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One dumb Trump tweet can trick the world into looking the other way.
Many of history’s greatest works are unfinished. There’s the Mona Lisa, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and the Sagrada Familia, the cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi that has been under construction for 120 years. Its erection has outlasted two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and even its own architect’s death. Gaudi’s masterpiece is scheduled to be finally be completed in 2026—or maybe it’s 2028. The Spanish don’t like to be rushed.
To this list of historical achievements, let us add one more: covfefe.
In the weest hours of Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump sent out an unfinished and unintelligible tweet that immediately delighted a nation, raised to ecstasy by its sphinx-like nature. “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” the leader of the free world tweeted to his 31 million followers at 12:06am. The blunder immediately became a sensation: Did the president have a stroke? Had his lawyers, who have threatened to take a stronger hand with his social media presence, wrested the presidential phone from his tiny fingers before he could complete the tweet? And why, oh why, didn’t Trump immediately delete the damn thing?
It wasn’t just that the usual Twitterati chimed in with their covfefe jokes—the journalists and media elites for whom this kind of thing is Christmas come early. That seizure-inducing “word” was everywhere. Merriam-Webster briefly quit the internet in response. The Philadelphia police department piled on by reminding late-night drivers to have a covfefe before they get behind the wheel. Even European public transportation couldn’t resist getting in on the action.
And at the center of the storm, there was one man who claimed to hold the key to covfefe—the indefatigable, ever-bothered Sean Spicer. Trump’s press secretary claimed that it was an inside joke. “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” he said during a Wednesday press conference. The White House press corps questioned the president’s competency (“Is no one watching this?” one reporter asked), but it doesn’t tell the public anything we don’t already know about a man who is unfit to tweet out 160 characters correctly, let alone lead a country.
The uproar over #CovfefeGate, or whatever we’re calling it now, might appear deeply embarrassing for the White House, but it’s the perfect Trump Gaffe: It keeps the attention on the president with no real consequences or fallout. Those who see themselves reflected in his unfiltered brand model will take it as another sign that Trump is like them, while everyone else will eventually move onto whatever dumb thing he does next.
The president’s tweet was innocuous enough that he (or, more likely, a member of his staff) was already making jokes about it just hours after the typo went viral.
Who can figure out the true meaning of "covfefe" ??? Enjoy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2017
Whether it’s intentional, the attention paid to these sorts of scandals plays right into the hand of a man who loves to distract and mislead the media. When the president hinted in February that he might dial down his extremist immigration policy with a compromise providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, his address to Congress included no such proposal. A senior White House official later told CNN that Trump’s false claim was a “misdirection play,” a reference to entertainers Siegfried and Roy’s tactic of keeping the audience focused on one thing while the duo pulls off their next magical stunt.
Trump’s silliest gaffes frequently divert the public’s focus from something important to yet another empty controversy. In November, the president settled a class action lawsuit for $25 million, one that claimed that Trump University is an elaborate fraud, much like its namesake’s administration. According to Google Trends, that story received about a tenth the coverage allotted to commander-in-chief’s feud with the cast of Hamilton.
There are countless examples of Trump’s Vegas-style misdirection, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell which stories are distractions and which are not. In February, Trump gave a bizarre, rambling press conference during which he bragged about his Electoral College win, called the media “dishonest” and “out of control,” and accused journalists of fabricating stories about the White House’s connections to Russia, which remain under investigation months later. As that presser dominated the headlines, Trump quietly pulled out of plans for a two-state compromise in Israel.
As Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—who resigned in February for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador—the president threw himself a party. Still facing scrutiny over Russia three months later, Trump recently went on a big trip to Europe with his family—one that eerily paralleled Nixon’s 1974 tour of the Middle East during the Watergate investigation.
This tactic is a favorite of Trump’s good buddy, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ben Nimmo, a writer for the Central European Policy Institute, claimed that a steady stream of distraction has been central to Russian propaganda campaigns. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s state-run media spread the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was behind it. Russia claimed that its neighbors were gunning for sympathy. An investigation would later determine that the attack was caused by a separatist group loyal to the Kremlin.
“The techniques of distraction create uncertainty, confusion, and ultimately a doubt whether any source can be trusted without detailed personal experience,” Nimmo writes. “It generates a moral quagmire in which everyone is wrong, and therefore wrong actions become normal.”
Trump’s avalanche of fake controversies and fake news serves to undermine the function of media, as Nimmo suggests, by creating a landscape where everything matters but also nothing matters. One day Trump is accusing Obama of illegally wiretapping his phones during the election; the next he’s making unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. If the Independent estimated that Trump was enmeshed in more than 200 scandals prior to the time of his inauguration, the sheer volume of controversy means few of these stories outlast the 24-hour news cycle. They crowd each other out, every scandal merely a prelude to another.
A disclaimer must be addressed here: While pundits frequently liken Trump to a modern Machiavelli, that gives him too much credit. President Bigly isn’t an evil genius. Trump thinks little about anything he does, whether it’s mocking a disabled reporter, maligning the parents of a fallen soldier, threatening North Korea with military aggression, or whether he might sign any given piece of legislation.
As Trump informed us on the Access Hollywood tapes, he doesn’t think before he acts. To paraphrase GTBTP: Trump just does it, and when you’re president, they let you.
Whether covfefe is the president’s pièce de distraction or just the dumb luck of a professional narcissist, it’s working. Google Trends shows the public is already moving on from the non-controversy, which has dwarfed breaking reports the president has backed out of the Paris climate deal. That move will destroy international attempts to curb the impact of global warming, but the covfefe tweet has generated 100 times more attention from news outlets and social media. Jimmy Kimmel, after all, didn’t tweet about climate change.
Misdirection might help kill an unflattering story, but Trump will one day learn the hard way what happens at the end of the show: It’s the magician who gets his face bitten off.