How Trump’s split-screen presidency transfixes a divided US

Why We Wrote This

The president’s domestic travails may be peaking at the same moment as one of his critical foreign ventures. Beyond the outcome of the hearing or the summit, what will this multifront test reveal?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal lawyer, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 27.

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It’s almost a cliché to call the Trump presidency “split screen.” But indeed, that’s what it was on Wednesday. On one side of the screen, President Trump was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi at a nuclear summit. On the other side, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was calling Mr. Trump a “con man” in an explosive hearing before the House Oversight Committee.

Ironically, during the campaign Trump warned that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be dogged by so many investigations that she would get little done. Is that what’s happening to Trump? “It likely will be his presidency for the foreseeable future,” says American University political scientist Chris Edelson.

It’s true that critics will examine any Trump-Kim deal for signs the president is producing a weak “deal” to distract from Mr. Cohen’s charges. But any such agreement would face tough examination, say some experts. And past experience shows presidents can produce important work even if hobbled by congressional probes. In June 1973, President Richard Nixon hosted Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev at an important summit. That same week, key witness John Dean, Nixon’s lawyer, spoke before the Senate Watergate Committee for the first time.

On one side of the screen, President Trump sits pensively, leaning forward, tapping his fingers together. Next to him, a smiling Kim Jong-un takes his seat.

Behind the US and North Korean leaders are a row of their nations’ flags, interspersed, a screen of white, red, and blue. They’re at the start of a summit that American officials hope will lead to curbs on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and perhaps to eventual denuclearization.

On the other side of the screen sits Michael Cohen. The president’s former lawyer is impassive, for the most part, as he testifies before a congressional committee that he believes Mr. Trump to be a “con man” and a “cheat.”

He then gets into a tense, almost-shouting match with Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who’s defending the president. Mr. Cohen has little left to lose – he’s already going to jail.

Just another day, another routine clashing of news images in the split-screen presidency of the 45th chief executive of the United States.

The use of “split-screen” as an image to describe the clashing events and themes of this Washington era is almost a cliché at this point, of course. It’s an obvious way to describe an administration that’s saturated in events and a country that’s divided on partisan lines.

The president takes an action. His critics produce a reaction. As events, they’re separate, different sides of the wide screen. But they’re also intertwined, each one altering, at least a bit, the meaning of the other.

It’s interesting that during the campaign, Trump warned that a Hillary Clinton presidency would have looked like this, as well. “Crooked” Hillary would have been the subject of so many investigations it would hobble her administration, he said.

Instead that’s been the story of Trump, says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the school of public affairs at American University. Trump has been dogged by criticism that inevitably occupies his mind and takes up some of his time.

“That’s been his entire presidency, and I expect it likely will be his presidency for the foreseeable future,” Professor Edelson says.

Leah Millis/Reuters
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands before their one-on-one chat at the second US-North Korea summit, at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27.

Some of Trump’s biggest split-screen days of clashing news have involved foreign travel. He was departing on an Asia tour in November 2017 when special counsel Robert Mueller dropped his first big indictments, against ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort and others.

The president was at Windsor Castle with Queen Elizabeth last July when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee computers.

But Wednesday was perhaps the most head-swiveling split-screen day yet. Trump greeted Mr. Kim with a public embrace at the beginning of a two-day summit. Then Cohen took the stage in a public hearing before the House Oversight Committee, in the first big event scheduled by the chamber’s new Democratic majority.

Cohen appeared, if not relaxed, at least focused and effective in making the points he wanted to make. Trump had not expected to win, he said, but had thought running for president a great way to market himself and his company.

“Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make the country great,” said Cohen.

The president’s former lawyer showed lawmakers a $35,000 check signed by Trump in August 2017 that he said was partial reimbursement for the hush money paid to adult actress Stormy Daniels.

Cohen claimed to have overheard a phone call to Trump from former associate Roger Stone alerting the then-candidate that Wikileaks was about publish emails that would damage Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

Cohen described a whispered conversation between Trump and Donald Trump Jr. in which the son may have told his father about an upcoming Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians who had Clinton “dirt” to offer.

Partisan reviews

Taking a break from the proceedings, Oversight Committee member Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee said in an interview that much of Cohen’s testimony was very predictable but also very important.

“I hope the nation is watching because this is a very valuable insight to the way the president operated primarily before he was president, but also some during the presidency,” says Representative Cooper.

Republican defenders of the president on the panel felt otherwise, and pointed out that Cohen has already been convicted once of lying to Congress, among other crimes, and is positioning himself to write a book and perhaps engage in profitable television ventures.

But not all GOP members of the panel were harshly negative about the hearing. In a brief interview, Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan says a lot of it was partisan theater, but the panel heard some new things and maybe some new things that could be corroborated.

At one point, Cohen said he had been intoxicated by working for Trump. Representative Amash, asked whether he thinks Republican Trump defenders have been similarly intoxicated, says he thinks that’s true.

“A lot of Republicans have abandoned their principles for the president, and I similarly think a lot of Democrats are abandoning their principles because of the president,” the Michigan Republican says.

Impact on foreign affairs

Can domestic scandals “taint” presidential achievements in foreign affairs? That’s happened in the past, in the sense that presidential opponents have portrayed White House actions taken at moments of domestic policy stress as attempts to distract voters.

President Bill Clinton, for instance, launched cruise missile strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan only three days after testifying in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Critics charged Mr. Clinton was acting to try and get the Lewinsky matter off front pages.

That’s not really a fair charge, says Edelson of American University. In general, chief executives have been able to compartmentalize their serious decision-making.

“That’s not fair to a president. It’s not a good thing for the country,” he says.

In regards to Trump, the nation needs to resolve the issues and allegations swirling around his actions, from hush-money payments to Ms. Daniels to the many items related to special counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation.

“It’s hard for everyone to have this going on,” says Edelson.

Besides Clinton, one other US chief executive who faced a serious split-screen, domestic-international situation was Richard Nixon. In 1973, as the Watergate scandal gained steam, the president increased his diplomatic efforts, including superpower nuclear negotiations.

In June of that year, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited Washington. Nixon and he made important progress toward a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and signed a number of other secondary accords. Transcripts of their discussions show jovial, almost friendly chats. Neither brought up the subject of Watergate allegations.

On Monday, June 25, 1973, the lead story of The New York Times dealt with the end of the summit and the hopes of Nixon and Brezhnev for world peace. Across the page, above the fold, was a story of almost equally prominent play. “Dean On Stand,” it said.

Nixon’s former counsel John Dean was appearing before the Senate Watergate Committee. It was a key moment in the scandal. The next summer, Nixon resigned.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the date Richard Nixon resigned. It was Aug. 9, 1974.

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