Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here.
Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump was asked about whether there would be a peaceful transfer of power. Trump replied—well, it was a bit hard to tell. Trump’s critics heard the president saying he wanted to throw out votes and wouldn’t relinquish power. His defenders conceded that he sounded stupid but simply meant that he intended to win.
That created a day of controversy, as pundits and fact-checkers tried to sort through Trumpian word salad and figure out what he said and what it meant.
This is no way to run a functioning democracy, but it is—if you believe Jared Kushner—all part of the president’s plan. As Bob Woodward explained to Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg Thursday at The Atlantic Festival, Kushner (who is both a senior adviser and son-in-law to the president) believes these controversies benefit the president by amplifying his talking points.
“Kushner’s explanation is, ‘The controversy elevates the message,’” Woodward said. “If you have a controversy that is more or less on your side, it’s going to help you.”
Take the economy. Trump is prone to exaggeration about the state of the economy, especially prior to the coronavirus pandemic—routinely labeling it the greatest in American or world history. Such claims are wildly overblown, but that not only doesn’t matter, but is part of the point. The hyperbole invites disputes from Democrats and fact-checkers, which is fine with the White House, because this merely prolongs the focus on the economy. Meanwhile (Kushner maintains), ordinary Americans hear the dispute and understand that Trump is exaggerating, but don’t really care about the academic truth.
“What does affect their lives is it’s basically a good economy,” Woodward said. “It’s a clever strategy: Get into these fights, which Kushner talks about, and if they are on favorable ground, it will help Trump.”
(Sure, Trump’s lying, but that was always part of the deal: “He was elected to break norms,” Woodward said. “People love the lack of decorum.”)
Ginning up controversy has worked especially well on the economy, which is consistently one of Trump’s strongest issues. Even as voters pan his handling of race, protests, and COVID-19, they give him solid marks on the economy. That’s especially valuable to the administration now.
“Trump just loves this because we’re not talking about the virus,” Woodward said. “The controversy kind of nullifies something that’s been going on for months—namely 200,000 dead in this country.”
Watch: Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg in Conversation with Bob Woodward
Woodward’s reporting on Kushner’s mentality is valuable evidence for an ongoing debate. For years, Trump watchers have speculated about the extent to which the president intentionally creates distractions and seeks to alter the news cycle. Yet although Kushner’s explanation flatters himself and his father-in-law, positioning them as political masterminds, it has some glaring shortcomings.
First, it’s simply not credible that Trump is always calculating when he creates these controversies. Often they seem to spring from impulse or a lack of preparation or simple caprice: The president can’t resist some piece of bait.
Second, and more important, these controversies often hurt Trump politically more than they help him—if not as much as his opponents wish they would. The president’s both-sides response to white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, created controversy. So did his musing about injecting bleach or using UV lights to treat the coronavirus, and his response to widespread protests over police violence. But these controversies didn’t help the president. Each of them knocked him off more effective messaging (for example, about the economy), and helped keep his approval low.
Even so, to hear Kushner openly espousing so cynical a theory of politics is remarkable. Kushner, Woodward noted, is Trump’s de facto chief of staff, and perhaps the second most powerful man in America. Goldberg asked whether Woodward had ever, in his many years in Washington, met someone so cynical. The legendary Watergate reporter’s mind jumped to G. Gordon Liddy, the head of Richard Nixon’s “Plumbers.”
“Is Jared Kushner just some Harvard version of G. Gordon Liddy?” Goldberg asked.
“Let’s not tag it to Harvard,” Woodward insisted.
He’s got a point. The rot extends throughout American society, not merely among elites. Woodward sounded a bleak note about how Trump’s work to stir up controversy around the integrity of the November election will turn out. “We are in store for a quadruple train wreck almost no matter what happens,” he said.