MIAMI (CNN) — A manufactured story line. A promise of a “major statement.” And an ulterior motive.
Donald Trump on Friday pulled off his latest media stunt, scoring more than 20 minutes of free live TV time to tout the endorsement of more than a dozen veterans and to talk up his new hotel in Washington after he and his campaign had promised he would address his longstanding, controversial “birther” position.
Then, he made a 67-word statement stating that he now believes President Barack Obama was born in the US, and quickly abandoned the podium — leaving reporters bellowing questions into the ether.
None of us were surprised.
After all, Friday’s circus was nothing short of standard operating procedure for the real estate mogul and his media-bashing campaign — and just the latest example of how Trump fueled his political rise through his unparalleled mastery of the media.
But this time, there weren’t just a few shouted questions from reporters. Instead, Trump stepped away from the mic amid a cacophony of cheering supporters — more than 100 of whom separated Trump from the press — and reporters, some standing on chairs, shouting dozens of questions at the top of our lungs.
“When did you change your mind about Obama being born in the US?” I shouted.
“What took you so long to make this decision?” shouted another reporter.
“Why won’t you answer our questions?”
And then, he’s gone. Trump had just changed a signature position he’s held for years with a few dozen words and no explanation of why he had suddenly changed his mind. And he also notched 51 days since his last news conference.
The moment was emblematic of Trump’s treatment of the press throughout the campaign — particularly in the last 24 hours.
Reporters covering this campaign — as I have for the last 15 months — have long grown used to Trump lobbing insults our way, shouts of “scum,” “dishonest” and “disgusting” reverberating as thousands of his supporters, many of them snickering at the spectacle, turn toward the press pen, booing. Some of us have even come to expect a call from the would-be-president every so often to hear the candidate gripe about a particular article and shame us as “dishonest.”
But on Thursday night, Trump took his mistreatment of the press to new lows, taking the stage at a rally in New Hampshire moments before the traveling press corps’ plane touched down in the state, and proceeding to mock us.
“I have really good news for you. I just heard that the press is stuck on their airplane. They can’t get there. I love it,” Trump said, to his supporters’ glee.
We arrived for the last three minutes of his speech — a circumstance caused by Trump’s refusal to travel on the same plane as reporters covering his campaign, defying decades of precedent in the coverage of Democratic and Republican nominees.
The event on Friday was his coup-de-grace.
Having promised a “major statement,” via Twitter, Trump talked up his hotel — “under budget and ahead of schedule” — and invited a parade of military veterans to come to the podium and tell the world why they were supporting Trump’s presidential bid. The event was no longer about a Republican presidential nominee reversing his position on an issue supported by a fringe slice of America. It was about brave military men embracing this controversial figure, flaws and all.
All the while, the cameras continued to roll, the remarks carried live on cable news in anticipation that Trump would clarify his position on birtherism as he had promised that morning.
It’s the kind of free, unfiltered media coverage that every politician dreams of, but few will ever grasp.
Finally, after 28 minutes, Trump lifted the suspense and got to the point. He falsely claimed that his opponent Hillary Clinton “started the birther controversy” in 2008 and stated, matter-of-factly, that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” — something Obama proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2011 when he released his long-form birth certificate.
He spent more time talking about his hotel than explaining how he was changing his position on the issue that skyrocketed him to national political prominence and earned him his earliest notes of support from the far-right.
Trump laid his media trap the night before when his campaign put out a statement hours after a Washington Post interview published in which Trump declined to disavow his birther views. The interview took place a day earlier, but the campaign waited another day, until 12 hours before the event in Washington, to blast out a statement.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s move helped him. CNN and Fox News cut away at points in the presentation. Networks spent the day talking about Trump’s history as a birther.
The Trump campaign had also previously billed a March campaign event as a possible news conference, only for the candidate to not take any questions. The event, which had been scheduled earlier, came just days after his campaign manager was accused of grabbing a reporter.
Before Friday, the campaign’s most recent deception came Wednesday when campaign advisers told reporters that Trump would not be releasing results of his latest medical exam on the “Dr. Oz” program. And then Trump did just that, with a reality show-style surprise.
As we filed into the event hall for his rally Friday night, we were still nowhere closer to understanding why Trump had suddenly flip-flopped on birtherism. The campaign had ignored all our requests for comment. We hadn’t had an opportunity to prod Trump on the when and why of his sudden change of heart, especially when he had declined to disavow the position just days earlier.
But as we awaited the familiar sound of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” a more ominous tune played instead.
It was a song from Broadway’s “Les Misérables,” the words “Les Deplorables” flashing on the screen above the stage, harkening to Clinton’s comment about his supporters from earlier this month.
I flicked at my iPhone, and powered on the video recorder.
But moments later, Trump wondered aloud what would happen if Clinton’s Secret Service detail were disarmed. And that was the news.