‘A master of deflection.’ Trump and the whiplash presidency.

Why We Wrote This

“Follow the signal, not the noise” has been a frequent adage during the Trump presidency. But both allies and critics of the president say sometimes the noise is part of the signal.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel participate in a bilateral meeting at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, Aug. 26, 2019.

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After one of the most volatile weeks of the Trump presidency to date – with policy flip-flops, contradictory signals, market gyrations, and provocative assertions – separating the signal from the noise can be well-nigh impossible.

Keeping multiple storylines going or changing the subject abruptly (like, say, the United States wanting to buy Greenland) are tactics frequently employed by the president and were on display at the Group of Seven meeting of world leaders this weekend.

“Donald Trump is a master of deflection,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The deflection comes, she adds, when there’s news that goes against his interests – and in this case, it was stories that suggested the economy may be heading into recession. 

Ultimately, it’s all about control, says former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “He’s creating bright new shiny objects to make the press manic and to largely confuse the American people as to what’s real and what isn’t,” says Mr. Steele, a Trump critic. 

A Trump ally, who defends the administration on cable news, disagrees. “He may ramble, but he’s driving home a real point: He’s delivering on his promises.”

The Trump presidency at times can look like a somewhat chaotic pingpong match, with head-snapping moves and counter-moves. Often it’s President Donald Trump himself standing at both ends of the table.

For anybody watching – the public, the press, world leaders, even his own aides – it is a performance that can be both riveting and exasperating. And it brings to mind advice a sympathetic observer of President Trump offered before he was elected: “Take him seriously, not literally.” 

Another variation on the theme goes like this: “Follow the signal, not the noise.” In other words, don’t be distracted by trivia. Focus on what’s important. But after one of the most volatile weeks of the Trump presidency to date – with policy flip-flops, contradictory signals, market gyrations, and provocative assertions – separating the signal from the noise can be well-nigh impossible. 

Sometimes the noise is part of the signal, both allies and critics of President Trump say. When Mr. Trump seemed to equate Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell and Chinese President Xi Jinping, wondering in a tweet “who is our bigger enemy,” he wasn’t meant to be taken literally, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Mr. Trump himself asserted Sunday from the Group of Seven meeting of world leaders in France, “we’re getting along very well with China right now.” But on Mr. Powell, a Trump appointee who is now a frequent Trump target over interest rates, the president offered no such assurances. When asked over the weekend if he wanted the Fed chair to resign, the president said, “if he did, I wouldn’t stop him.” But even if Mr. Powell sticks it out, at the very least Mr. Trump has signaled to his supporters that he’s “on the case” to lower interest rates, despite the Fed’s independent function.

At heart, Mr. Trump’s goal is to win reelection, and “he wants to make sure there’s no recession,” says a Republican strategist close to the White House. “He also wants to keep Democrats from manufacturing a recession in voters’ minds.” 

Thus, the president’s intensive messaging about the U.S. economy, and efforts to show he’ll do whatever it takes to fuel growth, keep unemployment low, and keep the markets strong. Never mind the competing narrative of his trade war with China, in which escalating tariffs threaten to create the very impact he’s trying to avoid. 

Last Friday, the Dow dropped more than 600 points as the trade war intensified. On Monday, after Mr. Trump said that China wanted to return to the negotiating table, the Dow rallied. When asked Monday at the G7 why he treats President Xi as an enemy one day and a friend the next, Mr. Trump acknowledged that his whipsaw routine is intentional.  

“Sorry, it's the way I negotiate,” said the former real estate developer. “It’s done very well for me over the years, and it’s doing even better for the country.”

Keeping multiple story lines going simultaneously is another Trump technique, with some so far out of left field they are impossible to ignore. Exhibit A was last week’s story that he wanted to buy Greenland – and then canceling a trip to Copenhagen after the Danish prime minister told him the idea was “absurd.”

It was Trump at his “shiny object” best, throwing out a seemingly outlandish idea and then holding media attention in his thrall until the story had played out. 

“Donald Trump is a master of deflection,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The deflection comes, she adds, when there’s news that goes against his interests – and in this case, it was stories that suggested the economy may be heading into recession. 

“You know that recession is on his mind, because into this bizarre news agenda of the last week, he continues to intrude things that are relevant to a recession, if only to dismiss them,” such as his short-lived suggestion he might try to cut the payroll tax, says Ms. Jamieson. 

Ultimately, the “noise” serves to deflect attention not just from bad news but also controversial moves. Last week, when Mr. Trump had the world talking about his supposed effort to buy Greenland, other news items came and went with much less flash. 

One was the announcement of a regulation that would allow the US government to detain indefinitely migrants who cross illegally into the U.S., an effort to change a decades-old rule that governs how migrant children are treated. Another important story that came and went centered on how California has thwarted Mr. Trump’s effort to roll back auto emissions standards.

Ultimately, it’s all about control, says former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.

“He’s creating bright new shiny objects to make the press manic and to largely confuse the American people as to what’s real and what isn’t,” says Mr. Steele, a Trump critic. 

Mr. Trump is also effectively his own press secretary. He speaks regularly to reporters – often from the south lawn of the White House as he’s heading out of town, Marine One sitting nearby with its engines running, creating noise and fumes. 

His 35-minute performance last Wednesday was classic. Reporters tossed out questions, and Mr. Trump could take his choice, addressing the economy, Democrats and Israel, racial politics, Greenland, background checks, China trade. On dealing with China, he looked skyward and declared, “I am the chosen one,” a line that sent critics into paroxysms over a supposed “Messiah complex.” 

Mr. Trump later said he was “just having fun,” but intentionally or not, another shiny object was born. 

To Mr. Steele, it’s all part of the performative nature of the Trump presidency. “You have a reality TV talk show host sitting in the White House who treats his job as if it’s just another episode,” he says. “There’s nothing serious going on here.”

The Trump ally, who defends the administration on cable news, disagrees. “He may ramble, but he’s driving home a real point: He’s delivering on his promises.”

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