Grand Theft Convention.
No, that’s not a new video game. But it is what we just saw Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump do to the Democrats and Hillary Clinton, and the Democrats and Hillary Clinton are helping him do it!
During about an hour-long news conference earlier Wednesday, Trump was asked repeatedly about allegations that the Russian government is behind the hacked and leaked Democratic National Committee’s emails that embarrassed the party on the eve of their national convention in Philadelphia. Trump quickly pivoted to also discussing Clinton’s private email-server controversy and the 30,000-plus emails the former Secretary of State had deleted from her private server under questionable explanations and circumstances.
Then came the money quote, or the bait, when he said: “Russia, if you’re listening,I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing; I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
That comment was sure to grab headlines all on its own, but then the Clinton campaign incredibly took the bait and had a top policy advisor respond with this statement: “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.”
Yep, the Clinton team actually said that. Instead of ignoring Trump’s already deft stealing of the headlines away from their convention, the campaign hyped the distraction even further. Sure, they meant to make Trump out to be some kind of dangerous traitor. And Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller has indeed issued a series of Twitter statements insisting Trump did not literally ask Russia to commit espionage. But the real result is that the words “Hillary Clinton,” “emails,” “hacking,” “espionage,” and “national security” are back in the headlines again.
Instead of ignoring the story or simply scoffing at the obvious distracting attack, the Clinton campaign has fallen into the same kind of trap all those Republican candidates Trump defeated in the primaries fell for: misdirection. Most of the news media seems to have fallen for it, too, as the tone of most of the stories covering Trump’s comments seem to indicate this could be the serious gaffe everyone was expecting Trump to make in this election.
Trump’s ability to steal headlines with outrageous comments and survive the process is well-documented, but no one seems to have come up with an antidote for it. And, as for trying to make Russia into some kind of villain here and thus tainting Trump for any connection to that country or it’s leader Vladimir Putin, ask Mitt Romney how much the voters care about Russia. He found out the answer the hard way in 2012, didn’t he?
And guess what no one is talking about right now? All those “historic” stories about Clinton being the first woman to win a major party nomination are off the news sites now. Major lead-up stories to President Obama’s big speech at the convention on Wednesday night are almost non-existent now. And no one is talking about Clinton running mate Tim Kaine’s speech tonight at all.
A lot of Clinton supporters and even some more objective observers might think that Trump’s theft of the attention isn’t all that great for his campaign. But those people are making a mistake that plagues so many people who follow elections. They forget that emotions are more powerful than facts in politics and the best persuaders play on our emotions. So speaking of those emotions, are you personally scared of Russia at all right now? You and Mitt Romney already knew the answer was “no.”
And in the emotions game, you can’t win without getting our attention first. Is Hillary Clinton or her campaign capable or even willing to do the things that could garner a similar amount of attention? So far, all we know is her team is capable of helping Trump shine more of a light on himself. No wonder he’s ahead in the polls despite being massively outspent on advertising by Hillary Clinton.
So again, what we’re witnessing here is a presidential candidate stealing the other party’s thunder just when it needs your attention the most.
Grand Theft Convention isn’t a game, it’s the real thing. And Trump just won it.
Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of “Power Lunch.”