The impeachable president whined last week that he missed the good days when the Fourth Estate covered him exactly the way he wanted. In his inimitable words, “I used to be the king of getting good press.”
Just for the record, this poseur was never the king of anything. But there was indeed a time when he orchestrated good press, when he’d leak gossip garbage to compliant New York tabloid reporters. That’s still his frame of reference, but those days are long gone. He’s playing in the big leagues now, the high hard fastballs are hurtling at his head, and he’s down in the dirt multiple times per news cycle.
The self-described “king of getting good press” was spoiled back in the 1980s. According to Allen Salkin and Aaron Short, co-authors of a new book on Trump, here’s how the game worked: “In his calls to reporters, Trump tattled about who showed up where and with whom (at New York parties), and asked for something in return. Sometimes it was a mention of a new project or book. More typically, he wanted the adjective ‘billionaire’ preceding his name when the New York Post’s Page Six, the New York Daily News’s Hot Copy, or Newsday’s Inside New York mentioned him.”
There was zero evidence, of course, that Trump was actually a billionaire, but the tabloid reporters never bothered to fact-check it. They duly described him as “billionaire Donald Trump” as a transactional thank-you for the gossip he perpetually supplied. Lloyd Grove, one of those tabloid reporters back in the day, recalls that Trump “definitely knew how to write a tabloid story. He just had a natural ability to communicate in bold headlines.”
But was Grove concerned that the “billionaire” label might be nonsense? Nah. He tells Salkin and Short: “I didn’t really challenge (Trump) on the facts. So I guess in that sense I was being an enabler and lazy. But he was a colorful personality. He wasn’t the president of the United States.”
In Grove’s defense, who at the time could have imagined such a preposterous scenario? Unfortunately, those lazy enablers shaped Trump’s deluded belief that whatever emanated from his mouth would be forever treated by the media as golden nuggets.
Trump would even call up reporters, disguising himself as somebody else (“John Miller” or “John Barron”). Without being challenged, he would dish about himself in the third person — as we heard in a 1991 recording that surfaced during the 2016 campaign.
Trump can arguably be excused for assuming that his luck with the media would last forever. In 2016, the cable networks covered his toxic campaign rallies from start to finish, without fact-checking in real time. Jeff Zucker, the top guy at CNN, said on the eve of the 2016 election: “If we made any mistake (in 2015), it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run…Because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”
That era of mindless media indulgence is blessedly over. These days, Trump’s panicked tweeting is a sign of weakness. The narrative is not his to command.
Just in the span of 24 hours, we learned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listened to Trump’s infamous phone call to the Ukraine president that that Attorney General Bill Barr has asked western allies to aid his mission to undermine the U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia helped elect Trump. We also learned that dirt-digging lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been subpoenaed by three House committees and that the intelligence community’s Inspector General (a Trump appointee) has released a new letter attesting that the whistleblower had “official and authorized access to information and sources referenced,” as well as “direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct” and “subject matter expertise.”
Trump is now hostage to events beyond his control. And if he’s still tempted to wax nostalgic for his “good press,” I’d suggest that he heed these Steely Dan lyrics:
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago / Oh yeah.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.