President Trump officially kicked off his re-election bid at a major rally in Orlando, Florida on June 18. But he unofficially launched it two days earlier in a special “20/20” interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC. As is often the case, what the campaign does is at least as important as what it says.
The headlines from the Stephanopoulos interview concerned Trump’s comments about whether he would accept opposition research from foreign sources, which had some asking why Trump would spend 30 hours with a former Bill Clinton operative. The same sorts of questions could be asked about his in-depth cover story interview with Time magazine and his wide-ranging chat on “Meet The Press” with Chuck Todd, whom he has repeatedly called “Sleepy Eyes.”
It is not uncommon for an incumbent president to blitz the establishment media as part of a re-elect campaign. Donald Trump is not the typical incumbent candidate. As National Review’s Rich Lowry once wrote, the establishment media is to the Trump coalition what the Soviet Union was to the Reagan coalition: an Evil Empire that glues its foes together.
Trump has held fewer press conferences than his five predecessors. In January, he told his press secretary to stop holding press briefings. The line has been that Trump gets his message out through conservative outlets and social media.
So why is President Trump hanging out in the lion’s den? The most obvious answer is that after spending much of his first term focused on maintaining and energizing his core supporters, he wants to reach swing voters. His team allows it has plans to reach out to independents and Democrats, while claiming it will not be easy in the current environment. But there are at least three reasons Trump would think it is worth the effort.
First, the campaign’s internal polling was showing the president trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in key states. Team Trump notes that he polls better against a defined candidate and early primary polls should be taken with a truckload of salt. But the campaign is taking them, in part to know where they stand today and what sort of work they need to do between now and November 2020.
Trump and campaign manager Brad Parscale are telling the media the 2020 campaign will be about turnout, not persuasion. Turnout may well be their emphasis. “It all comes down to turnout” is a cliché because there is truth in it. But persuasion matters in a high-turnout election, which is what most already expect for 2020. And Trump won in 2016 in significant part by persuading former Obama voters.
Second, Trump has known the value of publicity long before he got into politics. He must know his 2016 campaign was aided greatly by saturation media coverage. Competing against a crowded field of Republicans, Trump’s ability to dominate the news cycle was an enormous, perhaps decisive advantage. This remained surprisingly true during the general election, when Big Media turned even more hostile.
As president, Trump obviously has retained the ability to dictate—and when necessary, shift—the daily political conversation. With a similarly large field of Democrats vying to become his opponent in 2020, he will want to remain the center of attention.
A media generally hostile to Trump also realizes how much oxygen they gave his campaign in 2016. In this cycle, they may be less inclined to provide wall-to-wall coverage of rallies where he can speak unfiltered to the electorate. Yet even hostile media outlets cannot resist an exclusive availability with the president, nor can they resist promoting those exclusives.
Trump’s latest interviews with Big Media have the contention and controversy one might expect. Yet in each interview, President Trump is also making the case for his administration.
In this sense, the interviews track his official kickoff speech. In Orlando, he opened by “playing the hits” for his biggest fans in the semi-improvisational style of a standup comic sharpening his material. There also was a more scripted section, touting low unemployment, especially for women and minorities.
He claimed his efforts to roll back regulations have saved the typical American family $3,000 annually. He touted his accomplishments on criminal justice reform, among others. And he attacked Democrats’ de facto open borders position on illegal immigration. Even Trump skeptics like Commentary magazine’s John Podhoretz noticed this was one of Trump’s better-scripted performances.
So far, the establishment media still sees the Trump of the past two and one-half years. But if Trump supporters wondered why he talked to Stephanopoulos, the establishment media also should have wondered why Trump and his team were talking to them.
Finally, beyond polls and publicity, Trump is going to try to persuade Democrats and independents because it is his nature. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan is among the few journalists who gets Trump’s game.
Watching his interview on “Meet The Press,” she noted: “[W]e shouldn’t lose sight of it, because we see him every day. This is a compelling character who people are watching closely. This is a character. He reminded me – He’s got a line on every subject. And he reminded me of the old real estate salesman saying, ‘Always be closing’… I sense he is always closing. But I heard a lot of laughter from your audience. I’m not sure I could interpret the kind of laughter. But man, it was total engagement.”
To paraphrase the most famous part of “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992), campaigns are for closers. Donald Trump is always closing. He will always believe he can sway an audience. The Trump campaign may focus on turnout, but campaigns also inevitably reflect the candidate.