The Trump administration was handed a devastating defeat on a signature policy last week — and it barely registered.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling against Trump’s modified travel ban — depriving the administration of its best chance to get a favorable ruling before the case goes to the Supreme Court (as it’s widely assumed it will). Trump did not tweet about it when he got home from Europe. The administration did not issue a testy press release.
In the early weeks of the administration, the travel ban — which temporarily prevented people from a handful of Muslim-majority countries, and nearly all refugees, from entering the United States — was the signal accomplishment of a White House that promised, for better or worse, to transform America.
Now it’s been a policy failure for longer than it was ever a policy success. But politically, something arguably worse has happened. It’s been nearly forgotten.
When the travel ban was first put on hold in February, it was a symbol of the haste and carelessness with which an underprepared and understaffed administration had leapt into the job. When the revised version was put out in March, it was the keystone of an administration effort to reboot a flailing policy agenda. And when that version was put on hold, on the evening before it was due to go into effect, it was a reminder that the divisive populism of the Trump candidacy would inevitably haunt the Trump presidency.
The ever-expanding scandal over the ties between Trump allies and the Russian government, not to mention the Republican-controlled Congress’s efforts to potentially disrupt health insurance for tens of millions, hasn’t left much room for national media to discuss the travel ban.
The Trump administration — and Trump himself — has shown very little ability to redirect public attention. It looks, for all the world, as if the travel ban has fallen out of mind for the White House because it’s fallen out of sight of national TV news. Because at this point, the news doesn’t react to Donald Trump as much as Donald Trump reacts to the news.
The latest travel ban ruling barely made a blip on the media’s radar — so Trump has dropped it too
Here’s a chart, pulled from the analytics site IQ Media, monitoring use of the phrase “travel ban” on nationally broadcast television from January 26 (the day before the first version of the ban was signed) to May 30, 2017. (The term “Muslim ban,” which is also used to refer to the executive orders, shows similar peaks and valleys of frequency, though it’s less common than “travel ban.”)
National TV still cares, a little bit, when something happens in the travel ban fight. The spikes in the chart above correlate roughly to major developments in the introduction or implementation of each version of the ban, or to developments in the subsequent lawsuits against them.
But the spikes aren’t nearly as high as they used to be.
For one thing, there’s less interest in the second version of the travel ban than there was in the first: The last time more than 100 national TV segments mentioned the travel ban was March 6, when the second version was introduced. That’s logical: Unlike the initial travel ban, the revised ban has never actually been in effect, and at a certain point it’s no longer news that federal judges don’t agree with the Trump administration about the constitutionality of an executive order that in practice would overwhelmingly target Muslim visitors and immigrants to the US.
But that explanation falls apart when it comes to the past month of news coverage. While outcomes of cases tend to be much more newsworthy than oral arguments when courts hear a case, that hasn’t been the situation at all. National news paid much more attention to the oral argument in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, on May 8, than to the actual ruling made by that court on May 26. (It paid roughly the same amount of attention to oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit, on May 15, as it did to the Fourth Circuit’s actual ruling.)
Here’s the piece of information that makes that fall into place: May 9, the day after the much-covered oral argument, was the day that Donald Trump fired James Comey. And since then, the news cycle has never been the same.
The daily rhythm of political life under the Trump administration is no longer driven by what the White House says or does, or what happens to it. It’s driven by the constant churn of scoops, leaks, denials, and revelations, as new connections between team Trump and the Russian government come to light and government investigations scramble to (or are stonewalled from) getting to the bottom of it.
Trump is fundamentally unable to change the narrative because he’s reacting to what he sees
This isn’t to say that Donald Trump couldn’t garner plenty of media attention for tweeting something inflammatory about the judges who ruled against the travel ban in the Fourth Circuit. He very well might be able to — after all, some of the biggest spikes in early travel ban coverage came when Trump rage-tweeted about “so-called judges” and promised to “SEE YOU IN COURT!”
But he isn’t. Neither Trump nor anyone else in the White House is trying to call any attention to the travel ban lawsuits anymore.
There haven’t been any tweets from @realDonaldTrump or hotheaded statements from press secretary Sean Spicer. (The last time Trump tweeted about the ban was on April 26 — as a way to attack the Ninth Circuit after another unfavorable ruling on immigration.)
When the second travel ban was put on hold, Trump spoke angrily about it at a campaign-style rally in Kentucky — but a planned rally for this week, in Iowa, has been canceled.
Previous rulings against the Trump administration in the travel ban cases were policy defeats but political opportunities — chances to cast Trump as the lone populist hero against complacent elites blind to the dangers of terrorism. The Trump administration has simply stopped taking those opportunities to reframe the debate.
Trump’s compulsive consumption of cable television and major daily newspapers is well-known. The intimate connection between what he’s watching and what he’s tweeting about is well-documented. If they’re not talking about the travel ban, he may well not be thinking about it — and if he’s not thinking about it, he’s not going to push his communications staff to respond aggressively to his detractors and setbacks.
It’s a feedback loop: The media talks about what Trump is thinking about, and Trump thinks about what the media is talking about, and the two quickly converge on a single obsession. In the administration’s first months, the cycle was disrupted frequently enough by outside events — like the first rulings against the travel ban — that it wasn’t as immediately apparent to the naked eye.
But with the Comey/Russia scandal, the story of the Trump administration itself has become far more important than anything the administration can do or that can be done to it.
For all of Donald Trump’s griping about his communications staff, Trump himself appears to be fundamentally unable to direct even his own attention to the things his administration actually wants to do for America, much less the attention of anyone else. His obsession with the way his presidency is covered has deprived him of any chance to change it.