Two distinct realities coexist in the nation’s capital with the approximate compatibility of oil and water.
There’s the reality of 4.1 percent economic growth, full employment, a declining trade deficit, and some wage growth.
And then there’s Michael Cohen.
While President Trump was focused on his sunny economic report Friday — and on tariff deals the days before — the media were obsessed with news that the president’s former attorney was prepared to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that Trump knew in advance about the June 2016 campaign meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russians who allegedly had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
If true, then Cohen would be contradicting prior statements by both Trump men, including Trump Jr.’s testimony before a congressional committee. Whatever the case, the president has engineered an offensive strategy that could soften the effects of Cohen’s news and most certainly will further fuel Americans’ disgust with journalists.
Publicly, he has appeared more statesmanlike, less impetuous, more disciplined, calm and composed. In other words, Trump hasn’t been himself. Distinctly missing last week was his usual puffed-up scowl; absent was the simmering rage coursing through his carotids. Despite troubling news about Cohen; about hush money paid to a Playboy model during the 2016 campaign that Trump also allegedly knew about despite his denial; and a subpoena calling the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer to testify — Trump seemed oddly at peace. Behind closed doors, he may have been dismembering insects, but at public events he seemed to have just emerged from hot yoga.
My guess: He has found serenity in gamesmanship and the knowledge that he’s winning. And, he’s quite a good actor — far better than Ronald Reagan, who essentially played himself in every role. When Trump is cool and collected, he’s clearly playing someone else.
Scene One: It’s Wednesday and Trump is seated next to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the Oval Office for a photo op. The two were about to hash out their differences on tariffs. This, and their joint announcement later in the day that they are seeking a trade peace pact, is big news given concerns about a trade war with our allies across the Atlantic.
After a few words by each man at the morning session, with the president indicating he wasn’t taking questions by saying, Thank you, thank you, thank you very much, reporters created a fray in which to jump. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins could be heard asking repeatedly about the Cohen news, while other reporters offered a convincing a cappella rendering of the barnyard at breakfast. Juncker, wearing a slight smile, seemed amused by the spectacle. (Collins was disinvited from the afternoon’s Rose Garden press conference.)
Scene Two: It’s Friday and Trump is delivering what can only be called good economic news. But some reporters focused instead on the fact that the news conference was “hastily” called. Others pointed out that wages are still low in some parts of the country or otherwise took pains to cast a negative light on the news.
A few White House officials, including economic adviser Larry Kudlow, joined the president to claim that lowered taxes and deregulation had led to increases in employment and wages — and that these increases are sustainable. A reporter might have thought to ask Kudlow how the administration plans to deal with structural wage problems that are really no one’s fault, or the president why he’s paying farmers with taxpayer money to soften the blows of his own tariff policies.
Instead, NBC News’ indefatigable Kristen Welker fired off a series of Cohen-related queries to the retreating backs of Trump and Co. as they turned to go inside. Trump knows that reporters will always opt for salaciousness and the scandal (a circumstance Trump created). He apparently has decided to let them, which for some in his base, creates the impression that he occupies the high ground.
His M.O.: Let them squawk and let the American people see what he has to deal with. In an ironic reversal, the man who is bereft of empathy seems to be betting on regular Americans feeling an abundance of empathy toward him — enough, perhaps, to last through the midterm elections in November.
Trump clearly hopes that his audience sees that he’s working to build a robust economy, pursue fair trade deals, while collecting the remains of fallen Americans from North Korea — and that all the news media want to talk about is some made-up story by some lame, lying lawyer who is threatening to tell the corrupt special counsel about some dumb meeting two years ago.
In politics, perception is everything.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.