Since he took office almost six months ago, President Donald Trump has demonstrated an almost comical inability to get anything substantive done.
Trump has yet to sign a single significant piece of legislation, dozens of federal jobs remain unfilled, and he has caused more diplomatic crises than he’s fixed. This ineptitude can be traced back to any number of deficiencies — a complete disinterest in security briefings that don’t mention his name, an obsession with golf, a demand for pretty pictures in policy briefings — but none are quite as pervasive as his singular fixation on the media.
The current object of Trump’s scorn is CNN, which continues to report on his administration’s failures and consistent lying. Trump decries the network as fake news, and bemoans his unfair treatment by the press. The feud escalated this past weekend, when the president tweeted out a GIF depicting himself wrestling a person whose head was replaced with CNN’s logo.
But fairness isn’t the quality Donald Trump looks for in a reporter; as with everyone on his staff, he demands unquestioning obedience.
Trump’s insistence on loyalty has been well documented for decades, dating back to his days as a mediocre New York businessman. Since taking office, dozens of articles have recounted the ways he seeks oaths of fealty from his staff, including former FBI Director James Comey. But his demand to be obeyed isn’t limited to those on his payroll. Anyone who questions Donald Trump is branded an enemy until they either go away or comply.
This isn’t a hypothetical, either. We have already witnessed the full life cycle of Donald Trump’s media strategy — and this history helps informs why Donald Trump continues to dig his heels in on CNN.
Wow, you are all correct about @FoxNews – totally biased and disgusting reporting.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 10, 2016
.@FoxNews is so biased it is disgusting. They do not want Trump to win. All negative!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2016
During the campaign, Donald Trump was furious anytime Fox News reported on his racist tweets or fabricated statements. His very public feud with Megyn Kelly was the most memorable manifestation of his relationship with the network, but he soured on Fox News so much that he began telling his supporters to turn elsewhere for news: “CNN has been fair,” he tweeted in September of 2015. That same week, Trump pledged not to appear on Fox News for the “foreseeable future.”
.@FoxNews has been treating me very unfairly & I have therefore decided that I won't be doing any more Fox shows for the foreseeable future.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2015
Like most of Trump’s promises, this one was quickly broken. Roger Ailes himself interceded to repair the fallout, and within two weeks Trump was back on Fox News, starting with his favorite lap dog Sean Hannity. By Inauguration Day, Fox News had abandoned what little journalistic integrity it had left and had fully bought in to Donald Trump’s vision of a model news organization: A newsroom filled with ideologues and “yes men” who are happy to run point for the administration’s draconian agenda.
Anything short of total subservience is of little interest to Donald Trump, and that’s why CNN now finds itself in the middle of a battle it cannot win.
Like many other national news outlets, CNN has tried to woo the administration and skeptical Trump supporters by hiring former advisors like Jeffery Lord and Jason Miller as political analysts. (When Trump was running for president, he personally recommended that CNN give Lord a job.) The network has also been quick to fire commentators who spark controversy by criticizing the president, like Reza Aslan.
But no number of Trump apologists on staff will ever appease someone as thin-skinned as this president, so long as CNN also allows hosts like Jake Tapper and reporters like Jim Acosta to do their jobs.
If Sean Hannity couldn’t spare Fox News from Trump’s wrath, there is nobody who can save CNN. Which begs the question: why does the outlet keep trying at all?