Trump's image rehabilitation show
Posted January 9, 2018 5:16 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — For the last week, America has been told that its President is a "dope" and "a child," an "idiot" and a man whose decaying mental faculties and refusal to read makes him dangerously unfit for the Oval Office.
The uproar sowed by Michael Wolff's bestseller "Fire and Fury" left Donald Trump needing a counternarrative and to project an image of control, authority and an even temperament.
On Tuesday, he largely pulled it off.
Inviting cameras into the Cabinet Room of the White House, Trump held court for 55 fascinating and politically charged minutes as a freewheeling debate unfolded among key Republican and Democratic leaders on immigration.
Wednesday, Trump will appear at a short news conference with the Prime Minister of Norway.
Tuesday's unexpected encounter that showcased Trump's flair for drama and his capacity to create a unexpected, reality show-style look behind the scenes of Washington bargaining. And it was perhaps Trump's most effective effort yet to harness the theatrics and symbolism of the presidency to position himself as the dominant player at a key political moment -- a skill he was slow to master in a tumultuous first year in office when his erratic behavior alienated many voters.
A senior administration official told CNN's Jeff Zeleny that conducting the meeting on camera helped Trump to "seize the megaphone" and to show engagement in policy and was designed partly to lay to rest the "hyperventilation about him."
Yet the compelling back-and-forth also exposed some of the President's liabilities, notably a hazy command of policy details, a tendency to adopt multiple, contradicting positions on key issues at the same time as well as his habit of misrepresenting the facts in service of his political views.
For instance, Trump said he would sign a "clean" immigration bill, but at one point said it had to include a border wall, and then said a wall wouldn't have to be along the full border.
Still, Trump, seated between top Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, projected a picture of confidence and flexibility, posing as the epitome of bipartisanship and civility while living up to his self-image as someone who is always on the lookout for a deal.
He was clearly able to follow the debate, and mount a defense of his own controversial positions -- on a border wall, for example -- without causing obvious offense, and appeared magnanimously open to other viewpoints.
For sure, it's a low bar for a president. Those who reach the White House have often been among the cream of their generation, lauded for wisdom, steely dispositions and possessing the presence to redirect the political winds.
Trump's capacity to avoid playing into Wolff's portrayal of his character will be tested when he faces questions alongside the leader of Norway. While the leaders will likely only take two questions each, the visual will be another opportunity for Trump to dispel concerns about his capabilities.
'It was weird but it was positive weird'
Tuesday's drama unfolded after a week of humiliation for Trump, amid sensational and damaging revelations from the book and after Wolff claimed that 100% of people around the President doubted he was up to the job.
Video of the meeting held Washington captive for nearly an hour in the early afternoon, and sparked immediate political maneuvering.
Republicans raced to praise Trump's demeanor and liberals fumed at the media's praise for the President, amid a standoff over a government funding bill and how to save hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants brought to the US as kids from looming deportation with new DACA protections.
"It was weird but it was positive weird," said CNN political analyst David Gergen, noting the unusual format of the meeting, and the impression created by the President, that was clearly aimed at dispelling Wolff's storyline.
"I thought that Trump seemed to be on message today and seemed to be with it ... people are going to say 'he seems to be OK.'"
Where is Trump really on DACA and the Wall?
While the visuals were good for Trump and may have helped ease concerns of any supporters given pause by the debate on his mental state, the session also at times deepened uncertainty about exactly where he stands.
"I thought it was also true that the President left it totally confusing," Gergen said. At one point Trump appeared to agree to pass the "Dream Act" to protect one-time child migrants as a standalone bill with no conditions -- a huge potential concession to Democrats.
Trump said he was ready to take the "heat" to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, perhaps forgetting that his own supporters see such a step as tantamount to amnesty for undocumented migrants.
And Trump's call for the return of earmarks -- to allow party leaders to woo members for legislation with goodies for their districts -- directly contradicts his "drain the swamp" philosophy.
Some of the meeting's most fascinating moments came as GOP leaders tried to gently rein Trump in. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, for instance, reminded him of his own position, that any move on DACA should be twinned with border security improvements, prompting Trump to quickly backtrack.
This exchange came just a few days after Trump warned that if there was no wall funding, there would be no deal on DACA.
At one point, Trump appeared to show he had no real plan of his own.
"I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with," Trump said. "I am very much reliant on the people in this room."
John Cornyn, the GOP No. 2 in the Senate, implicitly told Trump that his imprecision was becoming a roadblock on Capitol Hill.
"I believe both the speaker and Majority Leader McConnell made crystal clear that they would not proceed with a bill on the floor of the Senate or the House unless it had your support, unless you would sign it," Cornyn said.
His comment was a reminder that only Trump, who anchored his campaign on a hard line on immigration, could offer conservative members cover to vote for a bill that led to some kind of status for DACA recipients.
A White House statement implied that the meeting was useful, but the real work of reaching a compromise continues, noting that the two sides had agreed to "negotiate legislation" on border security, chain migration, the visa lottery, and DACA.
A signature moment
Still, even if it was just a PR stunt, the meeting will be remembered as a signature moment of the early years of the Trump presidency.
Republican National Committee rapid response director Michael Ahrens called the encounter, using Trumpian hyperbole, "arguably the most transparent, substantive policy discussion with Congress -- maybe ever."
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a one-time Trump critic, hailed it as the "most fascinating meeting I've been involved with in twenty plus years in politics."
But Trump's favorable reviews irked some Democrats.
"The media fawning over Trump opening one 'meeting' with (members of Congress) to press exemplifies the repulsively low bar for this POTUS," wrote Ian Sams, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, on Twitter.
Other Democrats pointed to President Barack Obama's televised health care policy summit that included Republicans in 2010, to argue that Trump's gambit on Tuesday was not even unusual.
It's always possible that given the intractable nature of arguments on immigration, Trump's flurry of good publicity on Tuesday could be just as fleeting as bipartisan discussion on health care in the last administration.
And given Trump's propensity to trample over his own story, or to ignite fury and controversy on Twitter, wise observers will wait to conclude that Tuesday marked a behavioral pivot for his presidency.