Some sort of problem rocking your presidency? Simple – create a distraction! Adam Gabbatt explores Donald Trump’s apparent skills at changing the news
By Adam Gabbatt / The Guardian / Tuesday 21 March 2017 04.00 EDT
In the first two months of his presidency Donald Trump has proved himself to be – if nothing else – a master of distraction.
His critics say that Trump’s chaotic time in charge has followed a now familiar pattern. Bad – or embarrassing – news emerges, then Trump either blurts out some tweets, or makes spurious claims elsewhere, in an attempt to change the narrative.
Here are some of the president’s finest obfuscations.
Makes dubious claims about inauguration attendance, distracts with even more dubious claims about voter fraud
The crowd at the inauguration of Donald Trump and voters in the 2016 presidential election. Composite: EPA & Getty Images
Trump spent the first couple of days of his presidency obsessing over the number of people who attended his inauguration. On Saturday 21 January, his first full day in office, he used a speech at the CIA’s headquarters to claim between 1 million and 1.5 million people had turned out, which contradicted photos showing large empty spaces on the National Mall.
The next day, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated Trump’s claims, telling the media that the new president had drawn “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”. Spicer’s statement was treated with suspicion by the media, particularly when photographs of the crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration were compared – favorably – with those for Trump.
The Trump administration’s claims, and the evidence offered against them, overshadowed any actual work the president had been undertaking during his first days in office. In addition, the row probably served as a blow to the ego of the president – who is known to take an interest in his popularity.
Soon the conversation shifted, however, when Trump falsely claimed that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election – costing him the popular vote. The president tweeted that he “will be asking for a major investigation” into what he perceived as voter fraud.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle expressed scepticism over Trump’s claims, and little has been heard of the investigation since. On 15 March Politico reportedthat prominent Republicans were “breathing a sigh of relief” that Trump had not pursued his pledge to investigate.
Botches executive order on immigration, Australian PM takes a hit
Protesters over the travel ban and the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Composite: AP & Rex Features
Trump issued an executive order on Friday 27 January that indefinitely barred refugees from entering the US and prevented people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. The order sparked chaos across the US as people were detained at airports. Dozens of lawsuits were filed against the order, which was criticized by Democrats, Republicans and human rights organizations.
Whether it was deliberate or not, on 2 February a new controversy emerged to distract from the botched executive order.
The Washington Post reported that Trump had hung up on the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, 25 minutes into a call that was meant to last an hour. Trump had been upset when Turnbull brought up a pre-existing agreement between the US and Australia that said the US would accept 1,250 refugees, the Post wrote.
It drew attention away from the immigration ban controversy and the image of the tough-talking president berating the leader of a foreign country is likely to have gone down well with Trump’s base. Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that there was speculation in Canberra that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had leaked the call.
Michael Flynn resigns after scandal, Trump announces campaign-style rally
Michael Flynn and a Trump rally in Melbourne, Florida, on 18 February 2017. Composite: Getty Images
On Monday 13 February Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s national security adviser. A series of leaks divulged that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington, then had lied about having those discussions – including lying to Vice-President Mike Pence.
This was not good for Trump, whose ties to Russia were – and still are – under scrutiny.
Trump’s response – less than a month after having taken office – was to organize a campaign-style rally in a friendly location: Melbourne, Florida. The president tweeted about it on Wednesday 15 February, and by Saturday was being cheered by 9,000 people.
Responds to claims administration is in chaos with chaotic 77-minute press conference
Andrew Puzder and journalists at the Trump press conference at the White House on 16 February 2016. Composite: AP & Getty Images
It never rains but it pours. The same day Trump was organizing that Florida rally, a new problem emerged when Andrew Puzder, the president’s choice to run the Department of Labor, abruptly withdrew his nomination for the post. On the same day Trump casually dropped a decade-long US commitment to establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The developments – along with the earlier Flynn resignation – prompted many to wonder about the state of Trump’s administration.
The solution: Trump held a sprawling, freeform press conference. As the Guardian’s Tom McCarthy wrote: “Trump touted his work as president, denied ties to Russia, attacked the media, claimed to be popular and obsessed over Hillary Clinton.”
The bizarre nature of the presser – at one point Trump insisted he was “not ranting and raving”, and at another he claimed his administration is “running like a fine-tuned machine” – kept columnists and talking heads busy for days.
Jeff Sessions misleads Senate committee, Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower
Jeff Sessions and ‘wiretapping at Trump Tower’. Composite: AP & Getty Images
After a speech to Congress on Tuesday 28 February that was hailed – by some – as quite good, Trump was on the up. But 24 hours later it emerged that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had met the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, twice during the presidential campaign.
This was a problem, because Sessions had not disclosed the conversations when asked, under oath, about contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia during his Senate confirmation hearing.
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There was further embarrassment for Trump on Thursday 2 March, when Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That recusal came after Trump had said Sessions should not recuse himself.
But no matter, because two days later Trump came out with possibly his biggest distraction yet. On the morning of Saturday 4 March the president sent out tweets claiming Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
Trump offered no evidence at the time, and has offered no evidence since, but the furore obscured, at least temporarily, the questions about connections between his campaign and Russia.