Donald Trump distanced himself from a top aide’s vicious threats to a reporter this week, but the widely-publicized tirade actually mirrors the real estate mogul’s own approach to the press: a pattern of wooing and engagement that can turn nasty and personal.
Eventually, the conversation took a dark turn. According to the Daily Beast, Cohen told the writer: “So I’m warning you, tread very f–king lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f–king disgusting. You understand me?”
This one-two punch style of media engagement, which mixes unparalleled access with biting criticism that enthuses the GOP base, has become increasingly familiar to journalists who cover Trump’s campaign.
When Trump called me up a week before his announcement, I hadn’t asked for an interview (I’d reached out for comment about reports that a former key aide of Rick Santorum had joined up with Trump) but he cheerfully spent a few minutes on the phone discussing his presidential bid. At the time he was friendly and charming.
His tone was very different when he told NBC News reporter Katy Tur: “Don’t be naïve. You’re a very naïve person,” when she cited data that contradicted his position on immigration. “I mean, I don’t know if you’re going to put this on television, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Trump’s gruff, attack-dog style that has endeared him to Republican voters and it has helped guarantee media coverage that works for his benefit. Conservatives have long derided the media as too liberal and when Trump echoes that sentiment, he’s reinforcing the perception that’s he’s an outsider who doesn’t care what other people think. Voters say that’s key to his appeal.
It also helps Trump dodge his most controversial comments. Days after the real estate mogul said McCain wasn’t a war hero because he’d been captured, and then immediately backtracking, supporters told msnbc that the media had distorted his views.
“That’s why I want to hear what he says, because he might have just been talking about the situations with veterans,” Helene Humber said before his speech in Bluffton, South Carolina days after the McCain incident, in which Trump chastised the media for not speaking positively of him enough.
Boasting of the crowd that had come out to see him that day, Trump said, “The press never reports that! They never report that, but that’s OK. I was going to bring the press, have them sit up here so they see.”
And then there’s the Daily Beast story that sparked Cohen’s anger: that Trump’s ex-wife Ivana had accused him of rape; she has said the story is without merit; in a previous statement she said she felt “violated” because she was not treated with the usual love and tenderness, but that she didn’t mean to use the word literally or criminally.
When Trump first spoke out against Cohen’s remark that a man can’t rape his wife – which Cohen has apologized for – Trump also cast doubt on the reporter’s integrity and trashed the outlet, creating a scapegoat of sorts.
“I didn’t know that he said it – who knows what he said cause frankly I’m not sure that they reported accurately anyway. But assuming he said it, no I disagree with that,” Trump said, adding that he didn’t plan to fire Cohen. “He was very angry because they issued a false story to get publicity for themselves and to try and make themselves relevant, which they’re not.”
You’ve got to have a thick skin to cover “The Donald.”
When asked about a recent poll that didn’t rank him at the top, Trump lashed out at CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“I am leading across the board, and then you hit me with a poll that I’ve never seen this before,” Trump said. “All I know is I have a very big group of support, and I think one of the reasons is the people don’t trust you, and the people don’t trust the media. And I understand why.”
When the Huffington Post announced they’d tag stories about Trump as entertainment – not politics – he released a lengthy statement decrying the Huffington Post as “unimportant” and saying he has “never been a fan of Arianna Huffington or the money-losing Huffington Post.”
When Bloomberg valued his wealth far below his own estimates, he declared the outlet’s namesake founder Michael Bloomberg jealous and the report a “disgrace.”
“Now maybe Michael told them to do it,” he told the Daily Mail. “Maybe he did, because he always wanted to do what I’m doing.”
And while he publicly savages the media, Trump also spends a significant amount of time talking to us – he calls into news shows on a seemingly-daily basis, spends significant time doing interviews with reporters from a variety of networks, and invites the press to nearly all his events.
While Hillary Clinton ropes off reporters to keep them at bay, Trump embraces them and enjoys the spoils of coverage: according to the Associated Press, Trump was discussed by news media more than any other candidate in the weeks following his announcement.
The coverage arguably fuels his poll numbers too: this early in the election cycle, poll numbers have a lot to do with who candidates are hearing about in the news. As Rick Santorum taught us in 2012, nothing fuels a winning campaign like, well, winning itself: after the Pennsylvania senator squeaked out a victory in the Iowa caucuses, his poll numbers shot up.
Asked what could stop him from getting the Republican nomination during an interview on “Morning Joe,” Trump offered up an unusually aware answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just chugging along. You know, maybe people will get tired of me. “
As always, though, there’s an easy scapegoat for that, too.
“Who knows? This press is crazy.”