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OPINION | Fourth Estate

Trump’s Daily Dose of Distraction

Who knows if the president is really taking hydroxychloroquine? But the media is definitely taking the bait.

President Donald Trump tells reporters that he is taking zinc and hydroxychloroquine during a meeting with restaurant industry executives about the coronavirus response, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, May 18, 2020, in Washington.

You don’t need subscribe to the notion that President Donald Trump is crazy like a fox to concede that his Monday disclosure about taking hydroxychloroquine was a decoy move, designed to deflect public—and press—attention from his firing of the State Department inspector general, which broke over the weekend.

While the admission makes Trump look as scientifically minded as an unsegmented worm—hydroxychloroquine has not been shown to be safe or effective in the treatment or prevention of Covid-19—the attention generated was worth it, like swapping a pawn for a bishop. The hydroxychloroquine confession didn’t displace the IG story from the news, but it wasn’t expected to. Both the New York Times and Washington Post made Trump’s dreams come true by putting the story on Page One of their Tuesday editions (Times: “President Says He Takes Drug Deemed a Risk”; Post: “Trump Says He’s Taking Unproven Medication”) and after being featured on Monday cable news the talking heads were still gabbing about it on Tuesday afternoon as he hyped the drug anew during a press spray. Monday evening, the White House added some frosting to the hydroxychloroquine cake by releasing a note from the president’s physician that went on and on about the drug but didn’t actually claim that he had prescribed it to Trump or that Trump was even taking it. There would be fewer questions about Trump and hydroxychloroquine if the White House had released no note at all.

Stirring intrigue by saying outrageous things has been the key to Trump's public relations strategies since he first started shoving himself into the faces of reporters as a young real estate operator. He craves attention, or what he likes to call “ratings,” and has a knack for knowing what bait to use to hook reporters. As the transcript shows, Trump volunteered—completely unprompted—the news that he was taking the drug and appeared to enjoy the startled reaction from reporters.

Trump: I happen to be taking it.

Reporter: Hydroxychloroquine?

Trump: I’m taking it, hydroxychloroquine.

Reporter: Right now?

Trump: Right now, yeah.

Not only was the revelation unprompted, it was premeditated, as Trump confessed later in the discussion. “I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this, when I announced this,” he said, with all the self-gratification of a singer who had hit an unexpected high note.

Some people may think Trump is a little crazy for taking an unproven drug that can cause heart problems. Some may think that he’s a little irresponsible for encouraging, by his actions and words, others to expose themselves to a medical risk that offers little chance of a payoff. But Trump doesn’t think like that. Every moment we spend worrying about the damage Trump might be doing to himself or the damage our gullible friends, family, and neighbors might be doing to themselves by following his lead is a moment we won’t be spending on the IG firing or Trump’s wretched management of the pandemic.

As former Trump adviser Steve Bannon once told Michael Lewis, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” By filling the airwaves and the press with discussions of hydroxychloroquine, Trump has filled the commode to the point of overflowing. I’d like to think that calling attention to Trump’s decoy move might reduce its effectiveness. But I’d be wrong. In Trump’s book, any mention—neutral, praiseful or critical—is a win because it takes our eye off of what really matters. When it comes to obvious Trump provocations like self-dosing of hydroxychloroquine, the only way to blunt such media manipulation is to ignore him as much as possible. Do your part. Flush Trump’s crap from public mention.

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Trump’s Crap would be a good name for a book about his White House years. Send book title ideas to [email protected]. My email alerts and my Twitter feed crave your attention. My RSS feed can’t flush because the vandals took the handle.