As with so much about President Donald Trump, his Phoenix rally on Tuesday night was two contradictory things: both shocking and completely predictable.
Shocking because it was the most sustained attack any president has made on the news media. (“It’s time to expose the crooked-media deceptions and challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions,” Trump ranted, as he charged that reporters invent sources and make up stories. “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”)
And predictable because this is exactly what Trump does when he’s in trouble. He finds an enemy and punches as hard as he can.
And, make no mistake, he is in trouble. With a special prosecutor breathing down his neck and even once-loyal Breitbart News turning on him, Trump is, according to one new poll, at the lowest point of his presidency.
Fifty-three percent of voters say he is not moral. (Stop a moment to take that in.)
Fifty-five percent say he isn’t stable, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken this past weekend. And 58 percent of voters call him reckless.
Never one to examine his own conscience, or look for self-improvement, Trump apparently consulted his tried-and-true playbook.
“Go for the jugular,” Trump advised in his 2009 book “Think Big.”
Always get even: “You need to screw them back 15 times harder. You do it not only to get the person who messed with you but also to show the others who are watching what will happen to them if they mess with you.”
It is a philosophy learned decades ago from his mentor, the ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn. In a recent Vanity Fair article on Trump and Cohn, Marie Brenner quotes lawyer Victor Kovner: “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.”
She writes: “Cohn’s power derived largely from his ability to scare potential adversaries with hollow threats and spurious lawsuits. And the fee he demanded for his services? Ironclad loyalty.” Sounds familiar.
Trump lapped up this advice. No target is sacrosanct.
Even if the person or organization that “screwed him” is a Gold Star parent like Khizr Khan, in the Trump philosophy, you must counterpunch.
If it’s one of the cornerstones of American democracy like the independent news media, that’s fair game, too.
In Phoenix, Trump praised his friends at Fox News, with especially kind words for his most dependable toady, Sean Hannity, and the cheerleaders at “Fox & Friends.” And he mourned the loss of the intolerable Jeffrey Lord, fired recently by CNN.
But otherwise, the news media is “damned dishonest,” he said, leading the crowd in familiar chants of “CNN sucks.”
Aggressive as Tuesday night’s attack was, it had more than a whiff of desperation about it.
After all, there was no dishonesty in the mainstream media coverage of Trump’s initial “on many sides” reaction to Charlottesville, which has had such dire political consequences for him, in addition to financial repercussions, as groups withdraw from planned events at his resorts.
The president may be able to convince his die-hard supporters, like the ones at the Phoenix rally, that he was misquoted or misrepresented, but that’s simply not true. Anyone who was paying attention knows that.
What happens next? Under siege, Trump needs a foil more than ever, so these media attacks are only going to grow in intensity.
It will be journalists’ continued challenge not to take the bait, to refuse to play the assigned role of presidential enemy. Leave the revenge to the expert.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper.