On Monday night the elders of the broadcast media submitted themselves to a putatively off-the-record occasion for the president-elect to mock them for his and his supporters’ amusement. Though both the press and Trump’s campaign afterward issued the usual on-the-record niceties about how the gathering was a “cordial,” “productive” “reset,” multiple news outlets, spanning the reputational range from the New York Post to the New Yorker, reported that it was anything but. The hostility makes sense. The press is one of Trump’s most lucrative antagonists and will be so long as he remains in politics.
“Participants said that Trump did not raise his voice,” New Yorker editor David Remnick reported, “but that he went on steadily at the start of the meeting about how he had been treated poorly.” He “railed” against coverage he termed “dishonest” and “outrageous.” He was unhappy that NBC used a photo of him with a double chin. When someone brought up the scourge of “fake news,” Trump said it was them, the mainstream news networks, that were the “fake news.” OK, they sort of walked into that one.
“Trump kept saying, ‘We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest media who got it all wrong,’ ” a source told the New York Post. (The Post’s story frames the standoff more as a heroic effort from our president-elect, rather than a terrifying score-settling spiel from the man who’s about to control the country’s armed forces. This is important if we’re keeping score of which side may have leaked to which outlet.) “He addressed everyone in the room, calling the media dishonest, deceitful liars. He called out Jeff Zucker by name and said everyone at CNN was a liar, and CNN was [a] network of liars.” The Drudge Report instantly picked up the Post’s story. It was a celebratory piece, triumphal, a tomahawk-dunk reel featuring the president-elect.
Remnick’s report features a lot of angry cursing from the attendees in the room—as a fun game, I like to imagine it all coming from Wolf Blitzer—but not much in the way of learning. Consider this rant:
“I have to tell you, I am emotionally fucking pissed,” another participant said. “How can this not influence coverage? I am being totally honest with you. Toward the end of the campaign, it got to a point where I thought that the coverage was all about [Trump’s] flaws and problems. And that’s legit. But, I thought, O.K., let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. After the meeting today, though—and I am being human with you here—I think, Fuck him! I know I am being emotional about it. And I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving. But I really am offended. This was unprecedented. Outrageous!”
One sentence here stands out, and it’s not one of the enraged outbursts. It’s “I know I will get over it a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” Why? Trump’s not going to get over what prompted him to deliver this rant. Why should the media types attending this meeting “get over” their firsthand look into the petty way the incoming president thinks? The president-elect is gleefully at war with them. Polite sit-downs shouldn’t be expected, or sought.
Let’s think of why these media figures might have gone in to see Donald Trump. I mean, obviously it’s because they want to preserve access in the administration, but why did they think they would get it? Perhaps because they know—and all of these people were probably friends with Trump before the election—that Trump wants their respect. He wants the New York Times to like him and say really great things about him. He is 40-some years into his campaign to prove to Manhattan’s paper of record that he is a serious figure worthy of respect and entry to the club, and he is not giving up anytime soon. This separates him from other Republicans who hate the press. George W. Bush, for example, didn’t care whether the New York Times or Jeff Zucker or Martha Raddatz respected him or said mean things about him. Trump does. That’s why most of his post-election commentary, almost entirely through Twitter, has been to lash out at the jerks in the media. It gets to him.
All that Trump can do is crush the media. He already has, in his mind. The media threw everything it had against him—i.e., reported on all of the things he was saying and investigated him and noted how unusual and troublesome it all was—he pushed back, and he won the election. The media said he would lose, and he won. (Lost in all of his bragging about how the media’s projections were wrong is the fact that his own team’s projections were “wrong,” too, in the sense that they gave him a low probability of winning, and he was reportedly “shocked” that he won. Though of course that was reported in the failing New York Times, which can’t be trusted.) He beat the media by actively campaigning on beating the media. As my colleague Seth Stevenson wrote in his final dispatch from the Trump train: “[T]he real reason they put us in the [press] pen was so they could turn us into props. We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals.”
It would be political malpractice for him to kiss and make up with the press now, so valuable was the antagonism in getting him to where he is. There is nothing the press can say or do that will change this calculus for him. The press should welcome it. It’s a disturbing thing, in the first place, that some media members evidently went into a room with the daunting figure they’re supposed to cover and expected some sort of olive branch, as if making peace with him is the answer to any question the public ever asked. He won by making the media his enemy; it’s in his political interest to keep the media as his enemy, and administrations by nature see press intrusions as the enemy. Why would the enemy envision itself as a friend?