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Donald Trump wants to succeed. He must succeed. His self-image is of a man who knows nothing but success.

And, since we know presidents, whether Democrat or Republican, never get everything they want, we can with certainty predict that Trump will fail to achieve some of his goals. That doesn't mean he's a failure as a president. It just means he's a normal one.

Well, normal ... I'm not sure that description will ever fit this president. His abnormality, in the context of Washington politics, is what got him elected.

Just as Hillary Clinton would have had as president, Trump has a built-in audience of voters who will despise him and his policies no matter what. It's not just policy differences. It's visceral. It's in part because of the political age we're living in, with social media and constant news and commentary. But the president plays a role in that, too. Trump seems to enjoy the nastiness of politics.

Vince Foster, before taking his own life, decried it as Washington's culture of "blood sport." Trump adheres to a modified version of Michael Corleone's self-forgiving axiom, "It's not personal. It's just business." Trump seems to enjoy an approach that says, "It's just business, until I make it personal."

But back to Trump's handling of "success." Given that we know he'll fail occasionally and that he appears incapable of ever acknowledging failure, Trump needs to set the stage in such a way that any narrative contrary to his never-ending success storyline will struggle to gain traction, at least among his supporters and potential supporters.

Enter "fake news."

The president issued his "fake news" awards the other day, picking out a few examples of coverage that certainly wasn't error free. Trump concentrates on the errors and makes little noise about the corrections news organizations publish once they've identified an error or it's been brought to their attention. There's not a journalist out there who hasn't made an error.

It's a danger of the job. Journalistic training helps to minimize the mistakes, but reporting is a live-fire exercise. It's reporting under the pressures of daily, and sometimes hourly, deadlines. One reason they call journalism "the first draft of history" is that immediacy and perfection are at odds.

That's not fake news. It's trying to deliver information amid the chaos of Washington and the efforts of people on all sides to keep information from public view or to use certain pieces of information for political gain.

So what is fake news?

In the context of Donald Trump, it's manipulation -- his, not the media's. Trump knows his best chance to preserve a capacity to continually redefine success is to eradicate or minimize people or institutions who would give the American people a different story. The press, that institution so valued by our Founding Fathers that the amendment guaranteeing its existence was the very first one, is one of the major sources of information beyond the president's control.

And that chaps his hide to no end. That's why he's employed the fake news mantra over and over again. Maybe Trump would never eat an elephant -- or maybe he would -- but he knows you get it done like anything else: one bite at a time. And each time, he hopes he's diminishing trust, chipping away at it with a few more people each time willing to let his corrosive message sink in.

That's also why he's advanced the idea that the nation's libel laws should be changed. He wants to create a stronger club with which he can clobber anyone who has the audacity to report something beyond the inane messages delivered by Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the White House briefing room.

Listen, I've seen reporting I didn't think was great. I know "the media" is a flawed institution. But a nation without a free press is a garden from which bad government grows. And from there, it wouldn't be too far a journey for the United States to become one of those "s***hole" countries President Trump dislikes.

Commentary on 01/22/2018

Print Headline: The Trump trap

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