As far as dumb stunts go, this one was pretty smart: Vice President Mike Pence put the ball through the uprights, and got the NFL protest controversy back into U.S. headlines over the weekend for his boss. Pence, as you’ve probably already read, went to ostensibly watch an Indianapolis Colts game, but left after some players on the visiting San Francisco 49ers team knelt during the national Anthem.
The stunt—all indications are that Pence attended the game with the sole intention of leaving at the first sign of protest—took what was becoming a waning story, and jammed it squarely back atop the national consciousness.
That’s right where The Donald wants it. Trump’s been battling a rough streak of events recently—the kind of flubs that transcend party lines. For example:
A mishandled disaster in Puerto Rico.
An NBC report about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling Trump a “moron.”
The specter of war with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The massacre in Las Vegas (which put Republican coziness with the National Rifle Association back in focus).
And then, over the weekend, he got into a fight with Republican Senator Bob Corker that has the chance to fracture the GOP—and make almost any major legislative effort impossible.
As all of the above went down, the controversy Trump started over NFL protests started drifting to the back burner. Two weeks after Trump went on the rant that put professional football squarely into the middle of the country’s political and cultural tensions, the story just didn’t have the same momentum. Players were still protesting, but further developments had become NFL-centric rather than national news.
Pence changed all that.
Looking at Mashable’s Velocity tool, which tracks trending stories around the web, Pence remained the top trending story as of Monday morning. Google Trends also had it as one of the most searched topics.
The NFL controversy doesn’t immediately come off as a terribly great PR play by the Trump administration, but there’s strong evidence that it is playing well—at least for the president’s base. Surveys have shown plenty of support for the president’s position on the NFL protests. Protesting players at many stadiums have been met with a cascade of boos.
And Trump’s been all too happy to throw fuel on this fire. He’s tweeted plenty about the topic and lobbed various inflammatory comments at NFL players and owners. He reportedly talked up the controversy to advisers, who hadn’t been thrilled about the prospect of going to war with the country’s most popular sport.
Pence’s move has sparked its own controversy, centered on the money and time spent for the vice president to travel from Las Vegas to Indianapolis, and then back over to Los Angeles, for the sole purpose of putting on this show. Pence’s camp claimed he attended the game because former quarterback Peyton Manning was being honored, but journalists in the VP’s press pool said there had been indications that the appearance was planned to be a short one. The press pool wasn’t even allowed to leave their vans while at the stadium.
Pence also embarrassingly reused a three-year-old photo to claim he was at the game decked out in Colts gear. Again: A dumb stunt.
But even dumb stunts can succeed in accomplishing intended goals. Pence’s move has put the controversy back into the national discussion at a time when there’s nothing but bad news for Trump. The NFL controversy is arguably still bad, but it’s pretty clearly the least bad option.
And for Trump, that’s a win.