Cable commentators, like Pavlov’s dogs, often salivate when an attempt to say something nice about President Donald Trump enters the room. Take CNN, where the spittle once again congealed into political analysis on Monday morning as Trump delivered remarks on the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Even before he began speaking, CNN was primed for the occasion. White House insiders told the network in the leadup to Trump’s statement that the president intended to bring people together amid the tragedy, which left at least 58 dead and hundreds injured. CNN Political Director David Chalian kicked things off with some standard theater criticism:
The president is expected to fill that role as consoler-in-chief. And that’s what the country needs to hear right now from the president of the United States....Hours away from now, days down the road, politics will enter into this. President Trump now has that very solemn job that comes along with the office of sort of wrapping his arms around the country through an extraordinarily difficult moment.
“Politics will enter into this” down the road, according to CNN’s political director, brought on ostensibly to provide political analysis.
Moving on to John King, who, in addition to knowing his way around jumbo-sized touchscreen monitors, is CNN’s chief political correspondent:
The president has just issued a tweet this morning expressing his condolences. He’s been very low-key about this one, very presidential, if you will....The job of the president isn’t to dissect the crime, if you will, but just to try to tell the country, ‘Look, we’ll get through this.’
And then Jeff Zeleny, a senior correspondent reporting live from the White House:
It is unusual. The president often weighs in early, as John was saying. He has been very quiet about it this morning, with the exception of that message he sent out earlier on social media. Part of that is because there isn’t a lot much information. Part of it also is that he’s being presidential in this moment.
The happy talk was by no means relegated to CNN, though its on-air talent have been repeat offenders. King also doubled down after Trump’s remarks by saying that they were “pitch-perfect.” He continued:
I don’t think, whatever your politics are, there’s anything you can take issue with what we just heard from the President of the United States....As someone who covered the White House for 10 years, through two different presidents, who’s been in town for almost 30 years now, that was pitch-perfect.
King here gives the game away: He has been around this town for 30 years, so you can trust what he says. It speaks to a broader motivation behind the endless stream of cable personalities who claim that Trump, at fleeting moments where he meets bare-minimum standards for adult behavior, is acting like any of his predecessors.
By conferring the presidential laurel on Trump, pundits convey to their audiences a sense of authority. We still understand how it all works, despite everything we’ve gotten wrong to this point. The problem is that Trump so rarely hurdles the traditional bar for normal presidential actions. So in order to maintain a facade of authority—and continue justifying jobs yammering about politics as usual—it’s the pundits who have to move the bar.
Which is why the “Trump is presidential” schtick will continue. The need to find something nice to say about him shows the need to appear at least open to the idea of neutrality toward his administration. That notion is baked into the structure of CNN and much of what’s left of the traditional mainstream media, even if the rest of us can see through it.