I’ll say one thing for Donald Trump. He can take any problem and push it off the front page. As with a child, it doesn’t have to last long, just enough time to get a respite from one scandal by shifting attention to another.
Take the summit. Back in March, as a "60 Minutes" interview of Stormy Daniels was scheduled to run in a week and was Topic A in Washington, Trump leapt at the flimsiest of chances to negotiate with Kim, abruptly switching his strategy of demeaning Kim Jong Un to sitting down with him on the basis of almost nothing. The South Korean envoy Chung Eui-yong had simply told Trump that Kim was eager to meet and it was due, Chung said, to Trump’s “leadership and maximum pressure policy.”
Or naievete. Trump either considered the invitation a breakthrough due to his willful ignorance of history or a welcome opportunity to move the conversation away from his lawyer trying to enjoin CBS from airing the Daniels’ story, or both. A summit could permit him to so dazzle the world with his peacemaking skills, it could dominate coverage for weeks, drowning out two more women lawyer Michael Avenatti says are in the wings ready to offer proof he paid them off.
One day the murderous dictator was Little Rocket Man with a small button; the next, a leader worthy of sitting across from the most powerful man in the world. There was nothing in writing but Trump nonetheless made a pop-up appearance in the press room to tease that he would have a really big announcement soon.
The Insta-Summit was so sudden his national security staff was caught off guard, yammering platitudes about it. Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, about to be fired, was in Djibouti, having been banished to a tour of “s-hole” countries in Africa. He pretended a meeting was fine but just this week, Tillerson warned of leaders who push “alternative realities” when “America's future [should] be fact-based — not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises."
Trump’s wishful thinking got wall-to-wall coverage, his gauge of success. The summit not only cut into time spent on the porn star, but also time for other scandals, like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt living large in a lobbyist’s townhouse, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin making up an award to justify an all-expense paid European vacation with his wife, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s $139,000 door, and everyone, it seemed, flying everywhere like royalty. In the glow, Trump came to believe he could bring peace to Asia before Jared Kushner brought it to the Middle East. Maybe he would win a Nobel Peace Prize. “People were saying so,” he claimed at a recent campaign rally. That would show Obama.
But then reality set in. With June 12 in Singapore looming large, diplomats had to get down to brass tacks. They could no longer pretend Trump had gotten anything substantive in exchange for Kim getting a U.S. president to grant him an audience. Kim reiterated his position that denuclearization was not on the table. The White House pretended this was "fully expected.” Trump said only, “We’ll see what happens.”
In the meantime, Kim’s threat wasn’t without a silver lining.
At Wednesday morning’s pool spray, it dominated the questions. Rather than being bombarded with questions about a $500 million loan to a Trump-branded golf course in Indonesia after Trump said sanctioned Chinese phone company ZTE should be “put back in business fast,” he was asked about Kim’s reversal — not a welcome turn of events but less toxic than putative bribery.
In another substitution of one story for another, Trump turned uproar over a hateful insult out of the White House aimed at Sen. John McCain into one about an investigation into “the traitors and cowards” who leaked it. Aide Kelly Sadler told the communications team not to bother coming up with a strategy to counter McCain’s opposition to the nominee to head the CIA because “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.”
Why wouldn’t Sadler think she could dance on the deathbed of a Navy pilot tortured in a Vietnamese prison for five years with impunity when Trump called McCain a chump for getting himself captured while he, Trump, was enduring his own Vietnam protecting himself from STD’s? Neither has publicly apologized.
Everyone thought that would change at a lunch Tuesday with Senate Republicans, five of whom had already castigated Trump. McCain could go rogue, but he is one of them, admired by most, beloved by many. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had just returned from a long trip to Sedona, Arizona to see him one last time. But by the time Trump sat down to lunch, McCain had become a sidebar to Trump’s hunt for the real leaker, or leakers, with security officials with high-tech gear searching staffers for forbidden cell phones. Though senators found time to lavish Trump with praise and ask him not to jeopardize the mid-terms with a government shutdown, not one brought up McCain.
The constant churn of Trump malfeasance means the press and public are susceptible to flitting from one story to another — self-dealing on Trump properties, massive firings, the undrained swamp, Mueller, which Gold Star family is unworthy, who's being cruel to John McCain — whichever is less embarrassing any one day. We're now waiting for the next episodes of Trumplandia where the president comes back to prove himself master of the art of the deal, North Korea style, and when he finds and fires the leaker, in an all caps tweet, saving him from apologizing and firing the soulless person who’s always been in plain sight.
These are the stories of Trump and he's sticking with them. Too much of the time, so are we.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.