Just How Disastrous Was the Fallout from Trump's Arizona Speech?
President Donald Trump delivered two memorable speeches on the first two days of this week, and the reactions from pundits could not be more different. On Monday, the president gave a measured, TelePrompTer'ed speech about military strategy in Afghanistan that received strong applause. On Tuesday, he gave a "red meat," less-scripted speech that enflamed the idea that he is unfit for the presidency.
"Tonight is a new President Trump: Acknowledging a flip-flop and talking about gravity of office, history & substance," tweeted Phillip Rucker, White House bureau chief at The Washington Post, after Trump's speech on Monday.
Rucker's tweet received a great deal of criticism even then, but many wanted Rucker to be right.
CNN's Brian Stelter noted that "some pundits" were predicting a "good night" for Trump.
National Review editor Rich Lowry praised Trump's Afghanistan speech. "Confronted with the choice of losing a war on his watch or jettisoning some of his presuppositions, Trump jettisoned the presuppositions," Lowry tweeted, calling this "the responsible choice," and lamenting, "If only Obama had made the same one when deciding to pull out of Iraq."
The next day, Lowry, head editor of perhaps the most notoriously anti-Trump outlet on the Right, wrote an op-ed urging conservatives to work for Trump.
Even on Monday evening, however, there were signs of the fall-out to come Tuesday night. Responding to Rucker's rosy tweet, the account "Pour Me Coffee" predicted, "In 24 hours he will be off script insanely pandering to his base in AZ and you'll be watching screenshots of this tweet scroll by." Ouch.
Liberal healthcare analyst Charles Gabba responded to Rucker with a single image: Peanuts' Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as the young boy is in mid-kick.
Salon's Bob Cesca interpreted the graphic. "All along there has been a subset of reporters and pundits who are desperate to declare Trump to be — finally — presidential. There's a recurring glitch that triggers these participants in the debate twoard the knee-jerk take that 'Trump is finally pivoting!' It's like the old Lucy and Charlie Brown football ruse from 'Peanuts,' and they keep falling for it."
Naturally, Salon and its writers will excoriate Trump even if he does become "more presidential than any president" besides Abraham Lincoln. Even so, in this case Lucy did once again trick Charlie Brown, and the Trump-hopeful press fell flat on its back.
On Wednesday morning, Rucker pulled himself up off the ground to concede defeat. "Trump plans to say 'It is time to heal the wounds that have divided us' today in Reno, hours after his divisive, caustic Phoenix rally," he tweeted.
The Post writer also quoted his colleague Jenna Johnson tweeting, "Trump lost his bored & dehydrated crowd but didn't adjust. 'His rage seemed to cloud his senses.'"
What a difference 36 hours makes!
So what happened? Trump returned to his botched response to the violence in Charlottesville, and he burst open the wounds between himself and Republican lawmakers. He even suggested that he would pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
"Trump won't slam McCain ('one vote away!') because his aides pleaded, 'Please, please, Mr. President, don't mention any names, so I won't,'" Rucker summarized.
Trump has attacked congressional Republicans for good and bad reasons. He inveighed against McCain because the Arizona senator crushed the last hope for "skinny Obamacare repeal." Less defensibly, Trump has endorsed Kelli Ward for Arizona's other U.S. Senate seat, in the race against sitting Sen. Jeff Flake.
Trump endorsed Ward despite her history of taking the conspiracy theories about chemtrails seriously, because Flake had the nerve to attack Trump's candidacy and presidency as a "deal with the devil." Here's the deal — many Republicans are asking just that question, and if Trump endorses conspiracy theorists to kick these people out of the party, he is proving Flake's point.
News also broke — via The New York Times — yesterday that Trump's feud with senators, most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, helped to sink the possibility of repealing Obamacare. The narrative that Trump is savaging his own party came out loud and clear yesterday, and his speech did nothing to combat that.
Another key element of Trump's speech? Why, "fake news," of course!
"I'm literally watching Trump say that CNN is refusing to carry his speech on the air...on CNN," Richmond communications consultant Tucker Martin tweeted.
Conservative blogger Matt Walsh tweeted, "I just don't see how rational conservatives are still defending these idiotic, pointless, narcissistic campaign rallies."
Other conservatives mocked Rucker's suggestion that Trump finally became president this week.
"Turned out Trump lied about everything. This was the moment he finally became president," Iowa talk show host Steve Deace tweeted.
Deace further excoriated Trump for failing to fulfill his promises. The president "just pretends to be a tough guy for the crowd and then bows to the swamp in DC," the radio host wrote. "If Trump actually had tried to do the stuff he mouths off about at his rallies, his approval rating would be 10-15 points higher. Instead Trump comes back to DC, gives us endless war, doesn't repeal Obamacare, doesn't build a wall, and endorses McConnell's hacks."
On Tuesday night, Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Markay mocked pundits like Rucker tweeting, "Shoutout to all the pundits who declared that Trump Finally Became President last night."
Harry Enten, senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight, sarcastically tweeted, "Tonight is the night Donald Trump became president." He tweeted this on Tuesday, right before adding, "Today in Trump: 1. Reports of cursing the Senate majority leader (a member of his own party). 2. Yell about the media."
Despite this, Fox News host Greg Gutfeld declared Trump's Tuesday speech a success. "The CNN panel: every one is in disbelief. upset. angry. Translation: mission accomplished," Gutfeld tweeted.
Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro agreed. "Media still don't understand Trump's game: by responding emotionally to Trump's rip, they grant credibility to his case," Shapiro tweeted.
Even so, the media did seem to play into that narrative. Late Tuesday night, CNN's Don Lemon — who had called Trump's speech a "total eclipse of the facts" — asked former Defense Intelligence Agency Director James Clapper if Trump's speech made Clapper think the president is unfit for his office.
"Yes, I do, I really question his fitness to be in this office," Clapper responded. "I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it. Maybe he is looking for a way out."
As for "looking for a way out," it seems utterly unlikely that Trump would want to resign or find another way to leave the presidency to Mike Pence. But Clapper might have been on to something in questioning Trump's motivations.
When conservatives like Steve Deace are attacking a Republican president for failing to keep his campaign promises, that president has a problem. Deace is likely correct that Trump's low poll numbers are related to his inability to repeal and replace Obamacare or build the wall, for example.
Trump can blame the Democrats, squishy Republicans, and the media all he wants, but when he turns his guns on conservative senators like Jeff Flake (who voted for every effort to repeal Obamacare), he loses credibility in the worst possible way.
For conservative Republicans who want Trump to be a successful president, this is a huge problem.