Trump’s 2020 ‘launch’ highlights what has changed, and what hasn’t

Last night, in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump launched his 2020 presidential campaign. Or perhaps he was relaunching his 2016 campaign; as many outlets noted, it was hard to tell the difference. The music (“God Bless the USA”), the chants (“Lock her up,” “Drain the swamp”), and the talking points all sounded familiar. So did the media-bashing. Right from the start, Trump dredged up well-worn complaints about coverage of how big his crowds are; later, as the crowd chanted “CNN sucks,” Trump referred to the assembled press as the “fake news back there.” As The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng quipped, “Historians will look back at Tuesday night as the evening in which Donald Trump killed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election chances.”

Why differentiate between Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns? It’s more accurate to situate them on a continuum. Last night’s rally carried on “the same populist themes, grievances and enemies that fueled [Trump’s] ascent—because the campaign never ended,” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker tweeted. Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, called it “the usual rage fest, grievance, bragging. Rinse/repeat.”

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It’s not unusual for presidential candidates to hold a formal kickoff event after making their intentions clear—in this cycle alone, several Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, have done just that. But it is unusual for a president to treat his term of office as a permanent campaigning opportunity: The Atlantic’s David A. Graham reckons Trump has “launched” his re-election bid at least five times. Trump filed his 2020 paperwork on January 20, 2017, just hours after he was inaugurated; since then, he’s held regular bombastic rallies in front of cheering, MAGA-hatted crowds. As New York’s Olivia Nuzzi asked wearily last night: “What is left to say about one of these things?”

At least we cover these rallies differently now. Of the cable networks, only Fox News (surprise!) carried last night’s event in its entirety. CNN quickly cut away. MSNBC didn’t even dip its toe in; instead, Chris Hayes focused on the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant families, addressing a debate that raged online yesterday as to the accuracy of calling US border facilities “concentration camps.” Online, outlets including the Post, The New York Times, and CNN—boosted by its recent hire of fact-checking maven Daniel Dale—assessed the truth of Trump’s claims. The Orlando rally drove a round of punditry and coverage, of course. But the days of networks showing live shots of Trump’s plane on the tarmac seem, thankfully, to be over.

Has our campaign coverage evolved in other ways since then? We have seen some promising signs: early coverage of Warren’s candidacy, for example, suffered from a “Hillary’s emails”-level focus on her claims of Native American ancestry, but her policy ideas have since come to the fore. Broadly speaking, however, the jury is still out. Trump’s campaign launch re-upped chatter about his latest 2020 polling numbers, which have driven horse race-style coverage of late. Some of that has been legitimate: it’s noteworthy, for instance, that Trump’s campaign moved to cut ties with some of its pollsters after their finding that Trump trails Joe Biden in key states leaked to the press. Last week, Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the polls in question “don’t exist”; yesterday, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, told CBS that America is “too complex now” for polls to be of any use.

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It’s worth pointing out that neither of these statements is true. (CBS, in its chyron and tweet, did not.) But should we really be covering hypothetical head-to-head numbers at this point? “To have a news cycle about general election polling **a year and a half before the election** is completely preposterous,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted yesterday. The bigger problem, for the press, is that these numbers tend to lead us by the nose: the Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote on Sunday that 2020 coverage has already been skewed by “the pseudoscience of electability,” especially where Biden is concerned. Nor is it the only specter of 2016 that’s still hanging around: as Sullivan and I both wrote recently, many outlets continue to cover Trump’s insults as stories in their own right.

Trump’s campaign “launch” yesterday was a non-event: an unremarkable milestone on a much longer road. In life, however, arbitrary staging posts can be useful opportunities for self-reflection. Trump hasn’t changed much. The more important question is: have we?

Below, more on Trump and his 2020 campaign:

  • A savage takedown: Ahead of Trump’s arrival in town yesterday, the Orlando Sentinel unveiled its endorsement for 2020: not Donald Trump. “After 2½ years we’ve seen enough,” the Sentinel’s editorial board wrote. “Enough of the chaos, the division, the schoolyard insults, the self-aggrandizement, the corruption, and especially the lies.”
  • A Savage takedown: The Times’s Jeremy W. Peters checks in with Michael Savage, a conservative radio host who was one of Trump’s earliest political supporters. Savage has since gone sour on the president. A key reason? Trump hasn’t been tough enough on immigration, Savage says.
  • Programming: Trump has given most of his interviews as president to Fox News, but he’s starting to engage other outlets as he bids to reach beyond his base. Last week, he granted 30 hours of access to ABC’s Stephanopoulos. Tomorrow, Trump will sit down with Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart for his first interview with a Spanish-language network since he became president.
  • Counter-programming: Next week, 20 of the Democratic candidates for president (and Díaz-Balart) will be in Miami for the party’s first round of debates. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump—against the wishes of some of his aides—is planning to live-tweet the debates, which will take place in primetime next Wednesday and Thursday.


Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: a United Nations official investigating the murder, last year, of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, has called for a further inquiry into the role Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other top Saudi officials may have played in the killing. According to the Post, where Khashoggi worked as a contributor, a UN human-rights specialist wrote in a 101-page report that MBS “had played an essential role in a campaign of repressing dissidents and almost certainly knew that a criminal mission targeting Khashoggi was being planned.” The Trump administration has refused to hold MBS responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
  • Yesterday, Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, withdrew his full-time candidacy for the job amid mounting press focus on his private life. USA Today reported that the FBI, as part of a background investigation, was looking into a “violent domestic dispute” between Shanahan and his ex-wife; in a separate episode, Shanahan’s son beat the same woman with a baseball bat. Later, the Post, whose reporters first communicated with Shanahan about the incidents in January, ran an on-the-record interview with him.
  • Katharine Gorka—a Department of Homeland Security staffer and former Breitbart writer whose articles have been described as “anti-Muslim”—is set to become the press secretary at Customs and Border Protection, CNN’s Geneva Sands reports. As the Times’s Maggie Haberman noted on Twitter, Gorka’s husband Sebastian Gorka—himself a Trump administration and Breitbart alum—“routinely attacks reporters.”
  • CBS might—finally—be close to an offer for sister company Viacom, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey report. The two companies used to be partnered but split 13 years ago; since then, two attempts to reunite them have been unsuccessful. CBS and Viacom have held preliminary talks, the Journal reports, but questions over price and leadership remain. Currently, Bob Bakish, Viacom’s CEO, looks like the favorite to take the top job should the companies combine.
  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason profiles Sean McElwee, a left-wing activist, political operative, and pollster who “deftly combines the technical work of a statistician with incisive eloquence that bends Twitter to his will.” Journalists, Neason writes, “should consider McElwee—and the questions his polls pose—a repository of story ideas for the 2020 campaigns. Rather than relying on handouts and candidate appearances, reporters and editors would be wise to instead look at what McElwee is asking voters.”
  • Forbidden Stories, a group that aims to finish projects that get abandoned when reporters are threatened or killed, is out with Green Blood, a collaboration between 15 media partners—including The Guardian, Le Monde, and the Toronto Star—documenting the environmental and human-rights impacts of the global mining industry. The first stories focus on gold mining in Tanzania, where a state crackdown has restricted the press.
  • Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a freelance journalist who has written widely on Chinese government influence campaigns in the US, has been denied a journalist visa to work in China, where she had hoped to take a position with Agence France-Presse. Allen-Ebrahimian tells BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan that she believes the decision is retaliation for her past stories.
  • Recently, after publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in its international edition, the Times moved to scrap the genre altogether. That, Jeet Heer writes for The Nation, reflects a sad trend: that “newspaper editorial cartooning is well on the path to extinction.” This week, The Nation’s new top editor, D.D. Guttenplan, appointed Heer as a national-affairs correspondent and Jane McAlevey as strikes correspondent. In April, CJR asked Guttenplan about his vision for the magazine.
  • And CJR’s Justin Ray checked in on the American Meteorological Society’s Conference on Broadcast Meteorology, which took place last week in San Diego. Discussions centered “on our volatile climate, and how urgent information about weather and the climate reaches the public,” Ray writes. “When it comes to weather, there is no universal understanding of cautionary language, and no single standard for alerting TV viewers—a fact that should raise more concern than it does.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.