As with so much about President Donald Trump, his Phoenix rally on Tuesday night was two contradictory things: both shocking and completely predictable.
Shocking because it was the most sustained attack any president has made on the news media. (“It’s time to expose the crooked-media deceptions and challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions,” Trump ranted, as he charged that reporters invent sources and make up stories. “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”)
And predictable because this is exactly what Trump does when he’s in trouble. He finds an enemy and punches as hard as he can.
And, make no mistake, he is in trouble. With a special prosecutor breathing down his neck and even once-loyal Breitbart News turning on him, Trump is, according to one new poll, at the lowest point of his presidency.
Fifty-three percent of voters say he is not moral. (Stop a moment to take that in.)
Fifty-five percent say he isn’t stable, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken this past weekend. And 58 percent of voters call him reckless.
Never one to examine his own conscience, or look for self-improvement, Trump apparently consulted his tried-and-true playbook.
“Go for the jugular,” Trump advised in his 2009 book “Think Big.”
Always get even: “You need to screw them back 15 times harder. You do it not only to get the person who messed with you but also to show the others who are watching what will happen to them if they mess with you.”
It is a philosophy learned decades ago from his mentor, the ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn. In a recent Vanity Fair article on Trump and Cohn, Marie Brenner quotes lawyer Victor Kovner: “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.”
She writes: “Cohn’s power derived largely from his ability to scare potential adversaries with hollow threats and spurious lawsuits. And the fee he demanded for his services? Ironclad loyalty.” Sounds familiar.
Trump lapped up this advice. No target is sacrosanct.
Even if the person or organization that “screwed him” is a Gold Star parent like Khizr Khan, in the Trump philosophy, you must counterpunch.
If it’s one of the cornerstones of American democracy like the independent news media, that’s fair game, too.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.