For five-plus years, Donald Trump dominated American news and — much more than most previous presidents — American life. But since being kicked off his favorite social network (and out of the White House), he has done something extremely out of character: gone quiet. I spoke with our Washington correspondent, Olivia Nuzzi, about why that is and whether it’s actually possible that the trend could continue.
Ben: Since being banned from Twitter and Facebook, former president Trump has all but vanished from the public eye. To say this is out of character for a man who feasts on adulation, outrage, and most of all attention would be underselling the point. I would have expected that he’d circumvent the social-media crackdown with daily appearances on Fox or OANN or Newsmax or … something. Instead, we’ve gotten radio silence for almost a month, with occasional photos from Mar a Lago and some pro forma–feeling statements our only evidence of what he’s been up to.
To be clear, I’m not clamoring for Trump to make a grand return — despite his stimulating effect on web traffic. But the guy is still the commanding figure of his party, and I was under the impression that not making noise is akin to a kind of death for him. Are you also taken aback by his silence? And why do you think it’s happening?
Olivia: I asked a current member of his staff about this the other night, and their response was, “We’ll have plenty of time after the trial!” On the one hand, that’s just a kind of classic non-response response that doesn’t reveal anything. But on the other hand, I think it’s probably true that the former president is waiting to see how this goes and sorting out how to go forward in this new season of his life. He maintains tremendous influence over a Republican Party that he doesn’t give a shit about — other than how it relates to confirming his relevance. But his favorite platform remains unavailable to him. A few of the statements to come out of “45 Office,” as it appears in my inbox, have been sort of pathetic echoes of the Trump tweets of yore. On Monday night, for instance, they released a media advisory ahead of the appearance of his new attorney, David Schoen, on Hannity, and the statement concluded, “Enjoy!”
Ben: Maggie Haberman tweeted that he has told aides he’ll stay quiet for six to eight weeks. Do you concur that he’s actually exercising patience here? That famous Trump discipline?
Olivia: I wouldn’t say it’s discipline, necessarily. I think it’s less evolved than that. I was talking to another reporter recently who covered the Trump administration with me, and we were both remarking on how, in the final days, we’d tried to get the outgoing president to sit down for interviews. It’s not as though Trump ever submitted to every interview request. He said no more often than yes. But what we were both getting back this time was basically that he wasn’t yet ready or in the mood for it.
I think what I consistently realized at the end, and now in this first part of his post-presidency, was that he was much angrier and much more disappointed and sour than I thought he would be. Even though he had come to accept that he would lose long before Election Day and long before the results were in, he maintained a belief in his ability to pull off the near-impossible until the very end. My reporting has never suggested that he genuinely believed in the big election lie. Even the call that was released of him trying to convince the Georgia election officials to overturn the results there — I think it was Leon Neyfakh, whom I really respect, who said it seemed to confirm that Trump wasn’t pretending. My reporting suggested that, rather than believe in the lie himself, he believed in his ability to bullshit others. His avoidance of the press seems like a means of avoiding acknowledging the reality of how this ended. Though, I’m sure, his advisers and his new lawyers (and his old lawyers before that) have made the case that he won’t be helping anything if he rambles for 45 minutes on the air with Maria Bartiromo or whatever low-rent propagandist equivalent they have hosting a show at OANN or Newsmax. All it would do is remind any Republicans on the fence about their votes what a nuisance he is.
Ben: Again, not that i’m dying to hear from him in any sense, but do you have any sense of when he might make a reappearance, and in what form? Is it possible that, thanks in large part to Twitter’s decision, his post-presidency might generally be a lot quieter than almost anyone predicted?
Olivia: It’s my personal hope that he decides to make his reappearance in a wide-ranging interview with New York Magazine, in which he answers all of my questions with uncharacteristic candor. I’m sure that he’s fielding all sorts of requests for big sit-down interviews on major networks and less major but sympathetic cable networks, but even if he’s sensitive enough to wince at the thought of being batted around by a mainstream news reporter who will ask hard questions, he’s also egotistical enough to know that the kind of exposure and media dominance he yearns for can only be achieved through mainstream outlets. But, there’s been considerable reporting that he’s already extremely bored. I wouldn’t be surprised if what ends up happening is he reemerges not with some big, planned, splashy media moment, but with random impulse decisions, like calling reporters he sees on TV or whose bylines he sees on the front page of the Post or the Times, you know? I could see him popping up at irregular intervals that way until the lead-up to the midterms, when I suspect he’ll seize the opportunity to campaign for MAGA candidates with rallies and, depending on the results of the impeachment trial, tease the possibility of a 2024 campaign.
Ben: If he does find a way to begin making waves again on a regular basis, to what extent do you think media members like yourself should be paying attention to his pronouncements? As president, he was able to set the news agenda most days with his Twitter feed. Now he has no power, but obviously still commands tremendous loyalty in his party. Usually we don’t pay all that much attention to what ex-presidents have to say.
Olivia: Is it that we don’t pay attention to what ex-presidents have to say, or that ex-presidents don’t usually say all that much?
Ben: Fair point.
Olivia: I think it will depend on what level of influence he manages to maintain on the Republican Party broadly. If congressional leadership continues to float on down to Mar-a-Lago to kiss his (presumably rather small) ring, it’s not really for the media to decide whether or not that’s news, but we do get to decide on context and framing, and I hope we’ll all be reasonable and responsible about how we cover such events. I’m not optimistic, to be clear. I think we will probably always make the same mistakes or make new, somehow worse mistakes (it’s the American way!), but I do hope.
Ben: Do you personally find the media environment much healthier and more sane with him out of it?
Olivia: I don’t know if I would go that far. But it’s been nice to feel like I can breathe. From June 16, 2015 until January 20, 2021, it was just one long story. It never really ended, it just kept getting longer. No characters ever left, the cast just kept getting bigger. There was always a sense of feeling crushed under the sheer amount of information in the never-ending story. The story still isn’t really over and won’t be until after the trial ends. But he no longer looms quite the way did before.