Behind the Hostility: How Trump and the media descended to mutual disgust

This article is based on dozens of interviews and fresh research since the beginning of 2018, a chapter-length postscript to my book Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and The War Over the Truth.

 

After a year and a half of open warfare between the president and the press, some journalists seized upon a term that conveyed their disdain for both Donald Trump and his fiercely loyal followers.

Trump, they said, was leading a cult. “Republicans embrace the ‘cult’ of Trump,” said the Washington Post. Joe Scarborough said GOP primary voters had “devolved into a Trumpist cult.” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews even made an allusion to the mass suicides at Jonestown. 

And then the president wandered into a crisis that prompted even many conservatives in the media to turn on him.

By imposing an immigration enforcement policy that separated more than 2,000 children from their parents at the border, the president found himself being denounced by the conservative editorial pages of the New York Post and Wall Street Journal. Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as communications director, called it “inhumane”—and the White House was ticked off at him. Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano branded it “child abuse.” Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said the uproar could be “Trump’s Katrina.” And the president, Jeff Sessions, Kirstjen Nielsen and others were putting out contradictory messages that fueled the coverage of confusion.

When Trump backed down—which he had insisted was legally impossible—and reversed the policy—which he had said was not a policy—it was in large measure because the media had displayed a sustained moral outrage not seen since Charlottesville.

And yet the president’s popularity continued to rise. The press, having reached a highly emotional state, was forced to recognize that each negative barrage only solidified support from his base, whose members viewed journalism as an organized pack of lies.

It is a very different, hollowed-out White House in the summer of 2018, with Trump unconstrained by banished or neutered advisers. But the level of disdain toward the media is much the same.

Some takeaways:

--It is no longer just liberal commentators who question Trump’s mental health and racial attitudes. In many mainstream outlets, he is regularly called unhinged, branded an outright racist, likened to a Nazi, even blamed for the murder of journalists at the Annapolis Capital-Gazette by a crazed gunman.

--Some of Trump’s media antagonists are so angry that they cheered when a Virginia restaurant booted Sarah Huckabee Sanders and said ​other ​presidential aides deserved ​to be harassed when they were eating or shopping. CNN contributor Ana Navarro said “there is a cost to being an accomplish to this cruel, deceitful administration.” MSNBC contributor and Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin said Sanders “has no right to live a life of no fuss, no muss, after lying to the press” and that this should be a “life sentence” for her and other Trump aides. And these are self-described conservatives.

--The president has returned to his most scathing rhetoric against the media, saying after his meeting with Kim Jong Un that the so-called fake news is “our country’s biggest enemy,” and telling Mike Huckabee that the coverage of the summit was “almost treasonous.”

--Trump has also questioned whether television networks should have their licenses lifted and offending news organizations should have their White House credentials pulled.

The immigration controversy had flared up periodically since the day that Trump announced his candidacy. In the first days of 2018, the Washington Post published what seemed a devastating leak: In an Oval Office discussion of immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and other African countries, Trump said: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?"

While television was more than happy to air the curse word, Trump’s confidants were stunned that he would use the word—the White House insisted it was a slightly different word—in front of Democratic lawmakers. A former top official told me the president was getting more erratic compared to a year earlier.

The New Yorker ran a piece titled “A Racist in the Oval Office.” And a New York Times editorial asked: “Is Donald Trump mentally fit to be president of the United States?” It was “alarming,” the paper said, because Trump’s behavior in office was “impulsive, erratic, dishonest, childish, crude.”

But his base did not budge. Months later, when the president said in a tossed-off tweet that migrants at the border should be sent back “with no judges or court cases,” the media uproar over due process lasted only a day or two, supplanted, as it always was, by new Trumpian controversies.

***

In the space of a few news cycles, John Kelly found himself facing damaging leaks, the White House seemed insensitive to domestic abuse, and Hope Hicks decided to quit.

It was yet another demonstration of how, in the face of a media offensive, White House communications screwups turned what should have been a two-day story into one that mushroomed for weeks. And it was the beginning of a long, slow decline for the general who initially drew favorable coverage for bringing military-style discipline to the West Wing.

Suddenly front-page headlines were undermining the chief of staff. “Kelly’s Job May Be in Peril,” said the Washington Post, which also quoted an unnamed White House official as calling Kelly “a big fat liar.”

“Under Fire, Kelly is Said to Muse About Retiring,” the New York Times reported.

Reince Priebus had lived through it himself. He knew that these stories didn’t come from nowhere, that the president was talking to people and trying out the names of possible successors.

The Daily Mail had reported that a top White House aide, Rob Porter, who for a time dated Hope Hicks, had been accused of physical and emotional abuse by his two ex-wives. Kelly initially defended Porter, then insisted he knew nothing about the abuse allegations. And by sticking to conflicting accounts, the White House raised questions that echoed long after Porter’s forced resignation. “This was the communications staff of the White House,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper, “facilitating an opportunity for an accused domestic abuser to tell journalists…that his ex-wives were liars, all of it paid for by your tax dollars.”

Kelly soldiered on—though Trump increasingly began to bypass him, diminishing his authority—but others fell by the wayside. Gary Cohn resigned as chief economic adviser. H.R. McMaster was pushed out as national security adviser, not long after Trump called an NBC story on his looming departure fake news. The same happened when Trump fired Rex Tillerson, weeks after the president ridiculed stories that his secretary of State was on his way out. (Those being ousted found their image eroded by leaks; the Wall Street Journal reported that at a dinner with Chinese officials, Trump had ordered Tillerson: “Rex, eat the salad.”)

In perhaps the most personal loss, Hope Hicks quit as communications director, shortly after the leaking of congressional testimony in which she had admitted telling “white lies” on Trump’s behalf. I was told that the president sometimes yelled at her—she now ran a department that he could blame for his bad press—and that she had been looking to leave for some time. CNN quoted an unnamed source as saying Trump berated her for her testimony. And suddenly, the young woman who had excelled at reading Trump’s moods since before the campaign’s launch was gone.

Steve Bannon was also banished from the inner circle for his increasingly caustic criticism, prompting the president to say: “Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was.”

In a strange turn of events, Trump began discussing with Corey Lewandowski—the man he had fired as campaign manager—whether he wanted to become White House chief of staff. “I want you to come into the building,” Trump said. Lewandowski preferred to continue making money on the outside, and besides, he knew he would take the blame if the Republicans lost the midterm elections. At least a third of the current staff would quit if Corey took the job, which was fine, because he didn’t plan to sign up without being able to hire seven or eight of his own operatives.

Lewandowski, who joined Mike Pence’s PAC, advised Trump to regularly call into “Fox & Friends,” as he had for years, saying he would drive the agenda for the other cable networks. No one was a better communicator, he believed. Kellyanne Conway announced the move during her next appearance.

Lewandowski had become Trump’s most aggressive television surrogate, although the communications shop was so dysfunctional it often failed to provide him and other outside advocates with basic talking points.

Trump hired several television veterans instead. John Bolton, the Fox News contributor and former U.N. ambassador, was named national security adviser. Bolton had made his name as a hard-liner, and during his first week on the job, Trump ordered airstrikes against Syria after another chemical attack. The running joke in the mansion was that Bolton had come in and simply declared war.

Larry Kudlow, the longtime CNBC commentator and onetime Wall Street executive, was tapped as chief economic adviser. He loved the job and the enormous access to Trump, even though the president went too far for his taste in imposing stiff tariffs and Kudlow would try to pull him back.

He was joining a fractious White House that had trouble cleaning up routine snafus. When Nikki Haley said on “Face the Nation” that tougher sanctions would be imposed on Russian companies the next day, the president called Conway about his U.N. ambassador. “She shouldn’t have said it,” said Trump, who had rejected further punitive action.

“We have to put a statement out,” Kellyanne said.

“You write it,” the president said.

But somehow the statement never got issued. Things got more complicated two days later when Kudlow, straying into NSC territory, told reporters off the cuff that Haley “got ahead of the curve” and “there might have been some momentary confusion about that.”

Kudlow realized his misstep, and Haley hit back with surgical precision, telling Fox: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” The media dissected the dustup for days.

Lewandowski called Kudlow one night and asked: “When was the last time you were in the major leagues?”

“It's been a long time,” Kudlow said. “The fastballs are a lot faster than they were then.” Kudlow later suffered a mild heart attack but quickly bounced back.

Hicks’ job remained vacant, and Kellyanne resisted pressure to take it, preferring her wide-ranging role and convinced that female staffers were too often pushed into communications. Bill Shine, who had resigned under pressure the previous year as co-president of Fox News, was named deputy chief of staff in charge of communications.

Reince Priebus and other former officials saw what was happening in the mansion: Trump no longer trusted anyone around him, so he was calling all the plays, and hiring like-minded advisers.

But Steve Bannon had a darker view. He saw Trump as increasingly impulsive and locked in a potential death spiral because he wasn’t delivering on immigration, the core issue for his base. And Bannon expected things to get worse because as the cast of West Wing aides shrunk, there was no longer anyone to filter Trump.

But those left behind were quick to skewer their boss by whispering to reporters, a problem that had plagued Trump from the beginning. The Washington Post quoted an unnamed confidante as saying that Trump was isolated and “it really is a president unhinged.”

When Vladimir Putin won his ritual reelection, the Post reported that Trump had ignored a briefing document about their upcoming call that warned in capital letters: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

***

As Stormy Daniels went from a nuisance to an actual legal threat for Donald Trump, the media embraced her cause—in no small measure because they got to show endless pictures of the former porn star spilling out of her dresses.

The press had long minimized her contention that she’d had an affair with Trump back in 2006, assuming it was true but that no one much cared because he had been a celebrity businessman. But the game changed when the Wall Street Journal reported that weeks before the election it was Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, who had paid her $130,000—on his own, Cohen insisted—to stay quiet.

Now Daniels was dropping her denials, agreeing that it was hush money and describing the seedy details of their alleged one-night stand on “60 Minutes” with Anderson Cooper.

“The Stormy Daniels case is typical of Mr. Trump’s pre-presidential behavior in thinking he can, with enough threats and dissembling, get away with anything,” a Journal editorial said. “He’s never understood that a president can’t behave that way, and this may be the cause of his downfall.”

Days earlier, on his CNN show, Cooper had interviewed a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who said she too had had an affair with Trump in 2006.  McDougal’s silence had also been bought, but by the National Enquirer, owned by Trump pal David Pecker, which paid her $150,000 just before the election for her adultery allegations and to write some columns—but never ran the affair story, a process known in tabloid parlance as catch and kill.

The storm over Daniels turned into a hurricane in early May when Rudy Giuliani, having just joined Trump’s legal team, told Sean Hannity on Fox that the president had reimbursed Cohen for the hush money payment—contradicting the previous presidential claim of ignorance.

Jake Tapper said on CNN that Trump was facing a “credibility chasm.” The even-handed Washington Post columnist Dan Balz was unusually outspoken, writing: “Does it bother anyone that President Trump has been caught lying? Does it bother anyone that this is not new?”

The media were now obsessed with the president and the porn star, a narrative fueled by Giuliani’s television blitz—the former mayor would sometimes wander off course and have to walk back controversial comments—and by Stormy’s camera-craving lawyer Michael Avenatti, who appeared more than 100 times on CNN and MSNBC. Some pundits deemed the investigation of Cohen, whose office and hotel room were raided by FBI agents, a greater threat to the president’s political health than the Russia probe—and, for the media, a heck of a lot easier to explain. (Cohen later signaled in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that he was distancing himself from Trump and prepared to cooperate with prosecutors, using phrases he had carefully rehearsed.)

The Robert Mueller investigation kept flaring up, often creating problems for Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Trump’s legal team acknowledged something that the press secretary had denied last year—that the president had in fact dictated a narrow and potentially misleading response to a New York Times story on a Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Pressed by White House reporters, Sanders refused to admit she had provided false information, saying repeatedly, “Once again, this is a reference back to a letter from the outside counsel. I can’t answer, and I would direct you to them.” Some pundits called her a liar, or useless, or demanded she resign. But Sanders was in a box, not wanting to concede that her colleagues had fed her bad information.

Leaks continued to plague the White House. One of the most damaging was that communications aide Kelly Riddell Sadler had said in a meeting not to worry about getting John McCain’s vote because “it doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

During the media uproar over the slap at McCain, who was battling brain cancer, Trump asked Sadler what happened. She said she had called the senator’s daughter Meghan to say she was sorry.

“Are you done apologizing? Do you want to apologize anymore?” Trump asked.

Sadler said she didn’t.

“I don’t think she has to apologize anymore,” Trump said.

Kellyanne Conway helped the president craft a tweet about the controversy. “The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible,” Trump posted on Twitter. “With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”

Conway, who hated the internal leaks, had suggested adding “cowards” as a stronger word. And Trump, who often insisted the leaks were fiction, was finally acknowledging that his porous White House was regularly undermining him. The White House quietly dismissed Kelly Sadler a month later.

The leaking issue would surface again when the president tried to resurrect the summit he had canceled with Kim Jong Un and the New York Times quoted a source as saying that would be almost impossible by the original June 12 date. Trump declared that the “failing” Times had cited “‘a senior White House official, who doesn’t exist…Use real people, not phony sources.”

Yet while the Times overstated the source’s account, he was all too real: a White House specialist on Asia whose background conversation with reporters had been arranged by the press office. The audio of the call was promptly leaked to a Huffington Post writer, knocking down the president’s claim.

The mainstream media were increasingly opposing Trump’s foreign policy. After the president withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, as he had vowed to do during the campaign, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour declared:“I would describe pulling out of this deal as possibly the greatest deliberate act of self-harm and self-sabotage in geo-strategic politics in the modern era.”

When Trump broke plenty of china at the G-7 meeting and picked a fight with Canada’s Justin Trudeau, the press reaction was almost uniformly negative. “In Trump, Many Fear the End of the World Order,” the Washington Post proclaimed.

And when Trump met with Kim days later in Singapore, many journalists who had trashed the president for his nuclear threats now faulted his diplomacy. He had given away the prestige of an unprecedented meeting, they said, and gotten nothing in return.

Jeremy Bash, an Obama aide turned NBC commentator, pronounced the display of U.S. and North Korean flags "disgusting." MSNBC’s Chris Matthews objected when Trump lightly placed his hand on Kim’s back. On the left, Salon called Singapore “Trump and Kim’s Big Nothing Summit”; on the right, the Weekly Standard headline was “A Summit About Nothing.”

George Stephanopoulos, echoing a common theme, asked Trump how he could deal with a dictator who resorted to “forced starvation, labor camps, he’s assassinated members of his own family.” The president replied, “George, I’m given what I’m given, okay?”

It was more than fair game for press critics to observe that the summit had produced only a vague communique with the goal of Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear weapons, with nothing on inspections, verification or deadlines. Trump himself conceded that the process might ultimately fail. But the coverage reflected a tone of disgust that Trump, without lengthy talks by career diplomats, had held the meeting at all.

***

On rare occasions, the press, however briefly, seemed to favor President Trump’s agenda, but almost invariably wound up disappointed.

After the horrible massacre at a Florida high school, the president, who had run as a champion of the Second Amendment, suddenly put gun control at the top of the national agenda. He held a series of remarkable televised meetings with parents, students, teachers and, most notably, lawmakers, talking up the idea of strengthening background checks and raising the gun purchase age to 21. He told senators in one session that they were “afraid of the NRA,” but that sometimes you had to disagree with your friends and he was willing to take the heat.

The pundits glimpsed a president who could use his television mastery to broker an agreement between opposing factions. But after meeting with NRA officials, he quietly dropped the issue.

The same thing happened with the elusive grand bargain to save the dreamers from deportation in exchange for a wall and other border security measures. The media by now had turned cynical as Trump endorsed a House Republican measure on immigration, then tweeted that lawmakers shouldn’t waste their time, and then, when the bill was defeated, claimed he had never pushed it. And the outcome was similar when Trump slapped stiff tariffs on NATO allies and China, insisting this was a negotiating tool, triggering retaliation that increasingly looked like a global trade war. It became a standard media refrain that the former businessman who touted himself as the ultimate dealmaker couldn’t seem to close one.

To be sure, the press scored some tactical victories. Soon after Trump was forced to back down on the separation of migrant children, months of reporting on ethical breaches by EPA chief Scott Pruitt, led by the Post and the Times, prompted the president to fire him. Most of the media didn’t like Pruitt’s dismantling of environmental regulations, so there was a sense of vindication in his ouster.

While his efforts on Capitol Hill yielded little, Trump continued to excel at fighting the culture war. The man who had forced the NFL to change its rule on protesting players kneeling during the national anthem seized another opening when the Philadelphia Eagles were scheduled to visit the White House.

The president abruptly disinvited the Super Bowl champions, citing the anthem issue—though no Eagles player had taken a knee that season—and the refusal of some players to attend. In fact, nearly all the Eagles players had decided against the ceremonial visit.

Jake Tapper, an Eagles fan from Philly, castigated the president, calling his explanation “false. Deceptive. A lie.”

But another Eagles fan, Fox’s Jesse Waters, said the team had “tried a trick play. Trump sniffed it out and shut it down.”

The final score: Trump’s football maneuver dominated the news for days.

Sometimes the culture war came to Trump’s doorstep. Robert DeNiro, following in the footsteps of celebrities at just about every awards show, stood on the stage at the Tonys and announced, “F---Trump.” The Hollywood hatred for Trump had become so commonplace that the media reported it as a mere blip, requiring not much more than a finger wag.

But Samantha Bee broke the outrage meter when she assailed Ivanka Trump as a “feckless c---.” This was after the president’s daughter committed the unpardonable sin of posting a smiling picture of herself and her son on Instagram—which the left took to mean that she was insensitive to the suffering of migrant children being separated from their parents under her dad’s immigration policy. Bee took a further step into the gutter with an incest joke, saying Ivanka should change her father’s mind by wearing something tight and low-cut. The comedian soon apologized.

What the pundits who joined in castigating Ivanka didn’t know was that she was privately lobbying her father to change the family separation policy, and played at least some role in changing his mind. The liberal commentators didn’t care about private persuasion if it was coupled with public silence.

Ivanka Trump never responded to Samantha Bee, and that was by design. She was content to let others debate the special viciousness of women attacking other women. Ivanka had never played the game of demeaning others in public, and despite this very personal insult, she wasn’t about to start now.

***

It was during Trump’s July trip to Europe that the media seemed to be pushing their own foreign policy in place of the finger-in-the-eye approach that he was pursuing.

The president, to be sure, gave them plenty of ammunition. By announcing at a NATO breakfast in Brussels that Germany is controlled by Russia—because of a $10-billion pipeline deal—Trump stuck it to Angela Merkel. By insisting that NATO members spend more on defense, Trump shattered the media’s preference for quiet diplomacy and gave rise to a thousand pieces on how he was destroying the western alliance. By claiming the next day, without evidence, that NATO had made new spending commitments, he prompted commentators like Joe Scarborough to call him a liar while he was still speaking at a press conference.

And by criticizing Theresa May and her Brexit policy in an interview with Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, which ran hours after he landed in Britain—while the prime minister was hosting him at a black-tie dinner—Trump found a new way to use an old medium to upset diplomatic norms. He tried to walk back the criticism at the next day’s news conference, where he suggested the Sun was “fake news” for overly emphasizing his negative remarks—although the paper had posted the audio of Trump saying May’s approach would kill any future U.S. trade deal.

In that same presser, Trump called CNN fake news when its reporter Jim Acosta, not for the first time, interrupted the president in an attempt to get a question in, prompting the White House to pull John Bolton from Tapper’s “State of the Union.” And Trump ripped NBC’s Kristen Welker for “dishonest reporting” when she asked a provocative but fair question on whether his shots at NATO would give Vladimir Putin the upper hand when they met in Helsinki.

When Robert Mueller brought charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers in the campaign hacking, just three days before the Putin session, such pundits as Chuck Todd and Anderson Cooper expressed amazement that Trump would not consider canceling the meeting. But the president stuck with his cries of “rigged witch hunt,” choosing to focus narrowly on the indictment’s conclusion that no American was knowingly involved in aiding these Russians.

When Trump arrived in Helsinki and stood on a stage with Putin, he created the largest tidal wave of media condemnation of his presidency. It was another glaring example of what his advisers had termed “defiance disorder,” ignoring the pleas of his top aides that he appear tough with the Russian leader.

Instead, standing before the cameras on July 16, Trump refused to accept the findings of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, saying “I don’t see any reason why it would” and deferring to Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial.

The magnitude of the media eruption was evident from all the conservatives who broke ranks with Trump. The Wall Street Journal editorial page called the episode “a personal and national embarrassment.” The Weekly Standard called for Congress to censure Trump. A parade of Fox hosts and commentators—including Neil Cavuto, Trish Regan, and Newt Gingrich, who dubbed it “the most serious mistake of his presidency”—castigated his performance.

The rhetoric was even harsher in other media precincts. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader certainly than I’ve ever seen.” Another, John King, branded it “the surrender summit.” A third anchor, Don Lemon, dubbed him “Putin’s lapdog.”

CNN’s David Axelrod, the former Obama White House aide, likened Trump to Neville Chamberlain after meeting Hitler. An MSNBC contributor, John Brennan, Barack Obama’s CIA chief, called what Trump did “nothing short of treasonous.”

The New York Times felt emboldened to say in a news analysis:

“His statements were so divorced from American policy goals, so at odds with the rest of his administration, so inexplicable on so many levels that they brought to the surface a question that has long shadowed Mr. Trump: Does Russia have something on him?” There was no evidence of that, just the usual speculation.

Trump defended the presser in a sitdown with Sean Hannity, and tweeted the next morning that “the Fake News is going Crazy” over his meetings with Putin and NATO leaders. By the afternoon, though, he attempted a partial walk-back. Reading from notes, Trump said what he wouldn’t say in Helsinki, that he accepts the findings of U.S. intel agencies that Russia interfered in the election—while hastening to add there was “no collusion.” He said at first that he didn’t realize what the big deal was. But it seemed stiff and not especially convincing when Trump said that he had misspoken and meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,” as opposed to “would.”

It was all too reminiscent of the aftermath of Charlottesville, when Trump appeared to deflect blame from white supremacists and neo-Nazis by saying there was hatred and violence “on many sides.” When Trump later read a statement criticizing hate groups by name, despite the advice of Steve Bannon, the press reaction, as Bannon had warned, was that it seemed half-hearted and rehearsed.

This time, too, Bannon didn’t like the walk-back. He felt Trump could have been stronger in challenging Russian meddling, but he felt that the media hysteria—a full meltdown, in his view—missed the bigger picture of better relations with Moscow.

Most journalists dismissed or mocked the president’s clarification, some likening it to a hostage tape. CNN anchor Erin Burnett accused Trump of a dog-ate-his-homework alibi, asking: “How stupid does he think we Americans are?”

As if on cue, the damaging leaks from people who were supposed to be Trump’s loyalists reached the media hours after the Helsinki fiasco. The Washington Post reported that “everyone around Trump” was urging him to be tough on Vladimir Putin—and that he had gone off script by largely ignoring 100 pages of briefing materials reinforcing that message. A former senior White House official texted Axios: “Need a shower.” And an ex-national security official texted, “Dude. This is a total [effing] disgrace. The president has lost his mind."

When ABC’s Cecilia Vega asked Trump whether Russia is still targeting America—and he said “Thank you very much. No”—the White House insisted he was just saying that he wasn’t taking any questions. But there were front-page headlines that essentially brushed off the denial.

One overarching question remained unanswered. Would this controversy, like so many others dating back to the campaign, blow over as Trump backers remained unwavering in their support? Would Trump’s Teflon armor against media assaults remain undented? An Axios poll provided a big clue: 79 percent of Republicans supported Trump’s handling of the Putin presser.

And that’s a reality check. In the weeks leading up to Helsinki, in what journalists viewed as an inexplicable development, Trump had been getting more popular. He rose steadily in the polls from the mid-30s to about 45 percent, matching the highest numbers of his tenure. Even as conservative commentators such as George Will, Max Boot and Steve Schmidt began openly supporting the Democrats in the midterms to rein in Trump, nine in 10 Republicans were backing the president. The media attacks had backfired, creating more sympathy for Trump among party members whose distrust of the fourth estate was deeper than ever. 

What's more, the Helsinki histrionics briefly got blown off the cable news screen—in classic Trumpian fashion—by a New York Times bombshell that Michael Cohen had secretly taped a discussion with Trump about a potential payoff to Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model. Rudy Giuliani insisted Trump did nothing wrong, and the payment, which would have reimbursed the National Enquirer for buying McDougal's silence, was never made. But Rachel Maddow and others suggested that Trump might actually prefer a new chapter of an old sex scandal if it knocked Putin off the front pages.  

The disdain and disgust is now out in the open. The constant warfare has tarnished the credibility of both sides. And there is no end in sight, with both the president and the press deeply invested in boosting their standing by depicting each other as a menace to the country.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author "Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth." Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.