If there’s one thing Donald Trump knows, it’s leverage. The topic is discussed extensively in The Art of Deal and was a recurring theme throughout the billionaire’s presidential campaign. Whether it was upstaging Ted Cruz at last summer’s Republican National Convention or nixing an appearance at the seventh primary debate to host a fundraiser for veterans, Trump is a master of using his opponent’s leverage against them, turning psychological judo into showmanship. Nowhere is that more clear than in the realm of media.
This evening, Rachel Maddow tweeted, “We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET.” The topic immediately started trending on Twitter, with Esquire even setting aside an entire post about when to tune in. The event was hyped by MSNBC and then promoted by major media outlets as what was supposed to be a Watergate-level revelation, one that would expose the President’s ties to Russia and other miscellaneous business dealings under scrutiny by the media.
It turned out the tax returns were from 2005, over a decade ago. Twenty minutes before Maddow went on air, the White House released this statement:
Before being elected President, Mr. Trump was one of the most successful businessmen in the world with a responsibility to his company, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required. That being said, Mr. Trump paid $38 million dollars even after taking into account large scale depreciation for construction, on an income of more than $150 million dollars, as well as paying tens of millions of dollars in other taxes such as sales and excise taxes and employment taxes and this illegally published return proves just that. Despite this substantial income figure and tax paid, it is totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns. The dishonest media can continue to make this part of their agenda, while the President will focus on his, which includes tax reform that will benefit all Americans.
This response can be interpreted in a number of ways and it will be interesting watching how pundits spin it. Either Trump was strong-armed into providing information on his tax returns by MSNBC or he manipulated the network by breaking the news before Maddow. In either case, he scooped the story and remained in control.
As Maddow stumbled over her lines in an excruciating eighteen minute-long opening monologue that covered veiled conspiracy theories, Russian oligarchs visiting Mar-a-Lago (during which Maddow incorrectly pronounced business magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev’s name three times before finally abandoning the effort altogether with “the guy who paid Trump all that money for that house”), and reasons why Americans have a right to the upcoming revelations, Twitter turned on Maddow for manufacturing sensationalism. New York Magazine’s political correspondent Olivia Nuzzi declared Maddow a “nemesis” while Vice’s Mitchell Sunderland compared the segment to “Ryan Seacrest procrastinating to announce who is getting kicked off American Idol.”
At the eighteen-minute mark, Maddow held up a stack of papers and announced she’d reveal them alongside Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Cay Johnson… after the commercial break! Meanwhile, the White House had broken the story, The Daily Beast had published a report on the findings, and Tucker Carlson was debating the revelations on Fox News.
In a quest for ratings and hype, Maddow and MSNBC played themselves and were devoured by liberal and conservative alike, exposing the shallowness of the 24-hour news-tainment complex. Pieces like the one you’re reading now are circulating the Internet, focusing on the trending topic rather than inconvenient realities, taking attention away from CIA hacks and the displacement of the Affordable Care Act.
Could the entire thing have been orchestrated by Trump as a distraction? It’s possible. However, MSNBC certainly took the bait and lost credibility as a result. Networks need new approaches, and new faces, for the modern political arena; chasing crumbs of news and then blowing them up into sensationalized events shrouded in conspiracy only feeds into party polarization and shows how desperate for a story they really are. Perhaps MSNBC and Maddow should have heeded advice from The Art of the Deal:
“The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”
Davis Richardson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. His writing has appeared in Vice, Nylon, Bullett Magazine, and Capitol File. This is his first time feeding into the problem by commenting on political theatre alongside swarms of bloggers masquerading as journalists. Follow him on Twitter @davisoliverr