Shortly before Donald Trump walked out to the South Lawn of the White House, a senior White House official made sure reporters understood what was about to happen. “He’s in a good mood. He’s coming right at you. He wants to talk,” I was told.
According to the administration, the knockout punch against Trump never came. “He didn’t know what was in his own report,” one Trump aide told me. Some pundits from both sides of the political divide evaluated Mueller’s testimony in binary fashion. “Those who wanted to begin impeachment proceedings needed bombshells from the former special counsel,” Politico’s Playbook newsletter said. “Mueller gave them nothing besides affirmation about what was in his report, and a series of sidesteps when he did not want to answer questions.”
Statements like that left a few reporters in the White House press corps breathless. “Did they even read the report?” one reporter said out loud in the Brady briefing room. Later that day, pundits wrote that if the Democrats were looking for a “seminal moment,” as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, then they left disappointed because “their star witness was no star.”
Some saw a different loser. “After Wednesday’s congressional hearing, it looks like President Trump has won a victory over the bedrock American principles of congressional oversight and equality before the law,” John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker. “Trump’s blitzkrieg tactics of demonizing anyone who challenges him, terrorizing potential dissidents on his own side, and relentlessly spouting propaganda over social media may have worked,” Cassidy added. The president and everyone else seemed to want a cinematic knock out from Mueller that didn’t occur. In a reality show presidency, it seemed to be the only viable option to some viewing the chaos from the comfort of their living room sofa. Act III needs a hero to rise.
Meanwhile, CNN’s Brian Stelter opined about a dilemma the press faces in this mess: “Old-fashioned tenets of the news business fade away in this fog of disinformation. For example: 'What the president says is news.' I still think that's true, but when he's telling you not to believe your own eyes and ears, is it really news?”
Stelter tried to grapple with one of the fundamental problems facing the press today: how to deal with appearance versus reality. Unlike others, he did not get lost in a binary decision of “who won” between Mueller and Trump.
The reality is harder to decipher and doesn’t conveniently breakdown into a 10-second sound bite. Reality can be lost in the heat of the moment concerning the news of the day—which is exactly what Trump wants. The president’s gaggle on the South Lawn this week highlights the problem in a nutshell. The president claimed he was vindicated and said “We had a very good day today” and “There was no defense for this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt that’s been going on for a long time..."
From there, it became an epic presidential slugfest against the press. As he walked up to the bank of microphones, I asked if he was worried that Mueller said he could be indicted for obstruction once he left office. He ignored me.
A short time later, Hallie Jackson asked the same question. Trump went off on the NBC reporter, calling her fake news.
“And let me just tell you, the fact that you even asked that question, you’re fake news. Because you know what? He totally corrected himself in the afternoon. And you know that just as well as anybody.”
He went on to Kaitlan Collins, from CNN, who asked about the president being “not truthful” in his written answers to Mueller’s questions. Trump danced around that and fired off another “fake news” assault at another reporter.
“Again you’re fake news, and you’re right at the top of the list . . .” he said. To yet another reporter he said, “That’s why people don’t deal with you because you’re not an honest reporter.”
After telling John Roberts from Fox News that “this was a devastating day for the Democrats,” Trump told another reporter trying to ask about potential indictments after leaving office that it was a “very dumb and very unfair question.” He told a group of reporters, including myself, Collins, Paula Reid from CBS, and Jackson from NBC that we were all fake news. He went after everyone.
As for Reid, he called her "the worst." A few seconds later, he did a complete about-face and singled me out. “I can’t believe how nice you are today. Go ahead, give me a question,” he said.
I did not take the bait. He already showed he wanted to fight. But I wanted answers. I returned to my first question. Noticing that Trump went on the attack whenever Mueller’s name was mentioned, I did not mention it while drilling down. I said, “Thank you. My question, Mr. President, is do you believe that even though he backed away from it, that you, after you leave office, could face indictment for obstruction?”
“No, because we did nothing wrong. The answer is very simple. Nothing was done wrong. This was all a big hoax. And if you look at it today, nothing was done wrong,” Trump explained.
It was a frightening but typical answer. Trump defies all facts and to the loyal base plays the martyr. Whether or not Trump actually believes his rhetoric, others will and he knows it. Therefore it remains incumbent on the press, as Stetler pointed out, to push back.
Trump’s victory lap, as some labeled it, lasted a little under 20 minutes and then he was off to Wheeling, West Virginia for another love fest with supporters. And we are left trying to compare the stoic professional demeanor of Robert Mueller to the bombast of Donald Trump.
We framed it as a horse race or ball game because Trump did, and that is far simpler to do than what reality demands. Part of the problem is the press, but it is also the public, which has become so enamored of passion without thought, that we cannot appreciate the logic and thorough nature of a thinker compared to the sideshow barker antics of the president. The public demands winners and losers. Plain and simple. If we as reporters do not frame the issues properly, then we all suffer when politicians frame the issues to suit their own ends. We all lose.
The president and his minions, in an attempt to obfuscate the facts, have tried to make it about those who deliver facts to the public. Shooting the messenger is an old method, but one that Trump has honed to a fine art. He accuses us of bullying him and government representatives. He calls us rude. He says we are the problem. Meanwhile, he and his representatives are the government. They have the power over other’s lives. We do not. We have nothing but the ability to ask questions and write stories.
If you don’t like us, then you can change the channel or not read us. There are plenty of news sources out there and everyone seems to pick someone who speaks to their own philosophical cul de sac. Trump knows this and exploits it. He can stand in the South Lawn and attack dozens of journalists for asking questions. He can then claim he’s done nothing wrong, despite ample factual evidence to the contrary and those who support him will fall in line and batter the facts with their own “alternative facts.”
The Trump administration has never wavered from this approach. They love the heat and hate the light and the nation remains as divided as ever as a result. Watching him flail away at us on the South Lawn after Mueller’s testimony drove home one truth Trump cannot hide no matter how he dances and no matter who he yells at: He’s scared. As Mueller’s testimony showed, he should be.