessly lowered the tone of yet another Trump media interaction – but Trump’s handling of the aftermath spoke volumes.
Two rays of light in particular shone through the shroud of uncertainty hanging over Trump’s approach to the next four years. First, he took his first public opportunity to turn his previously reported disdain for US intelligence agencies into a concrete attack on their legitimacy. While Trump was unable to directly comment on the content of his classified intelligence briefing last Friday, he insinuated during the press conference that he was presented with a two-page summary of the dossier, apparently provided by a former British intelligence officer.
More importantly, in similar fashion to a tweet earlier the same day, he directly accused the intelligence community of leaking the information. Trump explained at length that he had wondered whether leaks were coming from within and so decided not to tell any of his team about the meeting, yet the leak still dripped through. It’s clear now that even in the most salient settings, Trump will gladly manoeuvre public opinion to strangle the standing of US intelligence services.
Ray number two stamped Trump’s authoritative reward-reinforcement stance on the media in no uncertain terms. With the issue of fake news at the forefront of the media this month, often specifically targeting bogus right wing reporting (e.g. Hillary’s alleged pizzeria child sex ring), Trump, his spokesman and Mike Pence all took time to viciously criticise ‘media bias’ and a ‘political witch hunt’ and balance the perceived scales of politically motivated fakery. In a fascinatingly uncomfortable exchange, after attacking CNN for reporting Buzzfeed’s claims, Trump flatly and strongly denied CNN’s Jake Acosta any platform in the conference. As can be seen in the video above, amid Acosta’s repeated calls to allow him to defend his organisation and pose a question, Trump asserts his control – “Not you, your organisation is terrible.” “I’m not gonna give you a question, you are fake news.” Acosta was later told by Trump’s incoming press secretary, Sean Spicer, that “if I were to do that again, I would be thrown out of this press conference.”
With these actions, Trump sent out a clear message – those who cross him will be minimised and vilified. In the same breath, he gave other media outlets the proverbial stomach rub and doggy treat for not giving the story undue attention. To outlets that showed him the respect he feels he deserves, Trump’s manner was noticeably friendly.
The Donald knows that The Donald sells. This strategy of positive reinforcement of respectful journalism combined with harsh punishment for stepping out of line is an astute psychological tool warning organisations to exercise caution in putting out anti-Trump stories, and baiting reporters into developing friendlier, more courteous relationships with him and his team. Already, directly after the Acosta exchange, subsequent reporters dialled the gush-factor up a notch after receiving the point of approval.
Trump certainly won’t have won any detractors over with his performance, but that was never his aim. Given the severity of the claims laid against him, he has sidestepped the worst effects of yet another potential vote-losing scandal, in the process sullying the reputation of the intelligence community, breeding hesitancy in hastily critical reporting and dangling carrots of co-operation to outlets that treat him well. As a political outsider, he may not yet be fully prepared for the task that befalls him from January 20th, but, with his only goal to retain solid support among his core voters (very few of whom are likely to be big fans of CNN), he has a frustratingly good grasp of how to play the media to achieve his objectives. And as Jeremy Corbyn knows, that’s more than half the battle.