WASHINGTON — Much has been made of Melania Trump’s absence from the capital.
But our new president’s most intense, primal, torrid relationship is in full “The War of the Roses” bloom here. And it is not with his beautiful, reserved wife. It’s with the press, the mirror for the First Narcissus.
President Trump thinks that the mirror is cracked and the coverage is “fake.” And many in the press, spanning the ideological spectrum, think that he is cracked and that a lot of his pronouncements are fake.
Can this strange, symbiotic relationship be saved? Probably not. It is too inflamed and enmeshed, too full of passionate accusations. It’s going to end like all those plays and movies — from “Othello” to “Endless Love” — where the mutual attraction is so powerful, it’s toxic.
Trump could not live without the press. It is his crack. He would be adrift and bereft without his sparring partners, lightning rods, scapegoats and amplifiers.
And while many in the press may disdain the way Trump uses them to rile up crowds and deflect from transgressions, they know they have a rare story and a tantalizing, antagonizing protagonist.
As the New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted in January: “Trump has frequently complained about my reporting,” yet, “He remains the most accessible politician I’ve ever covered.”
The press is everything to Donald Trump, from interior décor — his Trump Tower office was plastered wall to wall with framed magazine covers reflecting his face back at him like an infinity mirror — to daily reading. For decades every morning, he had his assistant print out a sheaf of stories published about him and keep a store of videotapes for ego gratification. Once Trump became a Twitter addict, this morphed into an incestuous, vertiginous spiral, as he got upset and shot back against news reports he did not like.
His campaign staff “cracked the code for tamping down his most inflammatory tweets,” Tara Palmeri reported in Politico last week, by ensuring “his personal media consumption includes a steady stream of praise. And when no such praise was to be found, staff would turn to friendly outlets to drum some up — and make sure it made its way to Trump’s desk.”
Talk about fake news.
He is the biggest story on the planet, “King Lear meets Rodney Dangerfield,” as Lloyd Grove tweeted after Trump’s recent press conference. As our new president is well aware, he’s a rainmaker and a troublemaker for media.
Financially pressed news organizations are not being shy about seizing the moment to celebrate — and cash in on — their aggressive independence. They are responding with a missionary zeal to being treated as “the opposition party” that “should keep its mouth shut,” as Trump enforcer Steve Bannon put it.
The Washington Post has added a dramatic “Batman”-style motto online: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The New York Times bought a pricey ad for the Oscars with the tag line, “The truth is more important than ever.” The Los Angeles Times made new multilingual T-shirts declaring, “We will not shut up.”
President Trump is constantly berating the press because the accounts of his chaotic, careering first month in the job do not sync up with the glossy, self-regarding image he has in the fun-house mirror of his head and in the reflection from his circle of sycophants. Kellyanne Conway calls him “President Action” and “President Impact” and Bannon compares him to William Jennings Bryan. (Trump would definitely want a cross of gold to match his new Oval Office drapes.)
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, with a shameless talent for self-aggrandizement untethered to fact, Trump was able to turn himself into a celebrity. Like his mentor Roy Cohn, Trump learned to manipulate his coverage in the New York tabloids. He even came up with two alter egos, John Barron and John Miller, so he could masquerade as his own p.r. agent and spin tall tales about Madonna and Carla Bruni craving him.
“Posing as John Miller, he used to ask to go on and off the record when talking about girls lusting after Donald,” recalls Sue Carswell, who dealt with both Trump and his fake spinmeister when she was at People during l’affaire Marla Maples.
It doesn’t seem to have sunk in with Trump that he can’t manipulate the press as easily today. He’s the president. When he exaggerates and makes things up now, it has global consequences and subverts American values. It is not like whispering lies about which famous women are panting for him.
In his pouty speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, he reiterated his sour denunciation of journalists as “the enemy of the people.” The man who made his flashy reputation by being an anonymous and pseudonymous source — and who still spews a constant stream of wild assertions based on anonymous sources — blustered that the press “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.”
The White House has been trying to shape coverage by giving passes and questions at press conferences to Breitbart and other conservative outlets, including some fringe ones. And on Friday afternoon, the White House barred several news organizations from a Sean Spicer briefing. This included The New York Times and CNN, which angered the White House by reporting on links between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.
This Russian-style domination of the press came only a few hours after the president told CPAC: “I love the First Amendment; nobody loves it better than me. Nobody.”
Fake news. Let’s just hope he doesn’t love the First Amendment to death.
Correction: February 25, 2017
An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of a politician. He is William Jennings Bryan (not Bryant).