Maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning in the way the mainstream broadcast media cover Donald Trump. There were multiple signals on Sunday, but the clearest came when ABC’s Martha Raddatz interviewed Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence on This Week Sunday morning.
Pence tried to insist that Trump’s years of peddling the racially-charged fiction that Barack Obama was not born in the United States is a non-issue, particularly after Trump’s admission Friday that the president was born in the United States.
“It’s over,” Pence insisted at one point.
Raddatz, looking directly back at Pence, replied, “It’s not over.”
One of the factors that helped Donald Trump’s presidential campaign survive the various scandalous, intemperate, false, and incendiary things that have come out of his mouth since he announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015 is their sheer volume. A sexist attack on a female competitor is pushed out of the news by an attack on another competitor’s “energy.” Trump’s decision to retweet racist lies on Twitter is obscured by his repeated claim that American Muslims “celebrated” the 9/11 attacks by dancing in the streets.
In the 24 hours after Trump promoted his new hotel while exploiting a group of decorated veterans as a backdrop and then invented a new lie by blaming the “birther” conspiracy he peddled for years on Hillary Clinton’s, the pattern looked ready to repeat itself.
In an appearance Friday night, Trump attacked Clinton’s call for stricter gun control, falsely claiming that she proposes doing away with the Second Amendment. He then suggested that her Secret Service detail -- the same type of detail that guards him -- ought to be disarmed.
“Take their guns away. Let’s see what happens to her,” he said.
On Saturday, shortly after an explosion rocked the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, injuring many passersby, Trump immediately declared it a “bomb” and suggested it validates his “get tough” approach to dealing with terrorism. Ultimately, he proved to be correct, but at the time, it was only a guess, which opened him to criticism for jumping to conclusions without full information.
On Sunday morning, as Trump’s surrogates started turning up for interviews on the talk shows, they were asked about Trump’s remarks about Clinton’s bodyguards and his reaction to the bombing. Most of the questioning remained focused on the GOP nominee’s long history of suggesting that the nation’s first black president is illegitimate, and his ham-handed attempt to claim that Hillary Clinton was responsible and that Trump “finished” the controversy.
The exchanges tended to drag on, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at one point denying that Trump had made any significant mention of the birther issue since 2011. It’s difficult to characterize that as anything other than a lie because Christie himself criticized Trump for failing to admit President Obama’s citizenship during the Republican presidential primary.
But interviewers repeatedly pushed back. Raddatz refused to allow Pence to avoid the issue, and forced him to cling to the same thin reed that the Trump campaign hung its claims about Clinton: a statement by a former Clinton campaign official that a low-level Iowa campaign staffer in 2008 -- who was fired immediately -- forwarded an email about the birther claims somehow proves the lie originated with Hillary Clinton.
Christie tried the same tack with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union and was shot down. In an equally unsuccessful appearance on Fox News Sunday, Christie failed to make much headway on the same claim with host Chris Wallace.
“If you’re going to go there,” Wallace fired back, “what she said is that some volunteer in Iowa raised the question and was fired immediately. That hardly seems like they were pushing the birther issue.”
Meanwhile, Clinton’s vice presidential running mate Tim Kaine appeared on four different shows and repeatedly hammered on the fact that repeated attacks on Obama’s citizenship over the years were extremely hurtful to the African American community because they evoked the historical period in which people with African ancestry were not allowed to be citizens.
It’s far from clear that this marks an end to the way that Trump has repeatedly managed to control the agenda when it comes to broadcast media. This campaign has been full of “turning points” that weren’t. But for voters, it’s at least reason to hope.