Is this the moment when the news media—at long last—has begun to hold Donald Trump to account?
And will the Republican frontrunner finally succumb to the accepted rules of politics he had previously flouted—an outcome the Washington establishment frequently predicts and desperately desires?
If so, the media will claim a fair share of the credit.
As the GOP nomination race migrates to next Tuesday’s Wisconsin Primary, Trump is having a miserable week, stumbling badly and committing rookie mistakes on a playing field where he’d previously racked up victory after victory.
“The big worm has turned,” declared Republican media consultant Mike Murphy, who has been advising the “Never Trump” forces after running a super PAC that backed the failed candidacy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
“The media narrative is turning from the original kind of ‘Hey! What an outrageously entertaining thing! A dancing mule! Look at the mule dance! We’ve never seen a dancing mule before!’ to “Hey! Look at that mule! That mule just shat all over the carpet! That fucking mule!’”
Murphy continued: “The ‘dancing mule’ part is gone. Now it’s just a stinking mule.”
The reality show billionaire’s recent gaffes on television, radio, and social media—insulting the wife of rival Republican Ted Cruz for her looks, proposing criminal punishments for women who obtain abortions, threatening to dismantle NATO, flout the Geneva Conventions, and use nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Europe—are prompting a barrage of negative coverage.
Trump’s insistence on defending his much-reviled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski —who was arrested this week on a charge of battery for allegedly manhandling former Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields at an election night event in Jupiter, Fla.—is also harming the candidate’s standing, especially with conservative female journalists, a group of whom have demanded that Lewandowksi be fired.
In contrast to Trump’s good fortune over the past eight months, the latest polling indicates that he could lose decisively on April 5—which could be a harbinger of the contests to come.
“You know, if we keep consistently saying that, yes, this time it’s the end, eventually we’re going to be right, because he’s not going to be president,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, whose latest “Crystal Ball” analysis of the electoral map predicts that Trump, if nominated, would lose to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in a landslide, earning 191 electoral votes to Clinton’s 347.
“These are little cuts,” Sabato said, referring to the most recent damaging news stories about Trump, “but collectively, he could end up losing a couple of pints of blood.”
For the first time since the start of the 2016 campaign, Trump’s Wisconsin defeat, if it occurs, will be wedded to various journalists’ aggressive grilling of the candidate and his inability to deflect tough questions this week from the likes of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and a local radio host in Milwaukee named Charlie Sykes.
On Monday, in the roughest interview Trump has yet experienced this cycle, Sykes, a conservative morning drive-time host at the 50,000-watt station WTMJ, hurled fastball after fastball at the candidate’s head.
Over the course of 17 minutes, highlights of which were played and replayed in the national media, Sykes scolded Trump for insulting Heidi Cruz, urged him to apologize, challenged him on his various factual misstatements, drilled down on his Johnny-come-lately conservatism, and wondered aloud if he’s “a giant fraud.”
At one point, when Trump complained that Ted Cruz provoked the most recent bout of trash-talking wives, Sykes scolded: “I expect that from a 12-year-old bully on the playground, not someone who wants the office held by Abraham Lincoln.”
The next day at a town hall in Milwaukee, CNN’s Cooper echoed Sykes’s remark when Trump once again blamed Cruz for starting it: “Sir, with all due respect, that’s the argument of a 5-year-old. The argument of a 5-year-old is ‘He started it.’”
On Wednesday, MSNBC’s Matthews—who declined to speak to The Daily Beast—relentlessly cornered Trump and didn’t let him escape when the candidate tried to skate away from answering specifics about his foreign policy views and his wishes, as a former longtime pro-abortion rights supporter, to make the procedure illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
The result, in terms of damaging headlines, was an embarrassment of riches.
“That’s what the coverage is going to start to be,” Murphy predicted, “that Trump is so intellectually lazy, he just wings it, so this is all just an exercise in narcissism and egomania.”
Sykes, an outspoken Trump detractor on his 23-year-old radio show and Twitter feed, told The Daily Beast he wasn’t sure that the candidate would call as scheduled on Monday.
It turns out that nobody on the Trump campaign had bothered to alert the candidate to his interviewer’s harsh critiques.
“I just asked the questions I had been playing in my head for the last six months,” Sykes said. “‘Why are you being this way? How do you think you can be president if you act this way?’
“I knew I had from 10 to 12 minutes and he had two techniques—filibustering and talking over you—and I was determined that I wasn’t going to let him filibuster too much, although I wasn’t going to shut him down, and I wasn’t going to let him talk over me. I was going to finish my thoughts,” Sykes said.
Polite but stern on the air, Sykes meticulously stripped Trump bare on issue after issue, exposing the candidate’s lack of comfort with policy details.
Sykes said that Trump’s abortion/punishment misstep with Matthews—which prompted not only the predictable reaction from former secretary of state Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, but also widespread condemnation from pro-life activists—exposed the candidate as unserious.
“With Donald Trump, there’s no ‘there’ there,” Sykes said. “He hasn’t thought about that issue for five minutes. He figures that he will pretend to have these positions, say a couple of the top lines, and can’t deal with somebody asking the second- or third-layer questions.”
Sykes urged political journalists to “fawn not on the mighty,” as the saying goes. “That’s the greatest possible piece of advice you could give to a reporter. Meanwhile, all these cable hosts make you be embarrassed when it’s a target-rich environment. When you actually have a chance to make news and hold a candidate-for-president’s feet to the fire, why would you prefer to be polishing his shoes?”
Does Sykes have anyone in mind?
“I don’t want to say anybody’s name, like Sean Hannity,” he replied—a reference to the Fox News host’s credulous love-fests with the real estate mogul.
Until now, Trump has sailed through the nomination process amassing pledged delegates despite repeated affronts to political tradition, gaining support and winning primaries and caucuses after calling Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, scoffing at Sen. John McCain’s prisoner-of-war ordeal, mocking Fox News star Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle, burlesquing New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s physical disability, making fun of rival candidate Carly Fiorina’s face, and otherwise behaving in a manner that would have likely killed a conventional candidacy.
Veteran political journalist Lisa DePaulo agreed that Trump’s luck with the media has run out.
“The whole media, and I include myself, has been under the spell of Trump being just so fun for so long. And then shit got real,” she said.
DePaulo said that because The Apprentice star has made for such compelling television, the cable and broadcast news networks “have pundits sitting at a round table and criticizing him, and then when he calls in to their show, they fellate him. All of them do it.”
She added: “I’m not a TV news person, but it was sickeningly obvious that this was all about ratings. Even as a consumer, I always chose the crazy Trump rally over something dignified like a John Kasich town hall.
“But the wind has shifted, and now people are looking for a takedown. When the wind shifted, it became clear that ratings would be better if they went after him. Because, really, how many more ‘Thank you, Mr. Trump’ interviews could they possibly do?”