Shortly after being impeached for the second time on Wednesday, Donald Trump released a video that didn’t reference the historic rebuke but did urge supporters and others alike to shun political violence.
As notable as the content of the remarks, however, was the vehicle by which they were delivered.
Using a teleprompter to stay on script, Trump spoke straight to camera. The clip was sent out by the White House Twitter feed, not his own, which has been shut down since the aftermath of those riots. He did not do a primetime address in front of the press. In fact, he hasn’t done an interview at all.
That’s because, the nation’s most press-hungry president has gone dark.
In the week since Trump incited riots at the nation’s Capitol, both the president and his aides have been absent from the airwaves and are turning down interview requests. Trump’s team hasn’t held a surrogates call since last Tuesday. Nor have they issued talking points for allies to operate off of as impeachment articles were introduced and then passed. A formal war room aimed at bolstering Trump’s impeachment defense was never formed. And after he was banned from Twitter, discussion of having the president move to an alternate social media site have been shelved.
The shunning of the spotlight is not just dramatically off-brand for Trump. It also illustrates the severity of the current stakes and how dramatically he has been impacted by the backlash to his actions. One former aide said he had not seen this level of quiet from Trump since the bombshell “Access Hollywood” tapes were released in 2016.
“It’s one of the few times he has sensed the enormity of the situation,” the aide said.
Surrounded by an increasingly barebones team of senior aides and stragglers from his 2020 campaign, Trump has shown little interest in trying to spin a narrative about impeachment and is being advised to keep a low profile. Some of the president’s supporters admitted to being relieved by the approach, fearing anything he’d end up saying would only hurt his cause.
“They seem to be in a lockdown mode, which I believe is a wise place to be right now from a media standpoint,” said former Fox News host Eric Bolling, whose recent request to book a Trump interview for his Sinclair Broadcasting show has gone unanswered by the White House.
“He had a huge media footprint and it’s gotta be really difficult. It must be very difficult not being able to defend yourself, state your case, explain your reasonings for things,” Bolling observed.
Instead, Trump has been quietly taking the temperature of the Senate Republicans who will decide his fate — and whether he will remain eligible to seek office in the future — during an upcoming trial in the chamber. On Tuesday, Trump broached the topic with Sen. Lindsey Graham when the South Carolina Republican joined him aboard Air Force One for a trip to the Southwestern border. The president also spoke by phone with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is up for reelection in 2022 and who released a statement shortly after their call announcing his opposition to a second Trump impeachment.
The president’s inner circle has sought to put pressure on House and Senate Republicans by circulating a polling memo Wednesday morning that suggested GOP voters are largely opposed to impeaching Trump and less likely to support Republican incumbents who cross the president. The survey was commissioned by Trump adviser Jason Miller over the weekend and paid for by Trump’s Save America leadership PAC, according to GOP pollster John McLaughlin, whose firm conducted it.
“Any Republican who votes for impeachment is probably going to be primaried and they’re going to lose,” McLaughlin said in an interview, predicting that there would soon be “a day of backlash against Democrats for this and against any Republican who supports it.”
But some prominent Republicans have shown no fear of breaking from Trump, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he planned to make a final decision about convicting Trump after legal arguments around impeachment were presented to the Senate.
Privately, many in the party, including those who worked for Trump’s reelection, are fuming. One former campaign official called the president’s actions “unjustifiable” and said there was little surprise that none of the major party entities were bolstering Trump’s defense.
“I’m not sure anyone over there is a Trump fan anymore,” the official said of the absence of talking points and guidance being issued by the Republican National Committee.
Indeed, one of the president’s most pugnacious supporters at the RNC, Liz Harrington, quietly left last month. And as the impeachment debate was happening on the House floor, the committee’s chairwoman Ronna McDaniel blasted out a statement focused not on impeachment, but on preventing the kind of deadly violence and destruction seen at the Capitol last week at any upcoming demonstrations.
Among the officials who are still showing up for work at the White House, meanwhile, support for the president has also waned dramatically. One White House official compared the West Wing to a shelter for battered pets, saying most employees were “terrified and desperate for their next job to come through as soon as possible.”
Even if Trump were to try and bulldoze his way through the impeachment process — a tactic he and his defense attorneys deployed the first time he was impeached — it’s unclear if he would be afforded the same platform to do so. With zero access to social media following the removal of his accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, the president is left with traditional mediums such as network television or official statements.
But several television anchors expressed reservations about booking the president as a guest or granting him a live interview for fear that he may use their platform to rile up even more unrest.
One anchor at a top broadcast network said his “biggest nightmare” is if Trump offers an interview unprompted.
“I would do it in a heartbeat, but I think the larger question is, is it responsible? I am struggling,” the anchor said.
“I would relish the opportunity, I would want it, but on the other hand, are you giving him a platform to incite violence? I think it’s a serious conversation,” the anchor added, suggesting the decision around doing a Trump interview was comparable to the editorial debates major news divisions used to have around sitting down with dictators like Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin. “I’d only do the interview on tape and have full control of the edits. I would not permit him access to live television,”
Another TV host for a top cable network said he wasn’t even requesting an interview with Trump. “Not everything is about Trump,” the anchor explained. “After four years of this, I’m thoroughly sick of it. That’s my reason.”
It’s a stark difference from the days when Trump could dial into his preferred network for unlimited airtime by phone or satellite appearance, a tool he often used to sway public opinion during the campaign and at the height of various controversies. Now, he’s without his favorite social media bullhorns and much of the staff that would help him execute a flood-the-zone comms strategy. Hope Hicks, his long time aide, departed the White House on Wednesday, shortly after the House passed its article of impeachment. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is expected to depart on Friday — leaving Trump without an official spokesperson as he enters his final perilous days in office.
But lack of personnel is only part of the problem. The other reason Trump has gone quiet, according to one White House official, is that many Republicans and most Democrats have already said he should be held accountable for his dangerous rhetoric and persistent attempts to overturn the 2020 election outcome.
“There’s nothing to respond to. The cake is baked,” this official said.
Sam Stein contributed to this report.
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