Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump’s Eggshell Minefield

It's crazy that the media have to tenderfoot him in this crisis -- but lives depend on it
Walking on Eggshells

Look, I get the media being furious at President Trump right now. He has not handled this crisis well. All of his weaknesses — the vanity, the instability, all of it — have been on full display in this prolonged event. He will face a reckoning with voters in November. The American people will pass a verdict on his leadership. Maybe he’ll pass, maybe he won’t, but that day of accountability is coming.

But until at least Inauguration Day of January 2021, Donald Trump is the president we have. That’s just a fact. I’m thinking now of a conversation I had earlier this year, before the crisis, with a prominent journalist who is a total Trump hater. I don’t begrudge him his anger. I share a lot of it. But what was so strange about it was how consumed this man was with his spite for Trump. It seemed like a kind of black hole that warped the man’s perception of everything else. I recalled that conversation when I read Kyle Smith’s exhortation to the media to stop baiting Trump, and making him worse than he is. Smith writes:

The president is not America. Our fortunes are not his fortunes. He is not, as Chris Rock once said of President Obama, “the dad of the country.” If we happen to be of an opposing political faction, the president’s misfortunes may fill us with glee, or his triumphs may cause us anguish. If you hate the president, by all means do everything you can to bruise him. Rejoice in his every misstep. Luxuriate in his errors. Pounce on his gaffes. Make his life a living hell.

But not now.

No one expects the mainstream media to be even-handed anymore. We don’t even expect the media to be professional. That ship has sailed. We get it: You loathe Trump and will put the worst possible spin on everything he says and does until he’s out of office. (At which point you’ll do the same for whoever the new highest-ranking Republican is.) But, for a limited time, is it too much to ask that the media broaden their scope to include the country and the world instead of just their own Ahabian obsessions about Trump? As far as I know, every member of the Washington press corps, even Jim Acosta, is a resident of Planet Earth. Why are they all acting as if they’re looking down from the Nebulon-235 system and not subject to everything that is happening?


We know that the president is unusually thin-skinned and capricious, that he is keenly and perhaps unhealthily focused on what the media are saying about him at any given nanosecond, that he has a short temper and a quick fuse. He goes through cabinet secretaries like a newborn goes through diapers. And pointing out his errors is the legitimate business of CNN, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, the Washington Post, etc. But the way the media are trying to gin up a feud between Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci is disgraceful and disgusting.

Folks, and by “folks” I mean you absolute freaking Muppets, are you trying to get Fauci fired? Do we really want to start over with a new specialist in infectious diseases in the White House? Would you be happy if Omarosa were Trump’s chief adviser on epidemiology? Would you be more secure if Jared were the last man standing during the medical briefings?

Read it all. 

Be clear on what Smith is saying: not “don’t report critically on Trump” but rather “don’t exploit Trump’s weakness to make things worse for all of us.” This is a world-historical crisis. If we were in World War II, would the media be so quick to drill down on FDR’s character flaws and foment controversy between him and his most important advisor? Of course not! In normal times, we benefit, on balance, from an adversarial press that gives politicians hell. But these are not normal times. Do they really believe that Trump is going to resign, or be removed from office between now and the election? As Smith argues, it is in the interest of all of us that Trump do the best job of which he is capable. A big part of Trump’s problem in handling this crisis is that he treats it like it’s a reality show. But so do the media, when they try to blow things up between him and Fauci.

Like everybody else, I’m confined to living with my family right now, for the foreseeable future. We’re doing fine, but we can’t help getting on each other’s nerves. This is normal. One of the most important jobs all of us in this house have right now is compelling ourselves to be more tolerant of each other’s faults, for the sake of making sure we all come through this crisis without blowing things up. The other day, one of my teenagers was super-jittery, and was complaining about how he’s going crazy cooped up in the house, missing his friends, and missing being outside doing things. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I told him that he has a duty right now to master his frustration, and in so doing make it easier on the rest of us in the house to keep things functioning through this crisis. It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply to myself too. So are the rest of my family. This is our responsibility to each other now. We can’t control the virus, but we can control how we treat each other. Maybe I deserve to be yelled at. Maybe one of my boys deserves to be chewed out by his siblings for this or that. But the family can’t afford that kind of thing right now. It’s a steep learning curve, but what is the alternative?

Is it fair that we have a thin-skinned narcissist in the White House during a crisis unlike any that the United States, or the world, has ever faced. No. I wish the president we had now was a cross between Harrison Ford and Marcus Aurelius. The president we actually have is Donald Trump. If he fails, his failure will not be his alone. The media have been pretty good at trying to get people to understand that they can’t go to church, or to the beach, or to do things they normally do, because the nature of this virus means that we have to break our habits. You might be willing to risk getting sick by going to church, but taking that risk means that if you get the virus, you are going to spread it to others, to say nothing of adding to the enormous burden on health care providers. It’s not just about you. 

The media should apply this lesson to themselves in their dealings with Trump. I was watching one of the president’s daily briefings the other day, and several of the White House reporters kept pressing him on nasty things he said about the media. It made me really angry — angry at Trump for being such a big baby, but also mad at these reporters, because honestly, nobody outside the media really cares if Trump maligns them, at least not in the middle of this horror show.

Again — hear me — I am not saying that journalists should stop reporting critically on what the president says and does. It is their job to hold all political leaders accountable. But for heaven’s sake, stop making it worse, just so you can feel validated that the president is as bad as you think he is. If you have to walk on eggshells around him until the crisis passes, then put on your big-boy and big-girl slippers and tread lightly, for the sake of America.