Trump Isn’t Magical

The former President gets too much credit for his ability to manipulate news coverage.

In her post “PAVLOV’S PRESS CORPS: TRUMP ONCE AGAIN GOT JOURNALISTS TO WILLINGLY SERVE AS HIS INCITEMENT MULESMarcy Wheeler expresses her fury over a common phenomenon.

When we left the mainstream Trump press corps on Friday afternoon, they were all focused on the decision by Beryl Howell to rule that some of Evan Corcoran’s testimony in the stolen document case was crime-fraud excepted. Sure, there were journalists using wildly exaggerated descriptions for the uniqueness or surprise of the development. But, on Friday, reporters covering Trump’s legal woes were providing factual descriptions of actual newsworthy developments.

At the time, there was a general awareness that an indictment from Alvin Bragg may come next week, but the focus was the stolen documents investigation, in part because some journalists appear to believe that the crime-fraud ruling was some new sign that Jack Smith believed a crime had been committed.

She contends that former President Trump changed the entire narrative with a rant on TruthSocial starting with a declaration he would be arrested Tuesday morning and a diatribe against the NYC DA, which was then dutifully spread via Twitter by hapless journalists.

It’s like Pavlov’s dogs, pure reflexive behavior at this point: The more incendiary Trump’s tweets, the more quickly journalists rush to disseminate them unfiltered on Twitter.


he most newsworthy detail in Trump’s tweet (beyond the incitement) — the day he would be charged — was just made up, a guess based off the same information all the rest of us have. It was nevertheless treated as newsworthy by a slew of journalists needing an excuse to disseminate unfiltered incendiary speech on Twitter. And no one has since gone back to amend their original tweets to note that Trump’s claims to know the date of his arrest were a lie.

Trump’s team simply guessed what day he’ll be charged so as to make a call to fight newsworthy enough for kneejerk journalists to help it go viral for him.

It worked.

It works every single fucking time Trump does this.

Every. Single. Time.

And it’s not just the fact that a bunch of journalists served as willing data mules for Trump’s incendiary tweet, bringing it onto Twitter for him and helping it to go viral in unfiltered form.

It’s the other effect the tweet had on reporting about Trump.

First, everyone completely dropped the significant development in a case that even a number of diehard Republicans think has real gravity, Trump’s refusal to return all the classified documents he stole. That story — a burning story late into Friday — utterly disappeared by Saturday morning. Trump is so good at playing the media that he can effectively just dictate what even CNN and MSNBC will cover. And his tweet managed to make that more damaging investigation — an investigation led by a white man rather than a Black one, and so harder to use to mobilize Trump’s most racist followers — completely disappear from coverage. Journalists who had broken key details about the crime-fraud ruling Friday were instead asked to cover Trump’s tweet on the cable shows on Saturday.

And it wasn’t just cable coverage that Trump’s incendiary tweet managed to dictate. One after another politician — Kevin McCarthyMike PenceElise Stefanik (who released then deleted multiple drafts before hers was sufficiently dripping in obsequious propaganda) — was forced to comment on the made up news that Trump has a date when he’ll be indicted. Even poor Asa Hutchinson, who was trying hard to launch a Presidential run that didn’t define itself entirely in terms of Trump, was forced to answer multiple questions about Trump’s tweet.

In other words, by releasing the tweet, Trump not only made it the sole focus of cable programming, but made it the leading political question of the day. He made the presidential race about him again, exclusively about him. And in the case of McCarthy and Stefanik — both of whom cling to power by ceaselessly performing their obeisance to Trump — made it a matter of loyalty, a political litmus test that Trump supporters and opponents alike would be required to publicly adhere to.


Trump has these journalists trained to act reactively, without taking the time first to figure out whether he was again making shit up (as he was in this tweet). He has these journalists trained to mindlessly help him disseminate antisemitic incitement on platforms he’s not a part of, usually without commentary identifying that’s what he’s doing. Trump is so good at exploiting journalists who know better that he has made them participants in his incitement.

So, look, I get the frustration here. Trump spews a lot of nonsense and, because he’s a former President and the leading contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, said nonsense is treated as newsworthy. Because, by any ordinary standard, it is.

While people give Trump far too much credit as a master manipulator—I tend to think he just can’t help himself but to engage in rants that generally hinder him—it’s certainly true that his style plays into the modern media cycle really well. Thirty years ago, when the news cycle was much slower, there would be time for reporters to investigate his claims and put them into context at the same time they reported what he said. Even fifteen year ago, before Twitter, some of that would have occurred—although Drudge and others would get their spin out first.

That said, Wheeler, even more than most political junkies, has a grossly distorted view of how normal people consume the news. Because she obsessively follows the ins and outs of all of the various Trump investigations—in far, far greater detail than even I do—she just assumes that those who casually follow the news are up on the latest developments.

In fact, her post is the first time I encountered the tidbit about Evan Corcoran and the crime-fraud exception. You might be saying to yourself, “Aha! That just proves her point!” But, no,

It’s true that I amplified Trump’s breathless “THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” on Saturday morning. But it was an update to a post titled “Trump Could Be Indicted Next Week” that published minutes after Trump’s claim and began well before he issued it. It was based on NBC News and NY Post reports that went out Friday afternoon.

Did Trump’s claim that he would be arrested Tuesday and his attempts to incite rioting influence later news coverage? Sure. As well it should. But Trump was jumping on a story that would already be the news of the day. News that an unprecedented indictment of a former President could be coming this week was naturally going to displace a minor development in a bigger but much more slowly developing case against him.

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    No, Trump isn’t magical. The Republican base, the motivated voters in the party, are responsible for Trump. It’s who they want, and if Trump wasn’t handy they would have found some other iteration of Palin to vote for. Put another way, if a town elects a dog as mayor, you don’t blame the dog, you blame the town. And because the Republican base is who they are, the main stream media cannot wave a wand and make him disappear by not covering him. First, they don’t get their information, such as it is, from the main stream media. And second, as I said above, Trump isn’t really the problem.

  2. Scott says:

    One only has to listen to the Cicada sites (Memeorandum, Drudge, Real Politics) to see what trends. Three days later, Trump’s impending indictment is still in the lead. My Congresscritter, Chip Roy felt compelled to post a Facebook item yelping about weaponization of justice against “ALL Americans” and “politically motivated prosecution based on strained, convoluted legal theory”.

    It is all so predictable.

  3. charon says:

    While people give Trump far too much credit as a master manipulator

    Trump does not think ahead, he lives in the moment and reacts. A human imitation of a chatbot. People like Putin and Xi and Kim understand he can be played.

  4. Tony W says:

    @Scott: And the responses to his post were epic.

    “Yeah, it’s true. If we pay off a porn star with whom we had an affair while married, in order to suppress a news story and then claim the whole thing as a business expense – they’ll come after us too. “

  5. charon says:


    he lives in the moment and reacts.

    This is why he relies so heavily on his rallies for campaigning – he gauges the crowd reactions to test what he should say, what positions to emphasize. Trump is the mirror that reflects the crowd back to itself.

  6. CSK says:

    Quite true. He also needs like air, water, and food the adulation of thousands of fans screaming out their adoration of him.

  7. steve says:

    Listening to Trump I think he comes across as a con man/grifter. However, there are lots of people who have been willing to do business with him and a big chunk of the country nearly worships him. They didnt do this so much with other politicians. He has managed to generate an incredible level of appeal to a specific groups of people. A lot of that is, I think, based upon how he uses the media. I think this is a multi-level effort. On initial coverage the MSM just repeats whatever he says, then analysis follows and they point out he is (usually) lying. However during that time the right wing media has been “reporting” (Ha!) what he said as total truth and telling the faithful that the MSM is going to claim it was a lie. Then, just as predicted the MSM reports it was a lie confirming the right wing media predictions and confirming that they are just out to get Trump. Telling lies doesnt hurt Trump and often helps. Its why Trump fans always know you are wrong about him.

    I dont know how much of this is because Trump set out to do this but he takes advantage of it. I dont know how to break the cycle.


  8. CSK says:
  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    The real story maybe that trump’s call for protest is evoking a weak response.

    But nearly two days after Trump claimed on his Truth Social platform that he expected to be arrested on Tuesday and exhorted followers to protest, there were few signs his appeal had inspired his supporters to organize and rally around an event like the Jan. 6 gathering. In fact, a prominent organizer of rallies that preceded the Capitol riot posted on Twitter that he intended to remain on the sidelines.

    Trump’s call for protests gets muted reaction by supporters

  10. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    McCarthy says that he doesn’t think Trump wants people to protest? Excuse me? Trump explicitly said “Protest!”

    Or is this one of those cases where we’re supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally?

  11. MarkedMan says:

    @steve: I don’t see it as a cycle at all. The bottom line is that the motivated Republican base wants to hear what they want to hear and are uninterested in hearing anything that contradicts it. Fox, etc, supply that. There really isn’t anything the mainstream media can do to combat that.

  12. Sleeping Dog says:


    McCarthy doesn’t want people to protest. He understands that despite R prostrations that 1/6 wasn’t a riot, that it was just a visit to the Capitol. He knows that outside of the MAGAt fever swamps that R’s have paid a brutal price in reputation among voters and the last thing he wants is another riot to defend.

    Of course he’ll lie about what trump said, that’s the R way.

  13. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Well, it’s an asinine lie, since Trump called for protests on Truth Social.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    As with many things, a Blazing Saddles quote says it all. Trump could say of his manipulation of the supposedly liberal MSM,

    Ooh, baby, you are so talented! And they are so dumb!

  15. CSK says:


    He does believe the MAGAs are morons. And he’s right about that.

  16. CSK says:

    One thing I don’t get: Does Trump actually see himself as Superman as depicted on his bubble gum card above, or does he get that it’s a joke? I mean surely even he must realize he’s a flabby, obese old man.

  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think Trump has been doing this sort of thing for a long, long time. As long as I can remember, Trump was inserting himself into media stories. In those days, there was a lot of planning, a lot of strategizing, a lot of trial and error. He developed a set of procedures which worked well for him, and he has refined them over the years – procedures for promoting himself, his name, his brand, and for countering negative press.

    At this point, there isn’t a lot of planning left. But he still has the habits, and he still uses them.

    As for Marcy Wheeler, she’s right that the “Trump Arrested” story just kind of steamrolled more important stories. And that’s on media people, to some extent. The argument they make is “it’s a big story!” which means that they need to report it along with everyone else, while adding no value.

    I’m not accusing James of adding no value, by the way. The ability to discuss developments in the comment section represents value.

  18. MarkedMan says:


    does he get that it’s a joke?

    It’s an interesting question. Back in the 80’s and 90’s Trump would be giving an interview and he would go too far, realize it from the interviewer’s reaction, and then kind of mug for the camera to show he was in on the joke. Or that’s what I thought was going on at the time. But I’ve seen a few of these old interviews more recently and now I wonder if he ever really understood why the interviewers reacted the way they did, or if he had just learned by trial and error that a particular facial expression de-escalated the situation. To be aware of going too far in BS’ing implies that Trump understood that he was BS’ing in the first place. Nowadays, I don’t think it even occurs to him that there is a difference between reality and BS.

  19. Kathy says:


    His capacity for self-deception is magical.

  20. Sleeping Dog says:


    Long ago, he convinced himself that he’s god’s gift to women and anyone who had less money than he did. For men who have that attitude it can be difficult to nigh on impossible to give it up and if you have money, it is even harder.

  21. steve says:

    MarkedMan- I think that’s a fair take also. Maybe the important point is that it is hard to stop it. In some idealized world the media just doesnt cover the awful stuff Trump says but then they get accused of being biased for not covering him.


  22. CSK says:

    Well, MAGA is in a rage about DeSantis’s refusal to send the Florida National Guard to protect Trump from arrest.

    So much for Ron as a contender.

  23. Gustopher says:


    One thing I don’t get: Does Trump actually see himself as Superman as depicted on his bubble gum card above, or does he get that it’s a joke?

    He gets that his supporters will claim that it is at least symbolically the truth, even though it obviously isn’t.

    Does the wafer become the body of Christ? No, of course not. We could induce vomiting and prove that, if we really wanted to, or could just pay attention to our senses.

    Does claiming that the wafer becomes the body of Christ tie followers into the story? Yes, absolutely.

    Or, as we have heard before and scoffed at, take it seriously, not literally.

    We (smart people) mistake politics for a battle of ideas when it is often a battle of emotions. We think that the best ideas will win out in the end, with a few hiccups here and there.

    The invasion of Iraq for Gulf War 2: Electric Buggaloo was 20 years ago this week. In the run up, we had obvious bullshit stories about aluminum tubes, and yellow cake, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, while Saddam Hussein was trying to get the weapon inspectors to stay but the US was telling them to get out of harm’s way (nice inspectors you got there, it would be a shame if anything happened to them, wink, wink). If logic and reason won the day, there would have been no invasion.

    I remember watching it all happen, and thinking “they don’t fucking care, they’re going to do this anyway.” It was a sobering and terrifying realization, one that I try to pretend doesn’t still apply.

    The pictures of Trump as a muscular beast of a man are as real as Iraq’s WMD, or Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11. It’s bullshit, but they don’t fucking care.

    The 1/6 insurrectionists were just tourists, trans people are out to groom your children and mutilate their genitals, a modest increase in marginal tax rates is socialism, masks are socialism, clean energy is socialism, Zelenskyy is fighting just for that sweet foreign aid money, the civil war was fought over tariffs and states’ rights… it’s all bullshit, and they know it, and they just don’t fucking care, they’re going to do the terrible thing anyway.

  24. de stijl says:

    If supporters of Trump want to assemble and peacefully demonstrate tomorrow I have zero problem with that. I believe they are absolute fools for doing so, but they have an absolute right to do so.

    The right to assemble and protest is guaranteed. The assumption that legal, allowed protest is actually worthy is an entirely different story.

    There is also the aspect of benefit of the doubt. Lefty protests get none. If one person misbehaves and acts illegally, the whole is culpable. And gets punished. Is the reverse true?

    I have zero sympathy for people who push protest too far. You are breaking laws, but, more importantly, you are killing potential support.

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: No, this is one of those cases where Speaker McCarthy doesn’t want to have any accountability in what’s happening. (Unless it goes well, in which case he and MTG will be shoving each other straining to get to the mic first to say “It was ME! My idea!”

  26. de stijl says:

    In zeitgeist I knew 1/6 was going to happen violently. I just knew. Tomorrow, no fucking clue. I have no salient insight.

    Assuming Trump will be arrested.

    I have hope but no prediction. Hopefully low-key or no-key reaction. Hopefully people will be cool.

    I am scared. Tomorrow might be the US equivalent of a beer hall putsch. I doubt it would succeed, but would not be surprised if attempted.

    No clue what is going to happen and how hard.

    I know I am frightened about what may happen tomorrow.

  27. Liberal Capitalist says:

    And today is Tuesday. Not even 10’s of people showed up to protest.

    Poor poor persecuted Trump. Nothing but keyboard warriors to support him.

  28. dmichael says:

    I read Marcy Wheeler’s post when it came out and and now have read your excerpts and your post (twice). I don’t believe that you answered her main thesis: That the major media report, without context, what Trump barfs up on his social media. You suggest that “she just assumes that those who casually follow the news are up on the latest developments.” She rightly believes just the opposite. Most people who actually read news (in whatever form) largely, if not completely, read it only in “headline” form and without the media providing context that is all the readers will get. She describes some of the context that the media have omitted: Trump provided no evidence that he know when he would be indicted and he used the post to make incendiary calls for protest. And it served to distract from other significant news about his criminal exposure. Distraction is what Trump does and the media assist him in that.

  29. James Joyner says:

    @dmichael: I acknowledge the trend of reporters responding to Trump’s antics. I just disagree with those saying journalists should ignore him to avoid playing into his hands: He’s genuinely newsworthy. He’s not only a former President but the odds-on favorite for the 2024 Republican nomination. Plus, he’s under myriad legal investigations. That’s news.

    In this particular case, though, I think Marcy is just wrong about what happened. The Corcoran fraud-crime tidbit had already been overshadowed by news of a coming indictment from the NYC DA before Trump’s “tweet.”