Donald Trump is testing the media. And the country.
On Tuesday, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee had the kind of day that, for any other candidate, would be a political nightmare. It started with a press conference in which Trump made misleading statements, attacked reporters for applying relatively routine levels of journalistic scrutiny, and questioned the impartiality of a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University.
The day ended with newly unsealed documents from that same lawsuit that revealed credible, if contested, allegations of shady business practices at the for-profit adult education program. The trove included a Trump University “playbook” that taught salespeople how to coax registration fees, which could run into the tens of thousands of dollars, from those desperate to get rich. One sales manager called the enterprise “a fraudulent scheme” that “preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”
That’s explosive stuff. But will Tuesday’s news still be a topic of discussion a few days from now? Will it be the subject of endless analysis and meta-analysis, and become a permanent part of the campaign narrative, the way it would be for almost any other presidential candidate -- especially the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton?
Or will Tuesday’s events quickly become an afterthought -- forgotten or at least rationalized away by pundits and political professionals, demonstrating once again that Trump has figured out how to manipulate media coverage and shape the national conversation in ways that give him an advantage?
The official purpose of Tuesday’s event was to quell doubts about whether or not Trump had raised and then given $6 million to veterans groups, as he vowed to do in January, following a fundraiser he staged while skipping a Republican primary debate. The doubts existed because Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold raised them, in a story two weeks ago, after attempting to verify that Trump had actually given away the money. Fahrenthold found evidence of some donations, but not enough to account for $6 million. When he asked the Trump campaign to provide evidence of the donations, he didn’t get any. All he got were assurances that most of the money, including $1 million that Trump had pledged personally, had gone out.
Will the pundits and political professionals rationalize away what we learned about Trump on Tuesday?
On Tuesday, Trump finally provided a list of the organizations that had received donations, collectively worth $5.6 million. Trump also assured the assembled journalists that “most of the money went out quite a while ago.” The donations were real, but according to the Associated Press, about half the organizations reached by reporters had received their checks within the last 10 days. In other words, they got the money on or about the date that the Post story appeared. That included the $1 million check from Trump, which he’d dated May 24 -- three days after the initial Post story.
At the press conference, Trump took umbrage at the scrutiny he’s received for what was, after all, an actual act of charity. "I have never received such bad publicity for doing such a good job," Trump said. And to be fair, discrepancies in accounts of when the money went out might represent nothing more than organizational disarray, the kind that many reporters have observed.
But it’s not like making easily falsifiable statements would be out of character for Trump. So far in this campaign, he has lied about little things (like Trump steaks) and big things (like his “100 percent” self-funded campaign). He has made untrue statements about what he’s done in the past (like saying he watched “thousands” of American Muslims celebrate 9/11) and about what he’d do in the future (like promising that his tax cut would pay for itself, a claim even conservative policy experts find laughable).
At various points, Trump has mocked his opponents as “Lying Ted Cruz” and “Crooked Hillary.” But Trump is the candidate who, according to independent watchdogs like Politifact, has lied most frequently and egregiously. And yet when reporters have tried to hold him accountable for his statements, he has lashed out at them for their hostility and supposed mendacity -- something he did again on Tuesday, when he called one reporter a “sleaze” and said, sarcastically, that yet another was a “beauty.” At one point, Trump said that most reporters “are not good people.” At another, he said "I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I have ever met, I have to tell you.”
Still, the day’s biggest story was probably the revelations from those documents in the lawsuit against Trump U., which ceased operations in 2010. One section of the playbook advised sales representatives on how to persuade somebody interested in the program, but skittish because he or she had just paid off old credit card debts. “You need to look at what this small investment will fix in your life,” the manual advised salespeople to say. “I’m going to help you take your first step to create the life you’ve dreamed of. Follow me and let’s get you enrolled.”
And if that pitch didn’t close the deal? Then, the manual suggested, representatives should invoke Trump’s name. “Mr. Trump won’t listen to excuses and neither will we. Excuses will never make you more money; they will just continue to cost you more missed opportunities in life.”
The documents (portions of which Politico had reported on back in March) and the testimony represent just one window into the Trump U. lawsuits, which have been working their way through the courts for years. And they don’t mean that Trump will or should lose any of these cases. Hope Hicks, Trump campaign spokesperson, has already vowed a tough fight -- saying on Tuesday that “Trump University looks forward to using this evidence, along with much more, to win when the case is brought before a jury.”
The Trump U. documents raise serious questions about his willingness to exploit other people’s weaknesses in order to make a profit.
But whatever the ultimate legal outcome, the evidence is enough to raise serious questions about Trump’s business practices and his willingness to exploit other people’s weaknesses in order to make a profit -- just like the donation saga raises serious questions about Trump’s honesty, and the disparagement of reporters raises serious questions about his regard for a free press.
So what happens now? Suppose that the tantrum about hostile media had come from Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz. Suppose that the revelations about questionable past business activities involved Marco Rubio. Better still, suppose that the candidate at the center of these controversies was Hillary Clinton — and on top of it all, that there was reason to think she had lied and then acted, clumsily, to cover it up.
The press wouldn’t let go of the story. It’d be fodder for nonstop conversation on “Morning Joe,” “The Situation Room,” and, of course, Fox News. Commentators would say the statements disqualify her from serving as president, and a few would probably call on her to drop out of the race. The New York Times would run long analysis pieces on Clinton’s honesty problem, and whether the lies were evidence of campaign disarray, a lack of integrity, or some combination of the two. “She wouldn’t be criticized or questioned,” Paul Waldman observed Tuesday in the Post. “She’d be crucified.”
It’s possible Trump will end up getting that kind of treatment. The Times just ran a story on conflict within the Trump organization, prompting Trump to mock the reporters who wrote it. And as of Wednesday morning, the Trump U. story was getting plenty of attention on television. But -- and, yes, this is a subjective judgment -- Trump’s controversies never seem to get the kind of sustained attention that controversies dogging other candidates do. They fade into the background, as the conversation moves to other subjects.
Cynics will say it’s because some big-time media figures are close to Trump personally -- or because those pundits have it in for his opponents, especially Clinton. That may be true for some, though other factors are likely at work as well. The frequency of Trump’s prevarications makes it difficult to dwell on any single one, especially for journalists who are trying to be even-handed -- either because they are making a good-faith effort to be fair, or because they have a rooting interest in keeping the presidential campaign competitive.
Whatever the explanation, the resulting double-standard doesn’t serve the public well. One presidential candidate isn’t getting the same scrutiny as the others. And it’s the candidate who deserves scrutiny the most.