The speech that Trump didn’t really want to give


Perhaps the most revealing bit of coverage of President Trump’s Oval Office speech was his admission — to a roomful of journalists, no less — that he didn’t really want to deliver it.

At an off-the-record luncheon with anchors and executives — which, naturally, leaked out — The New York Times reported these comments:

“‘It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,’ Mr. Trump said of the border visit, according to one of the people, who was in the room. The trip was merely a photo opportunity, he said. ‘But,’ he added, gesturing at his communications aides Bill Shine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, ‘these people behind you say it’s worth it.'”

They must have been persuasive, for this president rarely does what he doesn’t want to do, no matter what his aides tell him.

Or it could mean very little. I’m told the president’s tone was light-hearted, and he does like to tweak his staff in front of reporters.

Peter Baker, author of the Times story, said he wrote similar stories during the Obama administration (and I have as well). He wasn’t bound by any off-the-record agreement.

Baker told me that “it’s our job to try to convince people who are in closed-door meetings at the White House to tell us what happens inside and that’s true whether those people are White House officials, members of Congress or other journalists. Far be it for me to tell anyone that they shouldn’t talk with us. And these stories end up being revealing because they get past the talking points and provide more insight for readers.”

The speech was panned by the media on almost every level, from substance to political theater. Trump, who isn’t a great prompter reader, was mocked as “low energy.” Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer seemed stiff and awkward in their response, but they, of course, drew far less attention.

Trump could have spoken with Reaganesque eloquence and it wouldn’t have mattered. He has made these arguments hundreds of times, especially since the midterm campaign, and while he softened his tone about the “humanitarian crisis,” he had little new to say. The Democrats, too, are repeating their same talking points.

Everyone is dug in. The only thing that changes is the number of days the government has been partially shut down.

The fact-checkers universally panned the president because they disagree with the basic premise. He says what’s happening on the border is a crisis, and they believe it’s a manufactured crisis. They believe his arguments about drugs and murderers and potential terrorists coming from Mexico are overhyped, and the president believes they are in denial about that and the growing humanitarian disaster involving migrants.

This Washington Post front-pager was typical: “Trump Paints Misleading, Bleak Picture with Old Arguments.”

Some critics are saying the networks got snookered because Trump offered nothing new in a speech that had its share of partisan potshots. I think that’s the wrong standard. Not everyone intimately follows the cable news debates or Twitter feuds.

A president is entitled to state his case on an issue of national importance, especially with 800,000 federal employees out of work for almost three weeks. The Democratic leaders got to do the same, and then the media can offer their critiques.

But maybe this is the wrong way of looking at the question.

To be sure, more than 20 million people watched the speeches on the four broadcast networks (with the Dems drawing slightly higher numbers in the overnight Nielsens).

But the days when that was the only way to reach a mass audience are long gone. Anyone can watch a presidential speech, not only on cable but on live streams or even on their phones, and any moment can go viral. And if folks aren’t interested they can watch Netflix or Amazon Prime or play video games, regardless of what ABC, CBS and NBC put on.

It’s a ritual we all revere — the president wants to be on in prime time! — but any time can be prime time in the YouTube era.

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