January 24, 2016


An Endeavor to Take Trump Seriously : What happens when a reporter tries to take the GOP's man of the moment seriously? (Andy Kroll, 1/22/16, National Journal)

I told Co­hen that I wanted to un­der­stand what Trump would set out to ac­com­plish as com­mand­er-in-chief and how he'd ad­just to the very dif­fer­ent life a pres­id­ent leads as com­pared with, say, a bon vivant busi­ness mogul. Co­hen began to an­swer the lat­ter ques­tion -- "He's gonna have to downs­ize and move to the White House" -- then caught him­self and in­sisted that the rest of our con­ver­sa­tion stay off the re­cord. But he told me to send him some ques­tions and he would pass them along to Mr. Trump. 

Spit-balling with my ed­it­ors, we came up with six seem­ingly fool­proof quer­ies, each simple and eas­ily an­swer­able but de­signed to eli­cit something mean­ing­ful about Trump's plans and am­bi­tions for the of­fice he seeks. For the re­cord, here's ex­actly what I asked:

"What qual­it­ies would you look for in a vice pres­id­ent?"

"Some people say the cur­rent pres­id­ent has not done a good job of out­reach to Con­gress. How would you build re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers of Con­gress on both sides of the aisle?" 

"Aside from im­mig­ra­tion, if you were to put your name on one piece of do­mest­ic-policy le­gis­la­tion, what would it be?"

"What would be the chal­lenges of ad­apt­ing to the pres­id­en­tial life­style?"

"Who would run your busi­ness em­pire while you are in the White House?"

"Your slo­gan is 'Make Amer­ica Great Again!' What era do you think was the greatest in Amer­ic­an his­tory?"

The day I emailed those ques­tions to Co­hen, the cam­paign an­nounced that Trump was trav­el­ing to Laredo, Texas, to eye­ball the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der firsthand. Trump, of course, had caused an in­ter­na­tion­al up­roar when, in his cam­paign rol­lout speech, he claimed Mex­ico was send­ing drug deal­ers and rap­ists over the bor­der. I still wasn't sure which of my pos­sible angles I was pur­su­ing, but I booked a flight to Laredo any­way and copied the bor­der co­ordin­ates provided by the Trump cam­paign in­to Google Maps. The pin landed in a vast, un­fa­mil­i­ar ex­panse of gray. As I zoomed out, the co­ordin­ates re­vealed them­selves to be slightly off -- they had sent me to with­in a few dozen miles of the bor­der between China and My­an­mar. [...]

WHEN HE'D fin­ished his vis­it to the check­point, Trump was fer­ried to the me­dia tent in a black SUV. In his white hat, blue blazer, khaki pants, and white-leath­er golf shoes, he looked as if he'd just emerged from the club­house at the Mar-a-Lago. After a few in­tro­duct­ory com­ments from Laredo May­or Pete Saenz, the can­did­ate pro­ceeded to de­liv­er per­haps the strangest set of "pre­pared" re­marks of the en­tire 2016 cam­paign (so far). Here was a can­did­ate, mind you, who had dis­tin­guished him­self from the rest of the Re­pub­lic­an pack by savaging un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants and ac­cus­ing the Mex­ic­an gov­ern­ment of send­ing rap­ists and oth­er crim­in­al miscre­ants over the bor­der. And here is Trump's state­ment at the bor­der, ver­batim and in full:

"Thank you. Well, thank you very much for be­ing here. It's been an amaz­ing ex­per­i­ence. Mex­ico is boom­ing, ab­so­lutely boom­ing. And Je­sus [Olivares], the city man­ager, and Pete have done an amaz­ing job right here. But a lot of what's hap­pen­ing here is be­cause of the fact that Mex­ico is do­ing so well. Just do­ing bey­ond what any­body ever thought. And I don't know if that's good for the United States, but it's good for Mex­ico. Any­body have any ques­tions?"

I peered around the tent. No one knew quite how to re­act. Noth­ing about the state­ment com­puted at all: Trump had come to the bor­der to praise Mex­ico? Had the weath­er got­ten to him? Had he suc­cumbed to heat­stroke? Had we?

The en­su­ing ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion was no less sur­real. Re­port­ers tried hard to ex­tract something of sub­stance, pep­per­ing Trump with ques­tions about his views on im­mig­ra­tion and im­mig­rants and bor­der se­cur­ity, and what ex­actly he pro­posed to do about any of it. It was fu­tile at best, in­furi­at­ing at worst. To wit: 

Re­port­er: "What do you say to the people I've spoken to this morn­ing in Laredo who called you a ra­cist?"

Trump: "We just landed and there were a lot of people at the air­port, and they were all wav­ing Amer­ic­an flags, and they were all in fa­vor of Trump and what I'm do­ing. Vir­tu­ally every­one that we saw, there was such a great, warm -- I was ac­tu­ally sur­prised -- but there was such great warmth at the air­port with all of those people that were there. So we're very, very honored."

Re­port­er: "There were plenty chant­ing against you."

Trump: "They were chant­ing for me."

Re­port­er: "They were chant­ing against you."

Trump: "I didn't see that."

With grow­ing des­per­a­tion, the re­port­ers turned to policy ques­tions:

Re­port­er: "What would you ac­tu­ally do to change the il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion?" 

Trump: "Well, the one thing you have to do, and as Je­sus was say­ing and as the may­or was say­ing, there is a huge prob­lem with the il­leg­als com­ing through. And in this sec­tion, it's a prob­lem; in some sec­tions, it's a massive prob­lem. And you have to cre­ate, you have to make the people that come in, they have to be leg­al. Very simple." 

Re­port­er: "What would you do with the 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who are already here?"

Trump: "The first thing we have to do is strengthen our bor­ders, and after that, we're gonna have plenty of time to talk about it."

After just ten minutes un­der the tent, Trump thanked us, turned on his white-leath­er heel, climbed back in­to an Es­cal­ade, and sailed away to the next stop on his ma­gic­al bor­der tour. [...]

"I FEEL DIRTY," I told the Brits as we headed back to the nonprivate part of the Laredo air­port. Used. Chewed up. I couldn't help think­ing about how my tweets and pho­tos -- my mere pres­ence in Laredo -- had helped to feed the in­sa­ti­able hun­ger for at­ten­tion and con­tro­versy that keeps Trump in the news. Or how, in re­turn, he'd giv­en me -- us -- ab­so­lutely noth­ing bey­ond a few hours of cable-news-style en­ter­tain­ment. 

I de­cided to spend the night in the ter­min­al be­fore catch­ing an early con­nec­tion the next morn­ing. The young­er Brit and I ordered din­ner at the air­port res­taur­ant. He ate while ra­cing to file his story be­fore his 5:30 p.m. de­par­ture, and I picked at my brisket and eaves­dropped on the con­ver­sa­tion between him and his ed­it­or. It was a telling ex­change. Each time the Brit tried to ex­plain how use­less Trump's vis­it had been, how little had been said or done, a long pause fol­lowed. No, I could al­most hear the ed­it­or say­ing, we need some news. "I guess he did say that Lati­nos ac­tu­ally like him," the Brit fi­nally con­ceded. "Sup­pose we could go with that." A story de­scrib­ing what had ac­tu­ally gone on -- "Trump briefly vis­its bor­der, says noth­ing" -- was ap­par­ently un­think­able. 

It seems there were many sim­il­ar re­port­er-ed­it­or con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing that af­ter­noon. After the Brit de­par­ted, I settled for the night in a chair across from the tick­et coun­ters and began scan­ning the vari­ous ac­counts of the day's events. I ex­pec­ted to see stor­ies con­firm­ing, per­haps even lament­ing, the ab­surdity and fu­til­ity of it all. In­stead, what I read floored me. We'd all gone to the same events, heard the same re­marks, yet the stor­ies ten­ded to de­scribe Trump's vis­it in the same terms as a run-of-the-mill pres­id­en­tial cam­paign event -- as if it had been just the kind of per­form­ance that a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walk­er, say, might have giv­en if they'd sched­uled a day at the bor­der. In the clichés and tropes so com­mon to polit­ic­al journ­al­ism, Trump was be­ing de­scribed by per­fectly re­spect­able journ­al­ists as "de­fi­ant" and show­ing "flour­ishes of bravado"; his trip was a "whirl­wind" that led to "yet an­oth­er day of the head­line dom­in­ance that has made him the sum­mer's sen­sa­tion." (The prize for the gush­ing-est sen­tence about Trump's bor­der tour goes to the NPR re­port­er who, on the next day's Morn­ing Edi­tion, de­scribed Trump's jet as a "sump­tu­ous, red-white-and-blue Boe­ing 757 with his name in huge gold let­ters that in lower­case mean 'to sur­pass,' 'to outdo.'"Š" Oy.)

Polit­ic­al re­port­ers are pro­grammed to cov­er pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates in a ri­gidly spe­cif­ic way. Present them with a purple-state gov­ernor or an am­bi­tious young U.S. sen­at­or, and they can per­form ad­mir­ably. Drop in an ab­er­ra­tion like Don­ald Trump -- a sort of pseudo-can­did­ate who de­fi­antly knows noth­ing about the very is­sues he's run­ning on and who openly mocks the ac­cep­ted cus­toms and niceties of Amer­ic­an cam­paigns -- and they don't know how to re­act, how to re­cal­ib­rate. To be fair, some did at­tempt to con­vey the bizarre empti­ness of Trump's rhet­or­ic and the point­less­ness of his vis­it, not­ing in journo-speak that he'd said "vir­tu­ally noth­ing" or that he'd "ducked" ques­tions about fix­ing the na­tion's im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem. 

Pop­u­list sup­port isn't what fuels Trump. He mostly feeds off of us, the me­dia. And we ob­lige him.

But if it was head­lines Trump wanted -- and you know it was -- pretty much every­one com­plied. The New York Times: "Don­ald Trump, at Mex­ic­an Bor­der, Claims Close Ties to His­pan­ics." Los Angeles Times: "At Texas-Mex­ico bor­der, Don­ald Trump cites 'great danger' from im­mig­rants." The Dal­las Morn­ing News: "Trump does Texas: At bor­der, he blasts naysay­ers, pre­dicts vic­tory." The cam­paign could hardly have writ­ten them bet­ter it­self.

Mean­while, I still had a story to write -- with the lux­ury of far more time than the daily re­port­ers but without a single sub­stant­ive word from Trump, or his col­leagues, to put in the thing. The next morn­ing, on a stop­over as I flew back east, 
I called Mi­chael Co­hen to ask him about the status of the ques­tions I'd sent -- the ones about Trump's do­mest­ic-policy pri­or­it­ies and his ideas for im­prov­ing re­la­tions between the White House and Con­gress. Co­hen scoffed. "These are really kinda silly ques­tions," he told me. "Where's Melania gonna put her ward­robe? Who really cares?" Nev­er mind that I hadn't asked any­thing about Trump's wife or her clothes. 

Co­hen told me to call Hope Hicks, she of the mid­day nap, and whittle my ques­tions down to one or two. Back in Wash­ing­ton, I did just that. She took my call, put me on hold, brought me back on the line, then said she had to take an­oth­er im­port­ant call. "I'll call you right back," she said. I nev­er heard from her again. 

So this is my story, such as it is. I have zero to re­port about Trump's plans for ac­tu­ally be­ing pres­id­ent -- ex­cept that, from all avail­able evid­ence, he hasn't giv­en it a mo­ment's thought. My brief ad­ven­ture in Trump­ing, in fact, left me con­vinced that the whole point of this cam­paign -- the sum total of all the "there" that is there -- is the spec­tacle it­self, the loud, fast-mo­tion visu­al feast provided by an in­sa­ti­able yet boxed-in press corps track­ing the man's every odd move and un­ac­count­able ut­ter­ance. 

Be­com­ing pres­id­ent of the United States is, for Trump, be­side the point. Sure, he's ahead in the polls, some­times by double di­gits, but at this early date, those num­bers are ab­stract and al­most en­tirely mean­ing­less -- a fact that Trump prob­ably un­der­stands quite well. There's no deny­ing that his pug­na­cious at­ti­tude touches something raw in a swath of the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate; however, I'd ar­gue that pop­u­list sup­port isn't what fuels Trump, either. He mostly feeds off of us, the me­dia. And we ob­lige him. Trump didn't fly to Texas for the Lare­doans; he didn't go to the bor­der to show he could be "pres­id­en­tial." He flew to Texas for me and the Brits and CNN. 

Think of it this way: If Trump's poll num­bers were to com­pletely bot­tom out next week, but the press was still fol­low­ing his every move, would he con­tin­ue to cam­paign? I'd wager that he would keep go­ing, polls be damned, with the same glee­ful vig­or. But if the op­pos­ite happened -- soar­ing poll num­bers and no round-the-clock press? I think it's a safe bet that Trump would pack it in and move on to his next "GREAT" thing. Hon­estly: If a Trump rally in Ce­dar Rap­ids or Spartan­burg goes un­covered live by CNN or Fox, did it really even hap­pen?

Posted by at January 24, 2016 10:15 AM