Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has tried to divert media attention from his poor debate performance, claiming that he “eased up” on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and suggesting that he would use personal indiscretions of former President Bill Clinton to attack her in the future. By attempting to change the media conversation, Trump seeks to deflect attention from not only his performance, but also from issues raised during the debate such as his taxes, his birtherism, and his attacks on a former Miss Universe.
And news outlets have fallen for his manipulation, a media misstep that a CNN panel acknowledged while discussing the matter.
Trump’s September 26 debate performance has been widely panned, with some calling it “an unmitigated disaster” and saying Trump had a “terrible night.” Trump since then has tried to offer excuses for his performance by criticizing moderator Lester Holt and complaining about his debate microphone. During an interview on September 27 with Fox News' Fox & Friends, Trump put out another attempted distraction, claiming he had “eased up” on Clinton during the debate because of her feelings and saying he would have mentioned “the many affairs that Bill Clinton had” if their daughter Chelsea Clinton had not been in the room. The following day, also speaking to Fox, Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie accused Clinton of being “an enabler” of her husband’s infidelities, saying, “If you look at Hillary Clinton's background and if you look at her being an enabler, really, in the '90s and really attacking these women, it goes against everything that she now tries to spout as a candidate for president.”
Various media outlets have played right into Trump’s plan by sharing the remarks, reporting that Trump said he “held back” by not bringing up Bill Clinton’s past, repeating Bossie’s claim, and devoting time to the claims on cable news shows. When journalists report on what Trump didn’t do during the debate, they play into Trump’s plan to avoid additional scrutiny of his answers on “not paying his taxes or stiffing his workers,” as Jon Favreau pointed out.
Discussing Trump and Bossie’s remarks in a roundtable discussion on CNN’s At This Hour with Berman and Bolduan on September 28, co-host Kate Bolduan asked whether Trump was “just changing the subject from he didn’t have a good debate,” and New York Times reporter Alex Burns responded that “this is the version of changing the subject … that worked for Trump so well” before. Additionally, Democratic strategist Edward Espinoza pointed out that the Trump campaign was injecting the subject of Bill Clinton’s personal indiscretions into the campaign by having his surrogates bring it up in media, and that it was working because “we’re talking about it right now”:
EDWARD ESPINOZA: This is not a new issue for them. So for Donald [Trump] to bring something like this up -- and by the way, his surrogates bringing it up in the media right now is their way of getting it out without him having to get it out. We’re talking about it right now. But they’re prepared --
KATE BOLDUAN (CO-HOST): Is it getting out or just changing the subject from he didn’t have a good debate? Because we’ve seen kind of this tactic in the past.
ALEX BURNS: This is the version of changing the subject that Trump -- that worked for Trump so well when he ended up down 12 points in August, right? That when you careen from one fight that's charged with issues of race and gender from the next all summer, that's not what he's been doing for the last few weeks when he has drawn closer in the polls. And a return to that just because it sort of changes the subject and feels good in the short term, the people who see him as having made progress in the race badly do not want him to go there.
CNN’s panel was playing into exactly what the Trump campaign wanted -- and Espinoza admitted it. The panelists were discussing Bill Clinton’s indiscretions without forcing Trump to be part of the conversation, while also helping Trump in “changing the subject” from his debate performance.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump has been able to manipulate the press to cover what he wants in the way he wants and to ignore issues he has not wanted covered. In May, he held a press conference on his alleged donations to veterans groups, hijacking cable news discussions and largely avoiding coverage of an update regarding the lawsuit against Trump University. Earlier in September, Trump got free live cable news coverage of his Washington, D.C., hotel by teasing a “major announcement” on his birther campaign. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel has also noted that Trump has released “less policy detail than any candidate for president in my lifetime,” but because he “never fail[s] to offer enough detail to fit in a headline or cable news chyron,” he’s been able to “get credit — and the headline, and the chyron — for what other candidates would consider less than a bare minimum.” And as Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson noted earlier this year, “Trump can mainline his latest hot take into the mainstream media, basically any time of night or day” through his use of Twitter.