The Double Bind of Trump’s Outrageous Statements

Overreact, and encourage more provocations. Ignore them, and risk something worse.

Joe Raedle / Reuters

One of the open secrets of Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential campaign was his ability to grab attention—and, accordingly, deflect it from his adversaries—by making outrageous comments. Sure, there would sometimes be backlash to things he said, but he could always deflect that with another comment. Whether this reflected a planned strategy or an intuitive feel for controlling the media remains debated, but his success was inarguable.

This pattern continued into the early days of Trump’s presidency. He would say something outrageous or surprising, markets would react with sudden swings, and the press would scramble to explain and contextualize the latest violation of longstanding norms. In February 2018, when Trump suggested that House Democrats had committed “treason” by failing to cheer during his State of the Union address, there was a frantic reaction, as observers pointed out—accurately—that this was the sort of thing that authoritarian rulers did.

By mid-May, however, when Trump tweeted his latest, similarly bogus accusation of treason, it barely registered in the news cycle:

During his current trip to the United Kingdom, Trump already has had two similar incidents. First, he has rekindled his feud with London Mayor Sadiq Khan. In summer 2017, this was shocking; these days, it’s about as interesting as his feud with Rosie O’Donnell.

Second, promptly upon landing, he began complaining about CNN, and encouraged a boycott of its owner, AT&T. (Trump previously called for the government to block AT&T’s acquisition of the network’s parent company, but a federal judge allowed it to go forward.) The president tweeted:

Before 2017, the president of the United States calling for a retaliatory boycott of an American company because of unfavorable coverage would have been unthinkable. In 2017 and 2018, it would have been a huge story. This time around, AT&T didn’t even bother to comment to CNN’s own reporter, and the company’s stock ticked up.

One reason for the collective shrug is that more than two years into Trump’s term, there’s much more substance to focus on, making his rhetorical outbursts less comparatively interesting. But Trump has also worn away the novelty of such pronouncements. The first time you wildly, baselessly accuse a political opponent of treason, it’s a horrifying break with normalcy. The umpteenth time you do it, it’s, well, the umpteenth time you’ve done it.

Trump has become the president who cried wolf. As former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report showed, many of Trump’s own aides have learned to disregard what he says, for better or worse. (Often better in the short term, but with bad implications in the long run.) At other times, Trump’s pronouncements have proved to be less than meets the eye, because his own aides are unprepared to implement them. Just last week, his decision to institute tariffs on Mexico to force immigration changes took many aides by surprise, according to Axios.

The public is slowly learning the same lesson, too. In addition to the anecdotal evidence that Trump’s statements carry less weight, his tweets are eliciting less engagement, fewer people are searching for him on Google, and he’s on TV less. The president has responded by tweeting more frequently, but that seems to further dilute the effect.

In some ways, this is a clearly positive development. As they say on Twitter, don’t feed the trolls. When, in July 2017, Trump tweeted a silly video of himself body-slamming a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his face, it elicited a frothy overreaction. This didn’t make CNN look good, and the fury only encouraged Trump. Many of his comments reflect the president just shooting from the hip, and if left alone they will quietly dissolve into the ether.

But it also seems possible that we’ve overcorrected. While Trump’s comments drew more pearl-clutching than was justified before, it’s at least as unwise to completely ignore them. The man is, after all, the president of the United States, and some recent examples show the power of his rhetoric.

For years has Trump asserted—while providing no evidence—wrongdoing by federal officials in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. While those calls were long ignored as simple tantrums, Attorney General Bill Barr earlier in May directed a U.S. attorney to investigate the probe’s origins.

That’s a direct effect: Trump asked, and Barr (eventually) answered. But less direct Trump remarks can be influential, too. When Trump made Memorial Day remarks to sailors in Japan in May, White House officials asked the Navy to keep the USS John S. McCain out of view. The destroyer is named for the late Arizona senator, who was a Navy captain, and for his father and grandfather, both of whom were admirals. The president insists he did not make the request and knew nothing of it, and that may be true. If so, however, it shows how Trump’s comments resonate. Knowing that any mention of McCain, a long-running political irritant, tends to set the president off, staffers seem to have taken a drastic measure even without Trump’s requesting it.

Other ripple effects of the president’s remarks will not be so immediately obvious. No president can oversee all aspects of the executive branch (though some have tried). Instead, he sets tone and priorities, and bureaucrats act on that guidance. A stray Trump comment about any given company may not directly launch a regulatory intervention, but federal officials will notice the president’s interest, and it will affect them, consciously or not, as they do their jobs. The Justice Department is reportedly preparing an antitrust probe into Google, as it strikes agreements with the Federal Trade Commission about scrutinizing a variety of tech giants. That’s not an obviously partisan maneuver—Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, praised the idea—but it’s hard to ignore that Trump has lambasted Google for supposedly suppressing conservatives, and that he has threatened the company, tweeting, “This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

Many of the effects of Trump’s loose talk will be even less clear and may not be felt for some time. What happens in the long term when the president accuses a lot of people of treason? We don’t know.

This unpredictability makes it difficult to calibrate the right response to Trump’s provocations. Too much, and it encourages bad behavior from the president. But if the public and the press grow inured to them, and do too little in response, they may end up dealing with the consequences for years to come.