Twelve days ago, The New York Times published a story based on documents that reporters had wanted to see for years: Donald Trump’s tax returns. The story revealed that the president was deeply in debt, that he rarely pays much tax at all, and that he is obligated to pay back $400 million to lenders in the next four years. In any normal political environment, it would be the biggest story of the election, possibly even of an entire presidency. It has, instead, passed almost entirely from view.
One could argue there’s good reason for that. Since the Times published that story—again: 12 days ago—Trump gave the most unhinged debate performance in American history. Then he and more than two dozen administration and GOP officials contracted Covid-19. Trump spent three days in Walter Reed Medical Center; his doctors have lied about his health and refused to provide basic information about his condition, including whether he has pneumonia. Since returning to the White House, the president has been behaving like a mix of Howard Hughes and Jack Torrance, unleashing a horde of all-caps tweets and sending mixed messages about crucial policy decisions, such as whether there will be a second stimulus before next month’s election.
There is, as the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop has argued extensively, simply too much news. The sheer number of insane, world-turning-on-its-axis stories circulating at once is impossible to hold together. “Events—some of them once-in-decades or once-in-a-century occurrences—now play out all in unison,” The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, sounding uncharacteristically like Don DeLillo, wrote over the weekend. “There is no respite. If one ebbs another flows.”
Journalists are, for the second election cycle in a row, riding the hurricane. In 2016, this arguably played in Trump’s favor. He could, with the help of a few fortuitous bits of breaking news, keep the focus on one story—Hillary Clinton’s emails and alleged corruption—while there were so many Trump scandals circulating at once that no single story could fell him.
This time is different: The scandals, it seems, are catching up—thanks to small improvements in media coverage and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion with the endless news cycle.
For the last five years, journalists and news organizations have grappled with a single, intractable problem. How do you cover a president who isn’t just abnormal, but a bull in the china shop of normalcy itself? How do you deal with a news cycle that simply never ends?
At first, news organizations pursued their usual approaches. “I don’t believe our role is to be the leaders of the opposition party,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told the Columbia Journalism Review last summer—a reasonable description of the approach many mainstream news outlets took to the Trump administration: The goal was to be measured, to resist the hysteria of social media. This approach, however, not only dinged the Times’ credibility but also had the strange effect of minimizing Trump administration scandals. The classic, glaring example was the headline “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” in response to a speech in which Trump downplayed the racism of a mass shooter.
In the last year—and particularly since the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States in March—news outlets have started taking a more critical stance. There are still gaps. Few reports openly state that the Trump administration has been caught lying, although they may note that an official said something “without evidence.” Wednesday’s Times, for instance, reported that “White House officials conceded on Tuesday that there had been an impression created that Mr. Trump was getting tested every day.” The report didn’t say that White House officials had lied about the extent of Trump’s testing.
But as reporters grow bolder about pointing out falsehoods, the sheer volume of lies emanating from the White House about the president’s condition have become the story. And that, in turn, has magnified a larger narrative about the Trump administration’s disastrous coronavirus response.
Trump could once short-circuit news cycles. He has, arguably, been trying to do that since being released from Walter Reed. With nothing on his schedule—contracting Covid-19 means executive time, all the time—and his political fortunes dimming by the hour, Trump has been tweeting nonstop. He publicly walked away from coronavirus stimulus talks, saying they would not resume until after the election, tanking the stock market in the process; he then, unsurprisingly, reversed course, practically begging Congress to give him some bill, any bill, to sign. His endless barrage of all-caps tweets has featured conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton “spying” on his campaign. He and his doctors have insisted that he is feeling fine and is free of symptoms.
The behavior has triggered a wave of speculation and misinformation, both in the media and outside it, over whether Trump’s behavior is being driven by the medicine he’s on, his declining reelection prospects, or both. But Trump hasn’t been able to change the underlying story: The dominant narrative is that he has Covid-19, is losing the election, and is acting even more whacked-out than usual.
The news cycle itself is as exhausting as ever, and is still swallowing important stories like Trump’s tax returns. But as Covid-19 has swept through the White House, it’s also created one big story that Trump can’t escape: a story about his myriad failures in office and the increasing likelihood of electoral disaster.