Like so many articles before it, The New York Times’ Tuesday report on President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Harvey was a story desperately in search of that elusive, glorious thing: the Trump pivot.
This genre of political journalism is already well past its wretched glory days from the 2016 campaign trail. Yet each major news event brings with it the opportunity for reporters to extend its sad little end-state misery for at least one more piece of Trumpian content.
The Times’ “White House Memo,” authored by top Trump chronicler Glenn Thrush, bears all the hallmarks of the form: a surprising change in narrative framed with a provocative headline and lede; underwhelming evidence of the article’s thesis; and a low bar by which to judge the would-be leader of the free world. It’s the sort of bloodless analysis of politics-as-sport to which we’ve been inoculated. This is normal:
The story’s first three grafs work hard to turn the hurricane into a potential pivot point for Trump, whose malevolence and incompetence has been exposed repeatedly by The Times and others:
Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.
Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.
Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.
You might expect that the third paragraph—broken out to stand alone as the story’s main thrust—would be followed by a laundry list of extraordinary examples of presidential leadership. Yet Thrush gives Trump points for a visiting Texas, using “the dulcet, reassuring and uplifting language of prior presidents,” and promising to pass an aid package that’s likely to get widespread bipartisan support.
The piece isn’t a particularly outrageous offender in this regard. Trump is frequently rewarded for doing the bare minimum of what we expect of a president. The grading system for political punditry and analysis has been thrown completely out of whack, with only the under-performing president standing to benefit.
What’s more, much of Thrush’s piece casts doubt on its own notion that Trump is a man on a mission to seize this moment. He hasn’t tweeted anything crazy or racist—at least not yet—and aides told Thrush that they are working hard to corral the president into sticking “to a script vetted through official channels.” Then, there’s this bit:
The president, who prefers to skim rather than delve, has seldom been more engaged in the details of any issue as he is with Harvey, according to several people involved in disaster response.
Mr. Trump, one aide said, was fascinated by the long-term effect of water damage on structures in the Gulf Coast, peppering FEMA and National Security Council briefers with detailed questions about the flooding in Houston and Galveston. As the extent of the projected devastation became apparent over the weekend during a meeting at Camp David, he shook his head in disbelief and compared the situation to problems he experienced when managing his family’s apartment buildings in New York. “Water damage is the worst,” he told one staff member, “tough, tough, tough.”
Still, many of the most substantive conversations about the relief efforts — including interactions with elected officials — have been routed through Mr. Pence, who has played a similar role in pushing the president’s legislative agenda.
You might wonder why a New York Times White House correspondent equates a passing interest in water damage, in addition to other skimming, with Trump “behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.” But when I reached out to Thrush to ask if he could talk through his thinking on this piece, he emailed a one-word response: “Nah.”
Thrush’s reporting was there: Top aides seriously doubt Trump’s ability to “reclaim the presidential high ground” at a time of crisis. A little restructuring or repackaging would have resulted in a much more nuanced report. But the narrative in the story’s headline and first three paragraphs—where readers get hooked, or don’t—wouldn’t have been as clear. The bottom line would have been softer. The story would have been a harder sell for all parties involved.
That incentive structure, which permeates much of the insider political reporting in Washington, creates a type of bias in and of itself. Which is why we’ll continue seeing stories about potential pivot points for Trump, even if the 71-year-old has shown no evidence that he has any capacity for change. When you’re invested in the circus, the show must go on.