IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The media keeps giving Trump what he wants

Trump’s superpower is knowing when he can say things his opponents and adversaries won’t be able to correct.
Image: Then-President Donald Trump at a rally in Atlanta in 2020.
Then-President Donald Trump at a rally in Atlanta in 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images file

One thing we’ve learned from Donald Trump’s false assertion this month that he would be arrested last week is that he still has the ability, even as a former president, to hijack the news cycle and shape it around his chosen narrative. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out several times before with Trump and one we should prepare for in the coming days as we wait to see whether Trump will be indicted by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

When Trump knows there is an information vacuum, he gets his story out first, whether it is true or not.

As someone who studies and teaches about information warfare, I have analyzed the many ways Trump exploits journalistic and institutional norms to shape narratives in his favor. Trump is a master of exploiting what I refer to as information asymmetry — the space in which events are anticipated but can’t yet be officially confirmed, such as what we’re experiencing in the current moment.

And that’s when he strikes. When Trump knows there is an information vacuum, he gets his story out first, whether it’s true or not, giving him “first mover advantage.” In particular, we should keep in mind that the time between when the DA’s office negotiates a surrender with Trump’s lawyers and when charges are unsealed — which might take a couple of days — is when Trump would have the most latitude to shape the perceptions and reactions of his supporters.

Because once his version is out there, reining it in or correcting it becomes very difficult.

We saw how this can play out in Trump’s favor in the Russia investigation. At the conclusion of his investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller prepared a lengthy report, outlining both numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia and 10 potential counts of obstruction of justice. The report, however, was confidential and submitted to then-Attorney General William Barr, who had the power to release it; Mueller didn’t have the freedom to speak publicly. Barr held the report and instead released a “summary” falsely stating that it found no evidence of “collusion” (that word was deliberately avoided by the special counsel, who found no evidence of criminal conspiracy, which is a higher bar) and incorrectly claimed that Mueller found that Trump’s actions didn’t amount to obstruction of justice.

By the time the report was released three weeks later, news coverage and Trump’s own tweets claiming “total EXONERATION!” had already taken hold in the public’s mind. (An internal memo which a judge ordered to be released this past year reveals that attorneys working under Barr feared that if people read Mueller’s report first, they may believe that criminal charges were warranted.) Trump wasn’t charged with obstruction.

Trump repeated this play after the 2020 election. Knowing that because of the high volume of mail-in ballots because of Covid and that because some states, like Pennsylvania, didn’t allow votes to be counted before Election Day, Trump understood it could take days for a winner to be declared. The day before the election, he telegraphed his strategy, saying he would declare victory on election night if he was “ahead.” Indeed, on Nov. 4, the day after the election and three days before Joe Biden was officially called as the winner, Trump declared victory.

In fact, testimony from the House Jan. 6 committee revealed that Trump planned as far back as July to say he had won the election no matter what. The committee aired a video of Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon stating: “What Trump is going to do is declare victory … but that doesn’t mean he is the winner. He’s just going to say he is the winner.” Trump’s advance narrative helped set the stage for his claim that the election was rigged and for the events leading to the Jan. 6. insurrection.

Testimony from the Jan. 6 committee revealed that Trump planned as far back as July to say he had won the election no matter what.

We saw Trump use this strategy yet again after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago for classified documents. Trump had been in communication with the Justice Department for months over the return of missing documents that had been flagged by the National Archives, unbeknownst to the public. Trump knew prosecutors couldn’t comment on ongoing investigations. Therefore, when he claimed Aug. 8 that the FBI conducted a “raid” of his home, “broke into” his safe and even planted evidence, he understood that his version of events wouldn’t be contradicted. Trump painted the FBI as a rogue agency that had engaged in an unjustified search, rhetoric that inspired one of his followers to attack the FBI’s Cincinnati office with a nail gun.

This same tactic has been employed in the last week. Knowing that prosecutors speak only through their filings and that grand jury proceedings are secret, Trump used the absence of information to claim he would be indicted in a matter of days, using the opportunity to rally his followers to “protest” and “take our nation back.” His claim led Republicans in Congress to demand that DA Bragg come testify in before Congress. After one of his lawyers, Robert Costello, testified on Trump’s behalf last week, Trump claimed in his speech in Waco, Texas, over the weekend that the DA had “already dropped the case.” All of these efforts are intended to put pressure on Bragg and his office, through violence, political pressure and false expectations, so he can delegitimize any charges if or when they come.

Trump’s superpower is knowing when he can say things his opponents and adversaries won’t be able to correct. The key to avoid falling into Trump’s trap is to identify the information vacuums Trump seeks to exploit and “prebunk” the narratives he might try to advance in them.

It’s possible that, because of the immense logistics an arrest and arraignment of Trump would entail, his indictment would be under seal until he travels from Florida to surrender himself in New York.

Should this happen, the media and the public should remember that before they react immediately to whatever he says in that time frame — especially knowing such a situation might make Trump more desperate than he has ever been. It would potentially be his last chance to manipulate the public narrative, media coverage and his supporters’ reactions in his favor. Because if charges are filed, he’ll have to answer to facts and evidence, which are his kryptonite. Perhaps that is what scares him the most.