Over the course of a few extraordinary hours on Friday, Donald Trump’s iPhone was rendered almost completely useless—it can, presumably, still make calls and take photos, but that’s it. The president was banned not only from Twitter and Facebook, where he had a combined 150 million followers, but also from YouTube, Shopify, Stripe, the video game streaming app Twitch, and, perhaps most absurdly, Spotify. If a forlorn Trump wants to dance alone to “Macho Man,” he’ll have to buy a physical copy.
The social media ban—particularly the loss of Twitter, the president’s favorite toy—was instantly recognized as an incalculable loss. Trump’s political career had been built in large part on his ability to bypass traditional media and hijack news cycles, 140 (and then 280) characters at a time. “The Trump presidency, and indeed almost all of his political career, is inextricable from the platform,” The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel wrote. “His account, for better or worse (spoiler: worse), acted as the national media’s assignment editor for a half decade.” Trump himself described this dynamic as “I can go ‘bing bing bing’ and they put it on as soon as I tweet it out.”
As president, Trump rarely gave interviews or took questions from the press. His bully pulpit was Twitter—and now it’s gone.
But the close association between Trump and Twitter obscures the profound importance of an older medium in his political journey: television, and specifically cable news. Trump may have lost his Twitter account, but the perverse incentives that led cable news to give his every utterance—on Twitter, at a rally, or anywhere else—wall-to-wall coverage still exist. How cable news treats him following his incitement of the Capitol riot may be of more consequence to the political world than a Twitter-less Trump, particularly if cable news remains overly deferential to Republican politicians who defend or excuse Trump’s behavior.
Trump’s political rise depended as much on cable news as Twitter. His surprise victory in 2016 came off the back of what has been estimated to be nearly $5 billion in free media. That coverage helped Trump squeeze out 16 other Republicans during the primary and to leapfrog from scandal to scandal. The intense focus on Trump also put disproportionate attention on Trump’s pet issues, trade and immigration, likely helping him in a number of swing states, including in the upper Midwest. Trump’s antics were good business for networks. The obsessive attention paid to Trump, CBS’s Leslie Moonves said in 2017, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
The networks—with the exception of Fox News—have subsequently grown more adversarial to Trump and less willing to grant him blanket coverage, but the megaphone is still there for the taking. Yes, a lot of that coverage focused on his most bombastic tweets, but Trump is more than capable of generating news without social media. In 2015 and 2016, he dictated coverage by calling in to Morning Joe rather than engaging in early-morning tweetstorms, his preferred method of dominating news coverage during his presidency. CNN and MSNBC certainly won’t be picking up the phone and allowing Trump to ramble on about whatever is on his mind for an hour or more, but Fox News, engaged in a costly war with right-wing upstarts for the first time in its existence, might. Those upstarts—Newsmax and One America News Network—would be more than happy to take those calls themselves.
Trump remains obsessed with cable news. Lawmakers who were trapped in the Capitol during Wednesday’s riot couldn’t get in touch with the president because he was glued to the television. “He was hard to reach, and you know why? Because it was live TV,” a “close Trump adviser” told The Washington Post. “If it’s TiVo, he just hits pause and takes the calls. If it’s live TV, he watches it, and he was just watching it all unfold.”
Trump will want to retain his status as the country’s most destructive media critic. The challenge for networks is preventing him from dictating coverage.
The chumminess between the D.C. press corps and Republicans also poses problems. Many of the enablers of Wednesday’s violence have been condemned on air—Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz may struggle for airtime for quite a while. But what to do about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has repeatedly echoed the president’s allegations of widespread fraud and went so far as to challenge the election even after the Capitol was stormed?
Similarly, some Republicans who have criticized their colleagues have received kid-glove treatment when making dubious claims about their past support for the president. Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if he regretted his vote for Trump, Republican Senator Pat Toomey responded, “Knowing what I knew then, I think, as the 75 million Americans making this evaluation between this radicalization of the Democratic Party and an administration that had very significant successes, I understand.… Nobody could’ve anticipated what has happened, I don’t think, subsequent to the election.”
That is an extraordinary answer that suggests the riot is not the wake-up call for the GOP that many in the media hope it is. Even a “reasonable” Republican like Toomey thinks that Trump is preferable to a moderate Democrat like Joe Biden, and his public position is that Trump’s behavior on Wednesday was wildly out of character compared to the previous four years. Todd’s response? “Thanks for coming on and sharing your views.”
For the press, it is not enough to simply reward Republicans who have stood up to the president with airtime or deny Trump unfiltered coverage. Statements like Toomey’s also require pushback, otherwise Republicans will continue to sugarcoat Trump’s presidency and their involvement in it.
Social media companies responded to last week’s chaos by banning outright Trump and many of his enablers. Television networks can’t deplatform a former president—and they shouldn’t, especially given the importance of assessing his disastrous legacy in the months and years to come. What’s needed, however, are qualities often in short supply in TV news: discipline, rigor, and consistency, applied not only to Trump but the entire GOP.