There's not much point in talking about the substantive merits of what President Donald Trump did the other day in hiring Bill Shine, formerly of Fox News, to be White House deputy chief of staff for communications. The message is clear: Trump is willing to ally publicly with Fox News and broadcast his disregard for the sexual harassment scandals that marred Shine's tenure.
If you put the hiring together with Trump's recent mockery of the #MeToo movement and his strong defense of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — scourge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, of late, accused enabler of a sexual predator — the president’s message is even clearer. He is aggressively doubling down.
Trump is willing to ally publicly with Fox News and broadcast his disregard for the sexual harassment scandals that marred Shine's tenure.
Relevant questions now are what Trump thinks he's doing in terms of political strategy and whether he's likely to be right. He may be calculating that the negative energy he's stirring up is a winning formula — if not for his party, then at least for the very most important person in the equation, which would be Donald Trump.
First, recall what it means for Trump to hire Shine. The former Fox executive was closely tied to Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and host Bill O'Reilly, both accused of serial, systemic sexual harassment. Various resulting lawsuits allege that Shine knew what was going on — and enabled it to continue.
After Ailes was forced out in 2016, Shine — who had been Ailes' longtime chief lieutenant as well as a former and well-regarded producer for Sean Hannity — became Fox News co-chairman. The wheels of the #MeToo movement kept turning, though, and the Murdoch family likely concluded that they had to take more decisive action to show that Fox was no longer the network of Ailes and O'Reilly. There was no more public a symbol of the Ailes era than Shine; he was gone by May 2017. But he has since stayed close to Hannity, a Trump confidant, who is said to have helped arrange the recent White House move.
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So again, it's no real mystery why Trump put Shine in the communications job. It means that Trump admires the media strategy pioneered by Ailes and Shine at Fox, aims to use that strategy for himself and calculates that all the ambiguity surrounding Shine and sexual harassment at Fox isn't going to do any fatal political harm to Trump. So there. Take that, fake news media.
In fact, Trump's hiring of Shine is less stunning than the president's recent defense of Jordan, a Freedom Caucus founder who had been considering a run for speaker of the House.
Jordan is also at the forefront of the campaign to discredit the Mueller investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. He has been playing this new role with what his supporters say is admirable spirit and his critics view as a particularly nasty brand of aggression. When accusing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of lying and a cover-up at a June 28 hearing, for example, Jordan made Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., look like Mahatma Gandhi.
House Speaker Paul Ryan says the allegations are serious and deserve serious inquiry. But do you know who has already made up his mind about them? Donald Trump.
We now know, however, that Jordan has a past — in particular, a past job as assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University, where a team physician, in echoes of Larry Nassar at Michigan State, is accused of sexually abusing the young men in his care. Several former wrestlers say the abuse was common knowledge. The investigation is still in process — but no one who has spent any time in a locker room would doubt it. At last count, at least seven former wrestlers say Jordan was among those who knew abuse was going on.
For his part, Jordan says he knew nothing about the threats to the young men in his charge.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., says the allegations are serious and deserve serious inquiry. But do you know who has already made up his mind about them? Donald Trump. He says he simply does not believe the accusers and that Jordan is “an outstanding man.”
As with Shine's appointment, there is no mystery about the message here. Jordan is performing very useful functions for the president, and he is reciprocating in his typically Trumpian way. Full stop.
But in a larger sense, what is Trump up to? One theory is that there's not much strategy in this wholesale contempt for the sexual harassment issue. It’s just another expression of Trump's pre-existing resentments — perhaps fueled by his sense of empowerment at the prospect of another Supreme Court nomination win and a series of really neat recent campaign rallies.
Or maybe Trump thinks that the pictures of the children on the border have caused him to lose his diminishing share of people who might be persuaded to tolerate his personally repellent behavior on account of some of his policies. What he's still got is his base, along with whatever intensity he can instill in it. They are his strategy for 2020.
And what about 2018, and the threat that Trump's behavior may pose to the Republican House majority? After all, the intense attachment to Trump that his people show isn't reliably transferable to congressional candidates.
It may be that Trump doesn't care — or at least doesn't care enough to change his tactics. If he loses the House and sees his legislative agenda stymied, his agencies subjected to hostile oversight and perhaps even his tenure threatened by impeachment, he and the people who elected him will have even more cause for resentment and more energy to fuel the next presidential campaign.
Because with Trump, there's winning, and then there's winning.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”