It’s quiet at the White House. Is it … too quiet?
Trump-watching over the last few days, since about 1 p.m. on Friday, has been a strange experience. There are things happening, and even some big ones; the parade of occasional anonymously sourced West Wing stories continue. There are certain risks to writing this on a Wednesday afternoon, but this might be, as Josh Barro says, the first slow news week of the administration. Reporters, conditioned over the last year and change to a pace of news that rivals Mo Farah, are a little freaked out.
As if to underscore the point, a White House release Wednesday morning noted that the president had signed into law “the ‘Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act,’ which prohibits the use of Federal funds for the costs of painting portraits of officers and employees of the Federal Government.”
The period of relative quiet began with a classic Trumpian outburst. On Friday, the president found himself compelled to sign an omnibus budget bill that he hated—not unjustifiably, since it was a repudiation of his administration’s budget and many of his own priorities, even if his method of expressing that discontent was ineffective. Since then, he has gone quiet.
For the public, the most notable expression has been that the president’s Twitter feed has been, while not silent, subdued. Wednesday morning he took issue with former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’s Tuesday column calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment, but Trump’s defense of the amendment is unsurprising. He issued some relatively anodyne comments about negotiations with North Korea and China. So it’s been for several days. Even when the president goes to play the hits, he seems to be going through the motions rather than offering anything truly surprising:
So much Fake News. Never been more voluminous or more inaccurate. But through it all, our country is doing great!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 26, 2018
On Sunday and Monday, Trump tweeted that he wanted to “Build WALL through M!,” which some readers took to mean “Mexico,” which the president has long said he wanted to pay for a wall on the border. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that in fact the “M” stands for “military,” and the president wants funding to come through the Pentagon budget. (Such a move would likely provoke legal challenges, since Congress allocates money to the Defense Department for specific tasks, not as a lump sum to be distributed.) Yet Trump has not made any other public statement, and his choice to twice tweet the cryptic “M” rather than spell it out remains unexplained.
It is not only on Twitter that Trump is quiet. Trump’s schedule has been unusually light since the hastily convened session Friday where he railed against the spending bill. He hosted a credential ceremony for ambassadors, attended a private fundraiser in suburban Virginia, and has met with the vice president, treasury secretary, and defense secretary. Beyond that, there’s not much listed. As Christina Wilkie has pointed out, the schedule doesn’t list everything a president does, but the comparison with Trump’s usual routine is instructive. Furthermore, although the president often makes remarks to pool reporters during the day, there have been no events open to press, and weekend pool reporters at Mar-a-Lago barely set eyes on Trump.
This offers a nice case study in just how much the president himself drives the news cycle, because it is not as if there are not things that could be bigger news stories. There is Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing, which appears to be part of significant movement on the North Korean nuclear crisis. There is the apparently imminent firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. There is a new bilateral trade deal with South Korea, which Trump did tweet about. Most of all, there is the ongoing story of Stormy Daniels, the porn actress and stripper who has alleged an affair with Trump in 2006, and gave a major interview to 60 Minutes that aired over the weekend. Yet Trump has sat these out, for the most part.
Of these, the Daniels story has managed to mushroom, even without Trump’s help. (The White House won’t even say whether the president watched the interview.) His silence here is especially surprising, because Trump is typically so eager to pick fights. He has been willing to scrap with major media organizations, Cabinet secretaries, his then-national-security adviser, the special counsel who could severely damage his presidency, and Kim, a nuclear-armed adversary. Yet anyone expecting a display of Stormy und drang has been confounded: Faced with Daniels, as well as with Karen McDougal, another woman who alleges a Trump affair, the president has clammed up.
It’s hard to find a reason for this. There are legal and political reasons why it might be wise for the president to keep quiet, but that has hardly swayed him in the past. Trump has defied political conventional wisdom repeatedly, and he’s done things that practically no lawyer would recommend, like quizzing people who have spoken to Special Counsel Robert Mueller about their interviews—especially dangerous given that Trump is already under scrutiny for possible obstruction of justice. Indeed, the president has at times shown a perverse tendency to do something simply because he’s been told not to.
Some people have paid painstaking attention to Trump’s relationship with First Lady Melania Trump, noting when, for example, they travel separately, or her decision to stay at Mar-a-Lago this week. Perhaps domestic considerations play a role, though Trump has not shied away from salacious remarks about women in the past, and that still wouldn’t explain why he would be reluctant to offer a public denial.
The silence has also led to speculation that something nefarious might be afoot. Such worries were fed by a statement Tuesday from Senators Thom Tillis, a Republican, and Chris Coons, a Democrat, who called for Mueller to be allowed to conduct his investigation “without impediment.” The two men previously introduced a bill to legally protect Mueller’s job, though it has languished. The sudden appearance of the statement, with no obvious proximate cause, was enough to spawn worries that what’s happening now is the calm before a much greater controversy. There’s no way to rule that out, of course, and FBI Director James Comey’s firing took the nation by surprise. The general pattern of the Trump administration, however, would suggest that such a move couldn’t happen without leaking it to the press first. It is usually only when Trump makes a spur-of-the-moment decision, catching even advisers off guard, that there’s no advance notice.
In addition to being good for the blood pressure and sleep of political journalists, the slow news week seems to be treating the president fairly well. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found that while most voters found Daniels’s story credible, Trump’s approval rating remained stable.
Periods of Trump quiet tend to correspond with calmer moments in the news cycle, including when he’s traveling overseas. (This isn’t to say that he can’t cause chaos while traveling; it’s simply that the minute-by-minute news is slower.) What’s peculiar is that the current dry spell has occurred not when Trump is physically removed from the vices that tend to sow chaos—his Twitter account, executive time and television, and the chance to call old friends and vent on the phone—but during a period when he is in the White House as usual.
The continued presence of those temptations, and everything that Trump has demonstrated about his instincts, means that the brief respite is unlikely to last. Then again, if someone had said that a week that followed the hiring of John Bolton as national-security adviser, Daniels’s 60 Minutes appearance, and a mysterious train ride from Pyongyang to Beijing would be a quiet one, would anyone have believed that?