An Endeavor to Take Trump Seriously

What happens when a reporter tries to take the GOP’s man of the moment seriously?

This illustration can only be used with Andy Kroll piece that originally ran in the 8/1/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
July 31, 2015, 1:02 a.m.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, two of my ed­it­ors am­bushed me in the news­room. Grin­ning mis­chiev­ously, they said they had an ur­gent as­sign­ment for me: a story on Don­ald Trump. The magazine had planned to take the high road and ig­nore his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, they ex­plained, but the frenzy he had cre­ated and his strong stand­ing in the polls were mak­ing the si­lent ap­proach seem less noble than clue­less. We had to say something fresh, something in­sight­ful about Trump — but what, and how?

News­rooms every­where ap­peared to be pon­der­ing the same ques­tion, with re­sponses run­ning the gamut from schizo­phren­ic to cheeky to des­pair­ing. Earli­er this year, CNN pres­id­ent Jeff Zuck­er in­struc­ted his pro­du­cers to ig­nore Trump’s antics as he pub­licly flir­ted yet again with the idea of run­ning for pres­id­ent — but from the mo­ment in mid-June when the bil­lion­aire of­fi­cially jumped in­to the race, the net­work has covered his cam­paign as if it were a dis­ap­peared Malay­sia Air­lines flight. At Fox News, Rupert Mur­doch was re­portedly feud­ing with chair­man and CEO Ro­ger Ailes over the net­work’s wall-to-wall Trump-track­ing. By con­trast, an­oth­er lead­ing voice of the Right, Glenn Beck’s ra­dio show, de­cided to be­come a Trump-free zone. “I just can’t do an­oth­er show about it,” pro­du­cer and guest host Stu Bur­guiere told listen­ers. 

Oth­er out­lets have tried more cre­at­ive ap­proaches. My former em­ploy­er Moth­er Jones asked a kinder­garten teach­er to of­fer the oth­er GOP con­tenders ad­vice on deal­ing with a “Trump tan­trum.” The Huff­ing­ton Post re­spon­ded to Trump’s cam­paign-as-pub­li­city-stunt with a stunt of its own, an­noun­cing that it would cov­er him un­der the “En­ter­tain­ment” ban­ner, rather than in the polit­ic­al sec­tion. “Trump’s cam­paign is a sideshow,” ed­it­or­i­al dir­ect­or Danny Shea and Wash­ing­ton bur­eau chief Ry­an Grim told their read­ers. “We won’t take the bait. If you are in­ter­ested in what The Don­ald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stor­ies on the Kar­dashi­ans and The Bach­el­or­ette.”

Here at Na­tion­al Journ­al magazine, we chased sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ideas be­fore even­tu­ally set­tling on ar­gu­ably the cra­zi­est of them all: If Trump wants us to take him ser­i­ously as a po­ten­tial next pres­id­ent of the United States, well, then, we would en­deavor to do just that. My task was to find out — if hu­manly pos­sible — what Trump ac­tu­ally had in mind for the pres­id­ency. Who did he plan to listen to on policy, for in­stance, and how would he work with Con­gress? What did he hope to leave as a leg­acy after a term or two in the White House, bey­ond seal­ing up the bor­der as tight as Tup­per­ware? 

(RE­LATED: The Trump Conun­drum)

For all the non­stop cov­er­age his can­did­acy had at­trac­ted in its up­roari­ous first weeks, those kinds of ba­sic ques­tions — ba­sic, at least, for any­one seek­ing the pres­id­ency — had hardly even been asked, much less answered. But surely, we ima­gined, Trump had giv­en them some thought, since he’d been reg­u­larly eye­ing a run for high­er of­fice — pres­id­ent? gov­ernor of New York? — for dec­ades. He had been, in a sense, the dog forever chas­ing the fire truck down the street. Now it seemed ap­pro­pri­ate to ask: What ac­tu­ally hap­pens if the dog catches the truck? 

BE­FORE WE’D FIGURED out which angle to fo­cus on, I set out to se­cure an audi­ence with Trump. I grabbed a name and phone num­ber from a press re­lease on the Trump Or­gan­iz­a­tion’s web­site (“DON­ALD TRUMP UN­VEILS PHIL MICK­EL­SON VILLA AT TRUMP NA­TION­AL DOR­AL”). A wo­man with a gentle voice named Hope Hicks answered. “I’m prob­ably talk­ing to the wrong per­son,” I ex­plained, “but I’m writ­ing about Mr. Trump’s pres­id­en­tial run and was try­ing to reach a spokes­per­son for his cam­paign.” 

“That’s me,” Hicks replied. “I can help you.” 

This seemed odd, but I pressed on and pitched an idea: I wanted to pose a series of straight-up ques­tions to the man about what he plans to do as pres­id­ent. No B.S., no gotchas, no ques­tions about the out­rage of the day: These would be sub­stant­ive quer­ies about Trump’s plans for the pres­id­ency. Hicks said she’d gauge Mr. Trump’s in­terest and get back to me soon. For a brief mo­ment I ima­gined my­self sit­ting across from Trump un­der the now-icon­ic Trump Tower es­cal­at­or, wear­ing my choicest off-the-rack Macy’s suit. I thought maybe I’d buy a Don­ald J. Trump Sig­na­ture Col­lec­tion neck­tie for the oc­ca­sion, if only to break the ice. 

Days passed with no re­sponse. The 24”Š/”Š7 drum­beat of Trump “news” con­tin­ued apace: Sen. John Mc­Cain had angered Trump, which led to Trump in­sult­ing Mc­Cain, which led to Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham call­ing Trump a “jack­ass,” which led to Trump giv­ing out Gra­ham’s per­son­al cell-phone num­ber at a cam­paign rally car­ried live on na­tion­al TV. The af­ter­noon that happened, I reached Hicks again to ask about my in­ter­view re­quest. With Twit­ter, TV, and the blogs all ablaze over the Trump-Gra­ham-Mc­Cain feud, I noted that she was surely be­ing be­sieged with calls and emails. “I feel great,” she told me. “I just woke up from a nap.” 

  Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial hope­ful busi­ness­man Don­ald Trump greets guests gathered for a rally on Ju­ly 25, 2015 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Im­ages)In a sub­sequent call, Hicks said, “The cam­paign won’t be par­ti­cip­at­ing.” Next, I tried to speak to people close to Trump and glean some in­sight that way. My first call was to Mi­chael Co­hen. A lifelong Demo­crat who’s an ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent at the Trump Or­gan­iz­a­tion, Co­hen has been de­scribed as Trump’s “pit bull” and likened to the char­ac­ter Tom Ha­gen, the con­sigliere to mafioso Vito Cor­le­one in the God­fath­er movies. (Asked about the com­par­is­on, Co­hen told ABC News in 2011: “It means that if some­body does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to re­solve it to Mr. Trump’s be­ne­fit. If you do something wrong, I’m go­ing to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not go­ing to let you go un­til I’m fin­ished.” This past Tues­day, Co­hen pub­licly apo­lo­gized for de­fend­ing his boss against a dec­ades-old rape al­leg­a­tion from a di­vorce pro­ceed­ing by claim­ing that leg­ally “you can­not rape your spouse.”) 

(RE­LATED: Trump-Free Scen­ari­os for 2016)

I told Co­hen that I wanted to un­der­stand what Trump would set out to ac­com­plish as com­mand­er-in-chief and how he’d ad­just to the very dif­fer­ent life a pres­id­ent leads as com­pared with, say, a bon vivant busi­ness mogul. Co­hen began to an­swer the lat­ter ques­tion — “He’s gonna have to downs­ize and move to the White House” — then caught him­self and in­sisted that the rest of our con­ver­sa­tion stay off the re­cord. But he told me to send him some ques­tions and he would pass them along to Mr. Trump. 

Spit-balling with my ed­it­ors, we came up with six seem­ingly fool­proof quer­ies, each simple and eas­ily an­swer­able but de­signed to eli­cit something mean­ing­ful about Trump’s plans and am­bi­tions for the of­fice he seeks. For the re­cord, here’s ex­actly what I asked:

“What qual­it­ies would you look for in a vice pres­id­ent?”

“Some people say the cur­rent pres­id­ent has not done a good job of out­reach to Con­gress. How would you build re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers of Con­gress on both sides of the aisle?” 

“Aside from im­mig­ra­tion, if you were to put your name on one piece of do­mest­ic-policy le­gis­la­tion, what would it be?”

“What would be the chal­lenges of ad­apt­ing to the pres­id­en­tial life­style?”

“Who would run your busi­ness em­pire while you are in the White House?”

“Your slo­gan is ‘Make Amer­ica Great Again!’ What era do you think was the greatest in Amer­ic­an his­tory?”

The day I emailed those ques­tions to Co­hen, the cam­paign an­nounced that Trump was trav­el­ing to Laredo, Texas, to eye­ball the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der firsthand. Trump, of course, had caused an in­ter­na­tion­al up­roar when, in his cam­paign rol­lout speech, he claimed Mex­ico was send­ing drug deal­ers and rap­ists over the bor­der. I still wasn’t sure which of my pos­sible angles I was pur­su­ing, but I booked a flight to Laredo any­way and copied the bor­der co­ordin­ates provided by the Trump cam­paign in­to Google Maps. The pin landed in a vast, un­fa­mil­i­ar ex­panse of gray. As I zoomed out, the co­ordin­ates re­vealed them­selves to be slightly off — they had sent me to with­in a few dozen miles of the bor­der between China and My­an­mar. 

(RE­LATED: The Ap­peal of ‘Trump-ism’)

THE VERY NEXT morn­ing, Thursday, Ju­ly 23, I stepped off a plane at Laredo In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port, where the TV mon­it­ors were set to CNN: “TRUMP THREATENS GOP WITH THIRD-PARTY RUN,” the Chyron graph­ics blared. “TRUMP: RNC ‘NOT SUP­PORT­IVE’ OF MY 2016 RUN.” The can­did­ate wasn’t due to land for a few hours, so I grabbed break­fast at the air­port and got to talk­ing with a pair of Brit­ish re­port­ers from ma­jor U.K. pub­lic­a­tions. The young­er one was a dap­per-dress­ing, Los Angeles—based rov­ing news re­port­er; the eld­er, a New York—based ed­it­or, had been in Amer­ica since the early 1990s, when his news­pa­per had dis­patched him across the At­lantic to cov­er Gen­nifer Flowers, the mod­el and former Bill Clin­ton mis­tress. “Are you Trump­ing, too?” he asked as we in­tro­duced ourselves. 

I was curi­ous what the Brits made of this whole Trump phe­nomen­on. “I sit back and chortle,” the young­er, hip­per one said. “It’s George W. Bush all over again, in­nit? He hits a but­ton with people. But do you really want him in charge of the nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al?” 

The League of United Lat­in Amer­ic­an Cit­izens had prom­ised to muster “over a thou­sand pro­test­ers” to con­front Trump at the air­port, ac­cord­ing to The Guard­i­an, but we found a few dozen at most, clustered un­der the shade of a sol­it­ary tree and sep­ar­ated by a park­ing lot from the private ter­min­al where Trump would be land­ing. The Brits ap­plied their sun­block as the pro­test­ers took turns vent­ing about Trump to the swell­ing ranks of re­port­ers and cam­era­men. A guy from Uni­vi­sion staged a mini-demon­stra­tion with six of the pro­test­ers, ask­ing them to chant, “Trump no! Raza sí!” in­to his mi­cro­phone. 

In­side, the private-ter­min­al lobby was crammed with re­port­ers, pho­to­graph­ers, and pro­du­cers, all jost­ling to get out to the tar­mac for Trump’s ar­rival. A lone private-se­cur­ity agent stood in between the me­dia horde and the door­way lead­ing out­side; a ca­co­phony of voices was shout­ing out af­fil­i­ations (“Wash­ing­ton Post! Ex­cél­si­or in Mex­ico!”), beg­ging to be let through. Hope Hicks, the Trump spokes­per­son, sparked a mini-stam­pede when she ap­peared with a box of cam­paign-is­sued press passes — ad­mis­sion tick­ets for the two coach buses the cam­paign had hired to carry re­port­ers to the vari­ous stops on Trump’s sched­ule. 

Ten minutes early, Trump’s $100 mil­lion red-white-and-blue 757-200 plane tax­ied to a gentle stop. A phalanx of Es­cal­ades massed at the base of its stairs. Emer­ging from the rear of the plane, Trump waved and beamed broadly as he des­cen­ded to the tar­mac, look­ing as if the pres­id­ency were already his. His trade­mark bouffant lay hid­den un­der a white base­ball cap bear­ing his cam­paign slo­gan: “MAKE AMER­ICA GREAT AGAIN.” 

(RE­LATED: Poll: Will Don­ald Trump still be a can­did­ate for pres­id­ent by the Iowa caucuses?)

In­side the ter­min­al wait­ing room, the can­did­ate briefly ad­dressed the me­dia scrum. Trump had ori­gin­ally been in­vited to Laredo by the loc­al chapter of the Bor­der Patrol uni­on, but the group had res­cin­ded its in­vit­a­tion at the last minute. The cam­paign had sub­sequently is­sued a state­ment say­ing that Trump was pro­ceed­ing with the bor­der vis­it any­way, des­pite the “great danger” he faced in do­ing so. A re­port­er called out: Did he really think vis­it­ing Laredo and the bor­der was dan­ger­ous? “Well, they say it’s a great danger, but I have to do it,” Trump replied. He later elab­or­ated: “People are say­ing, ‘It’s so dan­ger­ous what you’re do­ing, Mr. Trump, it’s so dan­ger­ous what you’re do­ing.’ I have to do it. I have to do it.” An­oth­er re­port­er tried a dif­fer­ent tack, ask­ing: “Why is it dan­ger­ous?” Trump ig­nored the ques­tion and headed for his Es­cal­ade. We sprin­ted for the buses. 

The mo­tor­cade pulled out onto In­ter­state 35, headed for the bor­der. It was a pro­ces­sion with all the trap­pings of a pres­id­en­tial vis­it: a cluster of blacked-out Es­cal­ades flanked by po­lice cars with lights flash­ing, cops on mo­tor­cycles block­ing traffic at in­ter­sec­tions and on-ramps, and me­dia bring­ing up the rear. Trump’s ori­gin­al plan had him ap­pear­ing along­side Bor­der Patrol agents south of Laredo, about 10 miles from the Rio Grande River. But with the loc­al uni­on hav­ing backed out, the cara­van would make its first stop at Laredo’s World Trade Bridge, a ma­jor port of entry over the Rio Grande for semi-trucks shut­tling goods between the United States and Mex­ico. 

Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Don­ald Trump ges­tures dur­ing a news con­fer­ence near the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, out­side of Laredo, Texas Ju­ly 23, 2015. (RE­U­TERS/Rick Wilk­ing)As Trump toured the check­point, two bus­loads of re­port­ers clustered un­der a small make­shift can­opy pitched in a park­ing lot next to the bor­der cross­ing. We fanned ourselves in the stifling heat, checked in by phone with our ed­it­ors (“It’s just a bit of a bun fight,” I over­heard one of the Brits say­ing. “Every man and his dog here”), and waited to hear what Trump might say.

(RE­LATED: Meet the Spouses of the 2016 Pres­id­en­tial Con­tenders)

WHEN HE’D fin­ished his vis­it to the check­point, Trump was fer­ried to the me­dia tent in a black SUV. In his white hat, blue blazer, khaki pants, and white-leath­er golf shoes, he looked as if he’d just emerged from the club­house at the Mar-a-Lago. After a few in­tro­duct­ory com­ments from Laredo May­or Pete Saenz, the can­did­ate pro­ceeded to de­liv­er per­haps the strangest set of “pre­pared” re­marks of the en­tire 2016 cam­paign (so far). Here was a can­did­ate, mind you, who had dis­tin­guished him­self from the rest of the Re­pub­lic­an pack by savaging un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants and ac­cus­ing the Mex­ic­an gov­ern­ment of send­ing rap­ists and oth­er crim­in­al miscre­ants over the bor­der. And here is Trump’s state­ment at the bor­der, ver­batim and in full:

“Thank you. Well, thank you very much for be­ing here. It’s been an amaz­ing ex­per­i­ence. Mex­ico is boom­ing, ab­so­lutely boom­ing. And Je­sus [Olivares], the city man­ager, and Pete have done an amaz­ing job right here. But a lot of what’s hap­pen­ing here is be­cause of the fact that Mex­ico is do­ing so well. Just do­ing bey­ond what any­body ever thought. And I don’t know if that’s good for the United States, but it’s good for Mex­ico. Any­body have any ques­tions?”

I peered around the tent. No one knew quite how to re­act. Noth­ing about the state­ment com­puted at all: Trump had come to the bor­der to praise Mex­ico? Had the weath­er got­ten to him? Had he suc­cumbed to heat­stroke? Had we?

The en­su­ing ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion was no less sur­real. Re­port­ers tried hard to ex­tract something of sub­stance, pep­per­ing Trump with ques­tions about his views on im­mig­ra­tion and im­mig­rants and bor­der se­cur­ity, and what ex­actly he pro­posed to do about any of it. It was fu­tile at best, in­furi­at­ing at worst. To wit: 

Re­port­er: “What do you say to the people I’ve spoken to this morn­ing in Laredo who called you a ra­cist?”

Trump: “We just landed and there were a lot of people at the air­port, and they were all wav­ing Amer­ic­an flags, and they were all in fa­vor of Trump and what I’m do­ing. Vir­tu­ally every­one that we saw, there was such a great, warm — I was ac­tu­ally sur­prised — but there was such great warmth at the air­port with all of those people that were there. So we’re very, very honored.”

Re­port­er: “There were plenty chant­ing against you.”

Trump: “They were chant­ing for me.”

Re­port­er: “They were chant­ing against you.”

Trump: “I didn’t see that.”

With grow­ing des­per­a­tion, the re­port­ers turned to policy ques­tions:

Re­port­er: “What would you ac­tu­ally do to change the il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion?” 

Trump: “Well, the one thing you have to do, and as Je­sus was say­ing and as the may­or was say­ing, there is a huge prob­lem with the il­leg­als com­ing through. And in this sec­tion, it’s a prob­lem; in some sec­tions, it’s a massive prob­lem. And you have to cre­ate, you have to make the people that come in, they have to be leg­al. Very simple.” 

Re­port­er: “What would you do with the 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who are already here?”

Trump: “The first thing we have to do is strengthen our bor­ders, and after that, we’re gonna have plenty of time to talk about it.”

After just ten minutes un­der the tent, Trump thanked us, turned on his white-leath­er heel, climbed back in­to an Es­cal­ade, and sailed away to the next stop on his ma­gic­al bor­der tour. 

The fi­nal event was a brief ad­dress to a few dozen Lare­doans at a loc­al re­cep­tion hall. Flanked on both sides by re­fri­ger­at­or-sized se­cur­ity guards in tie­less dark suits and earpieces, Trump ex­plained why he’d come to Laredo — sort of: “This is about you, not about me,” he said. “I heard you were here and I wanted to come.” He sang the praises of the in­trep­id re­port­ers who had braved the dangers of Laredo to tell the world about Trump’s day on the bor­der. “The press has been amaz­ing,” he said. “I really ap­pre­ci­ate it. The turnout of press has been in­cred­ible.” 

Mo­ments later, he was back to har­anguing the me­dia, after MS­N­BC host José Díaz-Bal­art shouted out a ques­tion about Trump’s “rap­ists” com­ment. “You know what, that’s a typ­ic­al case of the press with mis­in­ter­pret­a­tion,” Trump said. The Lare­doans roared their ap­prov­al; here was the guy they’d come to see! Díaz-Bal­art tried to ask his ques­tion again, but the can­did­ate cut him off. “No, you’re fin­ished,” he said, to an­oth­er round of ap­plause. 

Trump was soon fin­ished as well. As his SUV pulled out of the re­cep­tion-hall park­ing lot, he lowered his win­dow and waved to the on­look­ers. A few people rushed the car for high fives and hand­shakes. Trump tri­umphant. 

Soon we were back where we’d star­ted, at the Laredo air­port. Trump greeted the re­port­ers and seemed will­ing to take more ques­tions, but when he was asked about Rupert Mur­doch call­ing him “em­bar­rass­ing,” he said a quick thank you to us all and was gone. Less than four hours after he’d des­cen­ded on Laredo, Trump was headed home to New York — leav­ing a bunch of dazed-look­ing journ­al­ists be­hind to shake their heads and won­der: What the hell am I sup­posed to re­port about that

I FEEL DIRTY,” I told the Brits as we headed back to the nonprivate part of the Laredo air­port. Used. Chewed up. I couldn’t help think­ing about how my tweets and pho­tos — my mere pres­ence in Laredo — had helped to feed the in­sa­ti­able hun­ger for at­ten­tion and con­tro­versy that keeps Trump in the news. Or how, in re­turn, he’d giv­en me — us — ab­so­lutely noth­ing bey­ond a few hours of cable-news-style en­ter­tain­ment. 

I de­cided to spend the night in the ter­min­al be­fore catch­ing an early con­nec­tion the next morn­ing. The young­er Brit and I ordered din­ner at the air­port res­taur­ant. He ate while ra­cing to file his story be­fore his 5:30 p.m. de­par­ture, and I picked at my brisket and eaves­dropped on the con­ver­sa­tion between him and his ed­it­or. It was a telling ex­change. Each time the Brit tried to ex­plain how use­less Trump’s vis­it had been, how little had been said or done, a long pause fol­lowed. No, I could al­most hear the ed­it­or say­ing, we need some news. “I guess he did say that Lati­nos ac­tu­ally like him,” the Brit fi­nally con­ceded. “Sup­pose we could go with that.” A story de­scrib­ing what had ac­tu­ally gone on — “Trump briefly vis­its bor­der, says noth­ing” — was ap­par­ently un­think­able. 

It seems there were many sim­il­ar re­port­er-ed­it­or con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing that af­ter­noon. After the Brit de­par­ted, I settled for the night in a chair across from the tick­et coun­ters and began scan­ning the vari­ous ac­counts of the day’s events. I ex­pec­ted to see stor­ies con­firm­ing, per­haps even lament­ing, the ab­surdity and fu­til­ity of it all. In­stead, what I read floored me. We’d all gone to the same events, heard the same re­marks, yet the stor­ies ten­ded to de­scribe Trump’s vis­it in the same terms as a run-of-the-mill pres­id­en­tial cam­paign event — as if it had been just the kind of per­form­ance that a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walk­er, say, might have giv­en if they’d sched­uled a day at the bor­der. In the clichés and tropes so com­mon to polit­ic­al journ­al­ism, Trump was be­ing de­scribed by per­fectly re­spect­able journ­al­ists as “de­fi­ant” and show­ing “flour­ishes of bravado”; his trip was a “whirl­wind” that led to “yet an­oth­er day of the head­line dom­in­ance that has made him the sum­mer’s sen­sa­tion.” (The prize for the gush­ing-est sen­tence about Trump’s bor­der tour goes to the NPR re­port­er who, on the next day’s Morn­ing Edi­tion, de­scribed Trump’s jet as a “sump­tu­ous, red-white-and-blue Boe­ing 757 with his name in huge gold let­ters that in lower­case mean ‘to sur­pass,’ ‘to outdo.‘“Š” Oy.)

Polit­ic­al re­port­ers are pro­grammed to cov­er pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates in a ri­gidly spe­cif­ic way. Present them with a purple-state gov­ernor or an am­bi­tious young U.S. sen­at­or, and they can per­form ad­mir­ably. Drop in an ab­er­ra­tion like Don­ald Trump — a sort of pseudo-can­did­ate who de­fi­antly knows noth­ing about the very is­sues he’s run­ning on and who openly mocks the ac­cep­ted cus­toms and niceties of Amer­ic­an cam­paigns — and they don’t know how to re­act, how to re­cal­ib­rate. To be fair, some did at­tempt to con­vey the bizarre empti­ness of Trump’s rhet­or­ic and the point­less­ness of his vis­it, not­ing in journo-speak that he’d said “vir­tu­ally noth­ing” or that he’d “ducked” ques­tions about fix­ing the na­tion’s im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem. 

Pop­u­list sup­port isn’t what fuels Trump. He mostly feeds off of us, the me­dia. And we ob­lige him.

But if it was head­lines Trump wanted — and you know it was — pretty much every­one com­plied. The New York Times: “Don­ald Trump, at Mex­ic­an Bor­der, Claims Close Ties to His­pan­ics.” Los Angeles Times: “At Texas-Mex­ico bor­der, Don­ald Trump cites ‘great danger’ from im­mig­rants.” The Dal­las Morn­ing News: “Trump does Texas: At bor­der, he blasts naysay­ers, pre­dicts vic­tory.” The cam­paign could hardly have writ­ten them bet­ter it­self.

Mean­while, I still had a story to write — with the lux­ury of far more time than the daily re­port­ers but without a single sub­stant­ive word from Trump, or his col­leagues, to put in the thing. The next morn­ing, on a stop­over as I flew back east, I called Mi­chael Co­hen to ask him about the status of the ques­tions I’d sent — the ones about Trump’s do­mest­ic-policy pri­or­it­ies and his ideas for im­prov­ing re­la­tions between the White House and Con­gress. Co­hen scoffed. “These are really kinda silly ques­tions,” he told me. “Where’s Melania gonna put her ward­robe? Who really cares?” Nev­er mind that I hadn’t asked any­thing about Trump’s wife or her clothes. 

Co­hen told me to call Hope Hicks, she of the mid­day nap, and whittle my ques­tions down to one or two. Back in Wash­ing­ton, I did just that. She took my call, put me on hold, brought me back on the line, then said she had to take an­oth­er im­port­ant call. “I’ll call you right back,” she said. I nev­er heard from her again. 

So this is my story, such as it is. I have zero to re­port about Trump’s plans for ac­tu­ally be­ing pres­id­ent — ex­cept that, from all avail­able evid­ence, he hasn’t giv­en it a mo­ment’s thought. My brief ad­ven­ture in Trump­ing, in fact, left me con­vinced that the whole point of this cam­paign — the sum total of all the “there” that is there — is the spec­tacle it­self, the loud, fast-mo­tion visu­al feast provided by an in­sa­ti­able yet boxed-in press corps track­ing the man’s every odd move and un­ac­count­able ut­ter­ance. 

Be­com­ing pres­id­ent of the United States is, for Trump, be­side the point. Sure, he’s ahead in the polls, some­times by double di­gits, but at this early date, those num­bers are ab­stract and al­most en­tirely mean­ing­less — a fact that Trump prob­ably un­der­stands quite well. There’s no deny­ing that his pug­na­cious at­ti­tude touches something raw in a swath of the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate; however, I’d ar­gue that pop­u­list sup­port isn’t what fuels Trump, either. He mostly feeds off of us, the me­dia. And we ob­lige him. Trump didn’t fly to Texas for the Lare­doans; he didn’t go to the bor­der to show he could be “pres­id­en­tial.” He flew to Texas for me and the Brits and CNN. 

Think of it this way: If Trump’s poll num­bers were to com­pletely bot­tom out next week, but the press was still fol­low­ing his every move, would he con­tin­ue to cam­paign? I’d wager that he would keep go­ing, polls be damned, with the same glee­ful vig­or. But if the op­pos­ite happened — soar­ing poll num­bers and no round-the-clock press? I think it’s a safe bet that Trump would pack it in and move on to his next “GREAT” thing. Hon­estly: If a Trump rally in Ce­dar Rap­ids or Spartan­burg goes un­covered live by CNN or Fox, did it really even hap­pen?

The me­dia could quit him. The me­dia should quit him. And that — I feel in­cred­ibly for­tu­nate to say these words — is the last I’ll write on the sub­ject. 

Cor­rec­tion: This story ori­gin­ally quoted a Brit­ish journ­al­ist re­fer­ring to Trump’s bor­der press con­fer­ence as a “bum fight.” The term is ac­tu­ally “bun fight.”

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