Donald Trump, Master of Misdirection | Opinion

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Having spent the past two years studying the president's rhetoric and, in particular, his use of Twitter, I know that Donald Trump's tweets typically serve one of three purposes: dissembling, distracting, and discrediting. These aims, of course, are not mutually exclusive, and the president frequently communicates in ways that incorporate all three. Collectively, these three strategies make the president a master of misdirection. Quite simply, no president in the modern era has been more successful at shaping and manipulating the news cycle than Donald Trump.

Misdirection is, of course, the basis of magic or illusion. The magician draws the audience's attention to something insignificant so that they do not notice the significant thing that is happening right before their eyes—the thing that would destroy the illusion. As a master of misdirection, Donald Trump is exceedingly good at shifting our attention away from things that matter. With a single tweet, he can magically shift the news narrative in an entirely new direction, as he did last week when he began tweeting about John McCain, for instance.

President Trump's greatest rhetorical magic trick, however, has been to create the illusion that he won the Presidency of the United States without the aid of the Russian government. To be clear, I am not questioning the president's legitimacy. It would take an exceptionally small, petty, and insecure person to challenge the legitimacy of a duly-elected president. I do not dispute that Trump earned the requisite number of votes in the Electoral College to win the 2016 US presidential election. I am simply highlighting the fact that he had considerable help from a hostile foreign power in doing so. This is the real news of the Mueller report.

For two years, Trump has tried—through misdirection—to downplay, deny, and obscure this fact. He does not want the American public to know that his victory was significantly aided by a massive cyberterrorist campaign undertaken by the Russian government because it makes him look weak and incapable. He is both. So, through rhetorical slight-of-hand, Trump invented the mantra of "No Collusion!" This simple, unambiguous phrase quickly came to frame the entire Mueller investigation and, subsequently, news media coverage of it.

The sheer number of times, more than 150 on Twitter alone, that the president pressed the matter of no collusion, the more intently the public looked at—and only at—collusion. "Did the president collude with Russia?" everyone asked. They asked this precisely because the president repeatedly, obsessively insisted he did not. This was misdirection. By keeping the media narrative and, thus, public attention trained on the matter of collusion, Trump distracted us from the real issue: that the Russia government had engaged in unprecedented efforts to tip the 2016 US presidential election in his favor.

This misdirection has continued to serve the president well since Mueller submitted his report, and Attorney General William Barr presented his four-page letter summarizing that report. In it, Barr writes: "the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government." Well, of course, Mueller did not find that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia. There was never any question about that, and Trump knew it. This was misdirection, a rhetorical strategy designed to draw our attention away from the real news: Russian interference.

In 2016, the United States of America was attacked by a hostile foreign power through an online campaign of disinformation and propaganda. That campaign was designed to help candidate Trump become President Trump. It was successful. Collusion was never the real issue. It was always the shiny object the magician holds up and says look closely. When you shout, "No Collusion" and "Witch Hunt," again and again, on Twitter you are very clearly saying, "look over here." The media, the pundits, and the public listened and looked. Meanwhile, we all missed what was happening right before our eyes. That's a pretty good trick.

Brian L. Ott is Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University. He is an award-winning scholar, who has spent more than 20 years studying rhetoric, media, and their intersection. His latest book, co-authored with Greg Dickinson, is, The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.