Trump media frenzy overshadows Clinton’s troubles

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks away after speaking to reporters before a town hall event, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio . (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The news this week has not been great for Democrats.

Coming out of the Democratic National Convention, presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stumbled in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” providing an answer to a question about her email practices that the Washington Post’s fact-checkers rated a “four Pinocchio” lie and Politifact gave its lowest “pants on fire” rating.

She repeated the false claim that the FBI director said her public statements about the emails were “truthful” in an interview with KUSA Thursday.

Weak annual economic growth numbers have been released, casting doubt on Clinton and President Obama’s positive portrayal of the economy.

In the aftermath of the release of controversial hacked emails that rocked the party last week, three top officials in the Democratic National Committee resigned.

Following a Wall Street Journal article published Tuesday, the Obama administration is now facing new questions about a $400 million payment to Iran that critics say was ransom for American hostages.

In any other election year, any one of those stories could have driven one or more news cycles, advancing a perception of the Democratic nominee and her party in disarray.

“It would have been a disastrous week for Hillary and Obama,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Instead, Republicans have a nominee who, as Mackowiak put it, “continues to vomit all over himself.”

Donald Trump has been a constant presence in the headlines this week, as he often is, but he has generated a string of controversies for himself that seem harder to shake than in the past. His refusal to back down has dragged the public debate over his criticism of the Muslim parents of a dead war hero throughout the week, with numerous other negative stories compounding his troubles.

“This week has been kind of fascinatingbecause I think he’s faced his own implosion that’s frankly self-inflicted,” said Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies.

Brian Fraley, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist, said Trump is discovering that the general election is a vastly different battlefield from the primaries.

“Trump sycophants like to say that because he's so unique, the traditional rules don't apply. That is, as the vice president would say, a bunch of malarkey,” Fraley said.

The coverage of Trump’s recent actions serves to reinforce many of the criticisms Democrats made of him at their convention last week.

“It shows him to be petty, insolent and frankly unstable,” Fraley said. “Sure, politics is evolving, but pettiness, insolence and instability are not qualities Americans look for in a president.”

Trump campaign surrogate John Jay LaValle, chairman of the Suffolk County, New York Republican Party, argued that the candidate’s tribulations are the work of a biased media that ignores Clinton’s scandals and amplifies Trump’s.

“Some of this has been pretty unfair in the sense that there’s very substantial things going on around Clinton and it’s getting no play whatsoever,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Trump campaign distributed a “Media Bias of the Day” bulletin, hitting the New York Times for putting two negative stories about Trump on its front page but none about Clinton.

The New York Times public editor has acknowledged the absence of any coverage of Clinton’s false email comments in its pages or on its website, writing, “It was clearly news.” While the interview did get coverage on CNN, it was only a fraction of the time devoted to Trump’s statements.

“There’s no traction on any of these issues,” LaValle said.

Some Republicans criticize Trump for refusing to drop fights he cannot win, but LaValle blamed the media for that too.

“Donald Trump can’t even get on stage and start talking about the economy,” he said, because he continues to get questions about the Khans, the gold star parents he criticized after the Democratic convention. However, Trump is the one who often chooses to relitigate past battles and defend comments he made nearly a year ago at his rallies.

LaValle said the press is focused on irrelevant issues, like whether or not Trump will give House Speaker Paul Ryan an endorsement that Ryan did not even seek, instead of talking about terrorism and the economy. Those are the subjects he believes voters really care about, and most polls show they still trust Trump more than Clinton to handle them.

“I know that Donald Trump is frustrated, the campaign is frustrated by it, because it’s become very blatant,” he said.

However, strategists say Trump has mostly earned the media’s attention this week.

“It’s probably a little bit excessive, but he’s had the worst week I can ever remember a presidential candidate having, so what level of coverage does that deserve?” Mackowiak said. “We’re in uncharted territory here.”

This should be a race the GOP can win against a Democrat with nearly-historic unfavorable ratings herself, but the media coverage of Trump’s words and actions could sink his campaign and endanger other Republicans down-ballot.

“He either has a personality disorder or he’s intentionally sabotaging his own campaign and I’m not sure which is worse,” Mackowiak said.

Political scientists say Trump seems to subscribe to the theory that all publicity is good publicity, but strategists say that simply is not true in a presidential election. If reporters are writing countless negative stories about him, they are not writing them about Clinton.

“Donald Trump's ego demands that every story and every news cycle be about him,” Fraley said. “That served him well in a crowded primary, but it's killing him in the general election.”

This pattern has been on display this week as numerous missteps and poor decisions by Trump crowded out much of the bad news for Clinton. In addition to continuing to complain about the Khans, Trump has refused to endorse top congressional Republicans, joked about wanting to receive a Purple Heart, made troubling comments about sexual harassment, predicted the election will be rigged, and repeatedly claimed to have seen video of money being delivered to Iran that does not appear to exist.

Throughout all of this, Clinton has stayed on schedule and on message, reinforcing the themes of her convention speech in swing state rallies. The strategists agree this is the wisest course of action.

“When your opponent is destroying themselves, let them,” Mackowiak said. “It’s true in war, it’s true in politics.”

“They’re not trying to make news because Trump is making all the news and it’s all negative It would be insane strategically to interject yourself when your opponent is in self-destruct mode,” he said.

Clinton has continued to hit Trump on various subjects at her events, but she has not inserted herself into his squabbles with the rest of the Republican Party.

“The success of their campaign this week has been not just Trump continuing to dig his own hole but they have effectively stuck to their own message,” McDermott said.

“You’ve seen from their camp an unwillingness to respond to the day-to-day of the Trump campaign,” he said.

LaValle complained that Clinton is benefiting from remaining inaccessible to the press, in contrast to Trump.

“At what point is she going to be getting the treatment from the press that she deserves?... She is hiding and nobody is calling her out on it,” he said.

LaValle expects a shift in the Trump campaign’s messaging in the coming weeks away from issues he deemed “red herrings.”

“It’s certainly our hope that Donald Trump continues to focus on the economy and ISIS because it’s clear that those are the two most important issues to the American people,” he said.

He also suggested the media recalibrate to tackle those issues to improve their ratings.

“There’s no question that the media is betraying America by not talking about the issues that the American people want to hear about,” he said.

If Trump can maintain such a shift, drilling down on the economy and on Clinton’s flaws, his critics agree it could help put his campaign back on track.

“He needs to learn the value of scarcity, be much more controlled in his message,” Mackowiak said.

He listed a few ways Trump could avoid constantly generating headlines. He does not need to be doing interviews every day, even in safe media outlets. He does not have to give rambling hour-long speeches at rallies.

Fraley said Clinton is very vulnerable if Trump can develop an effective line of attack and stick to it.

“Hillary Clinton is a train wreck,” he said. “Instead of focusing on her ethical lapses, her poor choices and her problems, Trump has instead picked fights with a gold star family, the Republican Speaker of the House and even a crying baby.”

The Olympics starting Friday may help Trump withdraw from the media’s attention for a few weeks. Beyond that, McDermott also cited discipline as something the Trump campaign sorely needs.

Barring a drastic change of course, he said the Republican Party may soon have to decide whether to divert resources and attention to down-ballot races and “whether they still see Trump as a viable lead on their ticket.”

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