On Tuesday night, as Donald Trump stood behind a lectern at the White House and announced his nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States, he took a moment to needle his audience. “So was that a surprise?” he implored the crowd in the East Room. “Was it?” he asked, just before Colorado appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch, who had been widely rumored as the nominee, joined him.
This, of course, is dishonest: The president promised us a circus, live and in prime time and like no Supreme Court selection America has seen. We’ve had showmen in the Oval Office before. We’ve even had an actor. But we’ve never had an executive producer — a role Trump still technically holds on Celebrity Apprentice — and we’re starting to learn just what the next four years of production are going to entail.
Optics matter to Trump, personally and professionally. This is a man who could not — cannot — let the results of the popular vote rest. Who was so wounded by the size of the crowds at his inauguration that he accused the media of lying about the dismal attendance, even as the sparseness of those crowds was plain to the naked eye. A man who then introduced his press secretary to the nation by having him read out a series of combative false statements about the crowd size. A man who was reportedly infuriated afterward — not because Sean Spicer had misled the media, not due to his demeanor or the damage he had done to the administration’s nascent relationship with the press corps, but because he didn’t like the look of Spicer’s suit. Two days later, at Spicer’s first official briefing, he emerged in a navy jacket with a better cut and a tidy pocket square, looking suddenly taller: His lectern had been wheeled out and replaced with a smaller version.
Donald Trump’s White House is a reality show — and worse than that, it’s a pretty good one: all-engrossing and the talk of the town, because hate-watchers, after all, are still watchers.
But Trump does care about his popularity — or, maybe more accurately, the popularity of the President Trump Show. His original plan, announced just last week, was to make his Supreme Court announcement on Thursday. Then the weekend — the mass protests, the corporate grimaces, the international condemnation — happened, and it takes little stretch of the imagination to see how it all might be demoralizing. So Trump deployed what might be his greatest strength, flexing through a narrative shift distracting enough to razzle-dazzle us and give us a new episode to talk about.
You can see the show as he might have imagined it, and as it seemed for a while it might be, after CBS reported that both Gorsuch and federal appeals Judge Thomas Hardiman would be at the White House on Tuesday night. The two judges seated anxiously between their families. Staring, transfixed, as the president strode down the famous red carpet of the White House Cross Hall and into the East Room. Holding their breath as Trump started to speak. Gorsuch gasping as his name was read; Hardiman crumpling into the arms of his wife. Another camera on Paul Ryan, making a show of his support for the commander-in-chief even as Trump supporters continue to boo at the mention of his name. A live feed, maybe, from a cameraman outside Merrick Garland’s home, watching for that telltale blue flicker of a television. James O’Keefe, incognito in the British Virgin Islands in a Hawaiian shirt, serving Barack Obama a margarita and asking from behind the hidden camera what he thought. But Hardiman never showed.
Instead, we got something far more mundane: the measured welcome of a consensus pick for conservatives. Gorsuch spoke briefly, sounding judicial and dignified. In prime time. On every network. At an event dreamed up to maximize eyeballs and star power. A spectacle first — one every bit as programmatic and straightforward as Trump’s Apprentice star turn — and a political maneuver second. And a surprise, it turns out, to just about no one at all.