On Thursday night, the New York Times put a “BREAKING NEWS” alert across the top of its homepage and sent out an accompanying push notification. The siren was for a story entitled “N.R.A. Suggests Trump May Retreat From Gun Control,” written by three Times reporters. It began, “The top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association claimed late Thursday that President Trump had retreated from his surprising support a day earlier for gun control measures after a meeting with N.R.A. officials and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office.” The fact that the president himself, before the piece landed, had tweeted “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!” only seemed to confirm that the participants had found common ground.
The reason that this story—Republican President Will Not Push Gun Control—qualified as “breaking news” could only have been that Trump had shocked people in Washington the day before when, at a bipartisan White House meeting, he voiced support for gun control and stated, “I like taking the guns early.” He rather impressively managed to put an authoritarian spin on these liberal ideas, at one point exclaiming, “Take the guns first, go through due process second,” but there was little doubt that his words stunned and upset his allies in Congress, and the gun lobby. Hence the cleanup Thursday evening, which could and should have been predicted by anyone he who has paid even glancing attention to this president and his White House. So why, then, was the Times story given such breathless promotion and framed as a Trump “Retreat.” Just how deep into enemy territory had Trump really waded the day before? What are we even talking about here?
Just to recap: On Wednesday, Trump, via a word salad, endorses gun control, and does so while making clear—as in this priceless exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein—that he is completely uninformed and uninterested in the subject at hand. The internet briefly loses its mind at the (admittedly fascinating) spectacle of the clueless president abandoning his base for several minutes. The Times—and I am only picking on them because I read them the most regularly, they deserve to be held to the highest standard, and the quality of their reporting is sometimes undermined by the way that reporting is headlined and framed—decides that this pointless blathering is worthy of a front-page story in Thursday’s print edition and placement as the lead story on nytimes.com for much of Wednesday and Thursday. And then, when the inevitable flip happens, the Times decides that this is “breaking news” because Trump beat a “retreat” on gun control, which his administration has never really embraced and probably never will. This isn’t how a news cycle should work.
I used to roll my eyes when, in the early, anxious days of the Trump presidency, people would scold the media for paying too much attention to the president’s tweets or words. He was the president, after all, whether anyone liked it or not; his words could set off an international incident, alter foreign relations, and stoke bigotry. They had to be addressed. But what we have learned over the past 13-plus months is that Trump’s babbling on domestic policy is usually irrelevant, and reporters and editors should treat it as such.
Part of the reason that this gun control dance was so predictable was that it was what Trump, still living in a television-saturated fantasy land, would surely identify as a rerun. Back in the innocent days of early January 2018, the president hosted a meeting at the White House to discuss DACA and immigration issues more broadly. He expressed a desire for a solution to the former, and essentially stated that he would sign the type of immigration bill that Democrats would vote for. The press went into a tizzy. It was the lead story across the country and questions were raised about whether Trump’s base would swallow this flip-flop. And then, within a couple days, John Kelly made it clear that the president’s words meant nothing. There would be no “comprehensive” immigration deal without major concessions from Democrats. The party was over.
And now here we are again. It’s not that Trump’s blather doesn’t matter. When he, say, attacks the Justice Department, that is in itself newsworthy. When he retweets bigots and racists, he is playing into—and exacerbating—an atmosphere that has real-world consequences. The same could be said of his brainlessly aggressive posturing toward North Korea. But when it comes to domestic policy—which requires follow-through before it becomes reality—we (in the press, at least) should all take a deep breath. His words can and should be covered as meta-commentary on what kind of leader he is (a bad one), or on the disconnect between his words and his administration’s actions. But this week we saw devastation in Syria, developments in the Mueller investigation, and the president’s own NSA director testifying that he hadn’t been ordered to combat Russian election interference. The fact that Trump’s irrelevant words dominate so many news cycles in this sort of atmosphere is absurd. And the fact that we cover them as if they were true—as if he really was going to take away people’s guns and then really had a change of heart—is even more so.
Earlier Thursday, before Trump’s meeting with the NRA, the president vowed to place tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. As the Times reported, “In a hastily arranged meeting with industry executives that stunned many inside the West Wing, Mr. Trump said he would formally sign the trade measures next week and promised they would be in effect ‘for a long period of time.’ ” Trump has been complaining about steel for years, but the move caused consternation in the White House. According to a different piece in the Times, there was a chance that Gary Cohn would quit “if Trump went through with his action.” Why the “if”? Perhaps Cohn has some understanding that the man he works for might not entirely know his own mind, or follow through. Still, the Times’ lead steel story didn’t seem to have any doubts: “Trump To Impose Sweeping Steel and Aluminum Tariffs,” the headline read. If, however, after seeing the slumping stock market, or deciding Cohn is too important, or God-knows-what, Trump backtracks on his plan, you can expect a “breaking news” alert.