Strategies for White House Reporters: Don’t Fight Trump, Play Him

January 7, 2019

When seasoned anglers hook a big one they know better than to fight the fish. Against their instincts they know to let ‘er run, to let their catch beat itself through impulse and exhaustion. In my experience most journalists lack this sensibility and training, and from my perch in Washington, D.C., this seems particularly true for White House Correspondents in their daily expeditions with a contemptuous president. Here’s why and what they can do about it:

When Donald Trump repeats his promise to Build The Wall he’s employing a strategy of influence I call Declare, a blunt rhetorical play that complements the president’s authoritarian brand. The strategy is the same when he mouths his No Collusion and Witch Hunt memes. Each is a form of gaslighting whose success relies on the temporary beffudlment of his targets.

To counter Trump’s dictates, press engage in games of what-about, reflexively citing data, facts and acts, usually of the inconvenient sort that might poo-poo walls and defend probes. This describes a predictable and conventional play called Contrast. And it’s precisely what Trump expects and wants from his mainstream media adversaries: Intellectualized and hidebound rebuttal.

If Declare is Trump’s ground game his air war is the Bait, all to lock reporters in his octagon of inane debate. Other presidents have toyed with the press but because this POTUS has convinced his base that bad news is fake news it’s big laughs for Trump lovers when CNN and The New York Times are openly mocked.

Set against my taxonomy of influence strategies we can see that Trump likes confrontation and, by comparison, reporters prefer control. And judging by the results – what I have argued is the wholesale strip-mining of the Fourth Estate – Trump has been winning. Until or which time he leaves office, history will judge the disruptive president as a vastly superior playmaker.

The lesson for journalists who wrestle Donald Trump is this: Learn and run new plays, particularly those of the counter-intuitive sort.

When the president repeats his build-a-wall pledge don’t counter with, Yes but, ask How high? Or How strong? Encourage him to elaborate on what he probably can’t. Replace the debates he wants with reporters with monologues he’s not memorized.

Likewise, when the president contends, “There was no collusion with Russia,” don’t cite evidence that there probably was. Ask him, Why would there be? Let him vent core complaints – that he’s being hunted or harassed. A few words from Trump about Special Counsel Mueller’s entrapment or Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pestering majority could be self-incriminating for the president and journalistic gold for savvy correspondents.

At a glance these resemble fawning Crowds and witness-leading Pingsthe soft strategies of FOX & Friends. But in the hands of disciplined reporters the play is both different and familiar: It’s Trump’s own Bait – the play he runs on media, the play he doesn’t expect to have run on him.

Schools of journalism and newsrooms don’t teach rhetoric or the applied discipline I call influence strategy. Their job is to decode it because as they see it they already know it. Oh, I know when I’m being spun, journalists often lecture. But in the age of Trump and the era of fake news it’s clear they don’t. They are instead the perfect foils for polished persuaders, for this president in particular.

For those whose beat is the White House, here’s some advice for jousting with President Trump and his elliptical surrogates: Don’t deny him the stage, give it to him. Your resistance is what fuels his fake news campaign. He wants you to be the story, not the one you’re trying to report. So while you can’t ignore him, don’t fight him. Play him. It’s counter-intuitive and it takes practice.


Post by Alan Kelly

See these related op-eds: How to Beat The Donald: Encourage Him (Nov. 30, 2015), Rx for Trump Haters: Help Him (Jan. 21, 2016), It’s Counter-Intuitive: Four Plays to Stop the Donald (March 10, 2016)