The New York Times didn’t know what to make of Trump’s press conference; the Washington Post did

Faced with how to write up what it called Trump’s “rambling” press conference on Wednesday, the New York Times offered its readers a grab-bag of observations. Its main story was literally headlined: “5 Takeaways From Trump’s News Conference at the United Nations” (although in the print edition, where it ran on page A16, the headline was possibly even more anodyne: “United Nations, Accusations and More: Trump in 83 Minutes.”)

The Times covered the Trump press conference as if he were a normal president, trying to tease out the biggest news and report it dutifully, stenographically, and without much context or editorializing.

The New York Times may be thriving, but here it failed.

By contrast, some subset of the Washington Post staff appears to have listened intently to the press conference and realized that there was an incredibly significant story to tell about what Trump said, and that it was almost entirely about the context. This was not a story that could be told with stenography.

And although that story did not lead the print edition — there was a bland rehash under the headline “On hearing’s eve, Trump stands by Kavanaugh” — the Post’s website led through the night and into the morning with the much more important article by Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker, headlined “Defending Kavanaugh, Trump laments #MeToo as ‘very dangerous’ for powerful men”.

And here are its memorable first two paragraphs:

President Trump on Wednesday placed himself at the center of the anguished national debate over sexual assault, suggesting in his defense of embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh that the #MeToo movement was “very dangerous” and unfairly threatened an entire class of powerful men.

Trump’s expansive argument cast doubt on the credibility not only of the three women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, but also on scores of other women who have claimed sexual abuse by prominent men, including the president himself.

Reporters at major news organizations often hold back, knowing that making strong conclusions or — even worse —  taking sides could subject them to criticism from their editors, and their editors’ editors. And even the Post story didn’t go as far as I did last night, calling Trump’s comments clearly and overtly misogynistic.

But editors of both papers should ask themselves this morning: Whose readers were served better? And the answer is clear.

Was it this?

Or was it this?

The big news from Trump’s press conference is that he hates women

Typically, faced with a wide-ranging news conference, reporters try to figure out what was the biggest news, and to lead with that.

And yes, Trump said some individually astonishing things. He acknowledged that he “fights back” in a way some people apparently misinterpret as obstruction of justice. He asserted that Barack Obama came close to launching a nuclear war against North Korea. He accused China, without evidence, of trying to interfere in the midterm elections. And he insisted that the assembled leaders at the United Nations weren’t laughing at him on Tuesday, they were laughing with him.

But the big “news” is that taken as a whole, Trump showed possibly more clearly than ever before that he lives in a fantasy world where reality bends to whatever he wants to believe is true.

And even more importantly, taken as a whole, it was an extraordinary display of misogyny, both in how he answered some questions and how he refused to answer others. He has never treated women so clearly as the “other”, and as suspect, and as a threat to men.

He had no empathy for women as victims of sexual assault. Quite the contrary: He acknowledged that that he sympathizes with people who’ve been accused of sexual assault because he has, too. And he ended with a particularly dire warning about how “it’s a very dangerous period in our country” because women are accusing famous people of sexual assault.

I’m going to focus on Trump’s comments about women, because I don’t think he has ever spoken more honestly about his feelings toward them. They are threatening. They are not to be trusted. They love him (but they don’t.)

Read moreThe big news from Trump’s press conference is that he hates women

The central question reporters need to ask Trump today is why he lies so much

Trump at his last solo press conference in February 2017.
Trump at his last solo press conference in February 2017.

Reporters who may have a chance to ask a question at Trump’s solo news conference this afternoon – only the fourth of his presidency – need to keep one thing uppermost in their minds: Trump lies almost all the time.

So standing up, asking a traditional question, and then sitting down — and not addressing his credibility problem front and center — is enabling. It’s treating him like a normal president, and making him look like a normal president, when he is not.

Trump has largely refused to answer questions at any length from anyone other than prescreened sycophantic so-called journalists, allowing him to not just maintain but burnish the veneer of normalcy. But even on those extremely rare occasions when he sat down with, say, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, his interlocutors seemed too caught up in the ecstasy of access to do their jobs.

The public never has a chance to subject Trump to sustained questioning. So the White House press corps’ job is to expose Trump for what he is, not hunt for evanescent scooplets. It’s to give the public a glimpse of what they know about Trump but rarely say: That he doesn’t actually understand his job, he doesn’t have any real principles, he acts like a spoiled child, and he is a pathological liar.

The good news, such as it is, is that Trump’s first press conference, just a few weeks after his inauguration, was as good a demonstration of his manifest incompetence and troubling mental state as anything before or since. The New York Times delicately described it as “an extraordinarily raw and angry defense of both his administration and his character. At times abrupt, often rambling, characteristically boastful yet seemingly pained at the portrayals of him.” The New Yorker said it “demonstrated, again, that he long ago escaped the bounds of reality that restrict most mortals.” So it’s a real opportunity for the press corps, if they do their job right.

What specifically should reporters do? Ask simple questions, requiring factual response — then firmly and repeatedly follow up by pointing out how his answer was factually incorrect, unintelligible, nonresponsive, or all of those. And when it comes to the scandals, some variation of the Watergate question can be handy: What did you know and when did you know it?

For instance:

Q. When did you first learn there were questions about Brett Kavanaugh’s history of sexual assaults?

Q. During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign? (This actually a Robert Mueller question, see below.)

Don’t ask what he’s going to do, because he’ll do it soon enough. Don’t dare him to say stupid things, like asking him if he’ll demand a criminal investigation into who wrote the anonymous op-ed.

Topical questions are inevitable, although the answers are not necessarily going to be the most memorable. A few possibilities:

Q. Do you think Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein should fire Robert Mueller and close his investigation? Do you think that if and when Sessions and Rosenstein resign or get fired, that their successors should fire Robert Mueller and close his investigation? Do you see any constitutional limitations on your authority here?

Q. Do you actually feel your administration has accomplished more than almost any other in history, despite the overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary? Do you realize that most people, including the leaders of the world, find that assertion literally laughable?

Q. Physicians for Human Rights yesterday said that by withdrawing your support for international human rights norms and from engagement with the international human rights machinery — on the grounds that they impinge on a nation’s freedom — you are giving dictators around the world a green light to violate human rights standards. How is that not the case? Are there any ongoing human rights violations that concern you, and what should be done about them?

I received several great questions in response to my Facebook post requesting ideas yesterday. Jim Naureckas suggested a variation on that one:

Q. Candidate Trump promised that if elected, he would make the world respect the US again. How does that square with Trump being laughed at by the United Nations?

I’d like to ask:

Q. What kind of personal behavior is disqualifying for a Supreme Court nominee, and is there a statute of limitations?

Kerry Gilpin proposed, similarly:

Q. If testimony or a proper investigation reveals Brett Kavanaugh to have committed sexual assault either as a teenager or an adult, will you withdraw his nomination? If not, what is the standard to which you hold the highest justices in the land?

The U.S. is currently involved in a number of military campaigns, and is providing support to the Saudi-backed coalition that has repeatedly bombed civilians in Yemen. This ought to be a matter of great public interest.

Q. Why are we supporting the Saudi-backed coalition by coordinating, refueling and targeting bombing runs using American bombs? Did you know the coalition recently targeted a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children with a laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin and sold as part of a State Department-sanctioned arms deal? How do you defend U.S. participation in that sort of horror?

Q. What is your thinking about a timeline for bringing U.S. troops out of Syria?

(Trump was actually asked that question in April, and was unable to answer intelligibly.)

I also think it’s remarkable how little we know about Trumps views on basic issues. This is, I suspect, mostly because he doesn’t really have many fixed views at all. But I’d like to ask him:

Q. How big a problem do you think police brutality is? Do you think it’s worse for African Americans than Whites?

Q. Do you consider yourself a white nationalist, and if not, where do you feel you differ?

Q. How do you interpret the take-care clause of the Constitution: Do you feel you are allowed to use presidential powers to enrich yourself, or to protect yourself from criminal investigation?

Q. How much independence should the Department of Justice have?

Q. When you said you would drain the swamp, what did you mean? Can you by any measure say you have succeeded, given how you and top aides have behaved?

Q. You have repeatedly praised autocrats and authoritarian regimes, including Jose Duterte of the Philippines, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Yesterday, you praised Poland, where you said “a great people are standing up for their independence, their security and their sovereignty.” But Poland is now under one-party rule, and its judiciary is under political control. What do you admire about these leaders and these countries? In which ways do you emulate them or condemn them?

For Trump, the simplest questions are gotcha questions: Ollie Bass on Facebook proposed this one:

Q. Who pays the tariff taxes? China?

What about asking some of the questions that Trump’s lawyers won’t let him answer under oath because they know he’ll lie about them? As it happens, we have a copy of the questions Mueller wants to ask Trump about obstruction. Here are some of them:

Q. What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

Q. What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

Q. What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

Q. What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Q. What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

And here are a few more from Facebook:

Q. Why is it that in every case concerning sexual assault you side with the accused immediately? Is it because you feel a common bond with them? (Barry Medlin)

Q. If OPEC is so bad, why are you selling $100 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis? (Michael Airhart )

Q. With reference to your suggestion of “a con game being played by the Democrats,” are you familiar with the term “projection” and would it please you to know that “people say” that you have provided the greatest examples of it in the world? (Eric Brody)

Will any of these work? They sure might. The first time Trump faced the press corps as president by himself, he asserted in his opening statement about his election victory, “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.”

When it was NBC reporter Peter Alexander‘s turn to ask a question, it went like this:

Q. Very simply, you said today that you had the biggest electoral margins since Ronald Reagan with 304 or 306 electoral votes. In fact, President Obama got 365 in 2008.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m talking about Republican. Yes.

Q President Obama, 332. George H.W. Bush, 426 when he won as President. So why should Americans trust —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, I was told — I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given. We had a very, very big margin.

Q I guess my question is, why should Americans trust you when you have accused the information they receive of being fake when you’re providing information that’s fake?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

Q You’re the President.

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thank you. That’s a good answer. Yes.

Kudos to Alexander. But either he or someone else should have followed up further.

Q. You say you were “given that information”. It was wildly, facially inaccurate. It has repeatedly been shown to be inaccurate. Yet you repeat it over and over again. Who “gave it to you”? Why did you believe them? Why do you continue to say it? And why should we believe you about anything else if you lie about things like this?

Correction: This will be Trump’s fourth solo press conference as president. An earlier version of this post said it would be his second. He also gave solo press conferences in New York, on August 15, 2017, and in Singapore, on June 12.

Journalism is about more than just keeping track of the shiny objects

Special counsel Robert Mueller.
Special counsel Robert Mueller.

With the reality show that is the Trump presidency going into a total frenzy – jamming a week’s worth of plot twists and cliff hangers into a single day – it’s hard for political journalists to keep up.

And when so much is new and shiny all the time, and it’s an adrenaline-pumping challenge simply to figure it all out and get it all down, stopping to explain the significance of what’s going on feels old and boring by comparison.

But readers and viewers deserve to have the information they need to put the chaos in context.

Sure the ups and downs of Rod Rosenstein are interesting, but what’s most important is that if he resigns under pressure or is fired, Trump is one gigantic step closer to ending Robert Mueller’s investigation into his own campaign’s collusion with Russia. And that’s a genuine constitutional crisis, because the Constitution requires the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” which has widely been interpreted to mean that the president cannot act for corrupt or self-interested reasons. But who would enforce that? Congress? The courts? What can the public do?

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 24th paragraph of this morning’s New York Times tic-toc that any substantive mention was made of the enormity of what’s at stake. And that came in the form of reporting on two tweets from Sen. Susan Collins.

The Washington Post story alluded fairly high up to Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani’s recommendation that if Rosenstein is replaced, “they should put a brief hold on the investigation and review it from beginning to end.”

But the Post waited until the 23rd paragraph before briefly alluding to what it called “alarm on the left that his removal would signal a collapse of the traditional independence of the Justice Department.”

In both articles, there was a great deal more discussion about the effects on the midterm elections than on the peril to our constitutional democracy.

Recall, as I wrote on Friday, that firing Rosenstein would cross a red line drawn by Democrats and resistance groups defending the rule of law. (As would, presumably, his resignation under pressure.)

As for the breathless coverage of the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the focus is almost exclusively on the he-said-she-said elements, the strategy of the Republican congressional leaders, and the on-again-off-again nature of Trump’s attacks on the alleged victims.

The profound misogyny that underlies so much of this story is left almost completely unstated.

Kavanaugh’s allegedly toxic behavior toward women doesn’t come in a vacuum – it come in the context of an ideology that considers women’s control of their bodies an “unenumerated right” that is not “deeply rooted in history and tradition.” The GOP’s reluctant agreement to let the first accuser speak —  while insisting that nothing she says will be of any value — only requires a little unpacking.

And as I wrote on Friday, Trump’s malicious and misogynist tweet about the first allegation led to intense media coverage of how he had broken his silence, rather than about how grotesque it was and how his own treatment of women has been hostile and hateful, as reflected in his personal actions and government policy.

Will today’s coverage of Trump’s latest comments put into proper context his attacks on the credibility of women accusers and his literally mocking the notion that a woman’s allegations could have real consequence? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

Rosenstein’s would-be replacement said he would have indicted Hillary Clinton

Matt Whittaker at 2014 Iowa Senate Republican debate. (Screengrab)
Matt Whittaker at 2014 Iowa Senate Republican debate. (Screengrab)

Matthew G. Whitaker, who reportedly would become acting deputy attorney general should Rod Rosenstein get fired or resign, wrote in a July 2016 USA Today opinion piece that he would have indicted Hillary Clinton for criminal violations of the Espionage Act.

Rosenstein’s departure in itself would cross a red line set by Democrats and resistance groups defending the rule of law. Whitaker’s views on indicting Clinton now adds to those concerns.

Whitaker, writing soon after then-FBI Director James Comey took the extraordinary step of preempting a Justice Department decision about whether to bring charges, argued that Clinton’s handing of classified email amounted to gross negligence as described in 18 U.S.C. section 793(f).

“Director Comey’s judgment was that ‘no reasonable prosecutor‘ would bring the case,” Whitaker wrote. “I disagree.”

Whitaker is now chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Justice officials told the New York Times on Monday that while Noel J. Francisco, the solicitor general, would assume oversight of the Russia investigation in lieu of Rosenstein, Whitaker would become acting deputy attorney general.

Only days after Whitaker wrote his op-ed, delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland were roaring “Lock Her Up.” It became the convention’s unofficial slogan – and a major feature of campaign rallies.

Trump himself, in the second presidential debate in October 2016, threatened Clinton. “I’ll tell you what. I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” he said. When Clinton replied that “it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Trump shot back: “Because you’d be in jail.”

There is so much wrong with a political party, a presidential candidate, and then a president calling for the criminal indictment of their ultimately defeated political opponent that most news organizations don’t explain. I guess they assume that it’s so core to democratic rule that people understand it intuitively.

But they’re wrong. It’s important to explain these things. And I’ll give it a try:

  1. The criminalization of politics is a violation of core democratic values including freedom of speech. We don’t put people in prison for their viewpoints.
  2. Jailing your political opponents is the act of an authoritarian regime, not a democratic one.
  3. Presidents can’t just use the executive branch’s law enforcement powers however they want.  Article II, Section 3 states that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The means, among other things, that the president may not act for corrupt or self-interested reasons. And, as the Protect Democracy Project explains: “While he may shape generally applicable enforcement priorities, he may not prevent the enforcement of the laws that Congress has enacted against himself or his allies.”
  4. The use of prosecutorial power for political reasons undermines confidence in the Constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law.

I could and probably should go on, but I’ll leave it to readers (in the comment section) and future blog posts.

As for Whitaker, he weighed in again in May 2017 with an opinion column at The Hill defending Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

Comey “served his country honorably,” Whitaker wrote. “[B]ut he also became so embroiled in the heated politics of the 2016 election and its aftermath that change was needed. President Trump made the right decision.”

He repeated his case against Clinton:

Clinton set up an entire secret, unsecured communications structure outside of the government she was charged with serving at the highest level; she was the Secretary of State. Classified information that, in the wrong hands, could potentially bring harm to our country – and many in service to our country – was available to be appropriated. Her server was hacked by multiple countries and unfriendly actors.

[There is, in fact, no evidence that Clinton’s servers were hacked.]

And although Whitaker wouldn’t oversee Mueller’s investigation (you can’t have an “acting acting attorney general), it’s pretty clear what he thinks of it.

Whitaker wrote that he hoped Comey’s firing would herald “a fresh slate for the FBI and the Department of Justice.”

And by that he clearly meant the end of any investigations of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. In his view:

Calls for an independent counsel or commission to investigate allegations that Russia tried to interfere with our elections ring hollow when similar calls for special counsels during the scandals of the Obama administration were dismissed out of hand by the same people making these demands now….

Hollow calls for independent prosecutors are just craven attempts to score cheap political points and serve the public in no measurable way.

At the time he wrote both pieces, Whitaker was serving as executive director of the nonprofit Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), oOne of several right-wing dark-money groups that fought President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way, took note of comments Whitaker made during his unsuccessful run for the Iowa Republican Senate nomination in 2014. Asked at a debate what criteria he would use to determine whether to support or attempt to block President Obama’s federal judicial nominees, Whitaker said that he would ask if nominees are “people of faith” and “have a biblical view of justice.”

“As long as they have that worldview, then they’ll be a good judge,” he said. “And if they have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”

Whittaker was hired by Sessions to be his chief of staff in October 2017.

Who’s resisting who? Michelle Alexander’s excellent first New York Times column

Michelle Alexander (MSNBC screengrab)
Michelle Alexander (MSNBC screengrab)

Did you read Michelle Alexander’s inaugural opinion column in the New York Times over the weekend? If not, kindly read it now.

The announcement in June of her hiring as a Times opinion columnist – as a black woman, as an eloquent, erudite civil rights activist, and as a holder of unshakeable ideals — was cause for celebration, especially given several other recent hires.

Now, her first column is out and it’s a powerful, progressive call to arms in the form of questioning the chief rhetorical conceit of the Trump era. Her alternate formulation: It’s Trump who’s resisting, not the “resistance.”

And what is he resisting? Nothing short of “the struggle for human freedom and dignity” and “the centuries-long quest to create a truly equitable democracy…. A new nation… a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters. ”

When you recognize that, you recognize that simply resisting Trump is not enough. Alexander explains:

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history.

Alexander’s primary focus has been on changing the criminal justice system. in 2010, she wrote what has become a seminal book in modern civil-right-activism: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The book began a long overdue and still ongoing national conversation about how the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration of poor people of color is effectively – and not accidentally – a racially-biased system of social control reminiscent of Jim Crow.

I’m proud to say that I was on the jury for one of the first (but hardly the last) prizes conferred on the book, the Constitution Project’s 2010 Constitutional Commentary award. Read Alexander’s devastating acceptance speech.

Different people will take different things away from Alexander’s column.

My biggest takeaway is that in the area that concerns me the most — the accumulation of power by the executive branch and the absence of effective check and balances – resisting Trump is, just as she writes, not nearly enough.

I’ve never been clear on what “the resistance” really is, or does. But I do know that any group that includes advocates of near-absolute executive power –just because they happen to share a temporary aversion to a specific president — can’t be trusted to pursue the kinds of reforms this country so desperately needs.

The good news is that the new and old groups out there fighting to preserve the independent judiciary, advocating for a more activist Congress, warning about the president’s unilateral national-security powers, and conducting intense oversight seem to be looking beyond the end of the Trump presidency.

The key is not just to be satisfied once Trump is gone.  It’s to learn from all the ways he violated norms, broke rules, coopted a major political party, used disinformation for political gain, attacked the judiciary, politicized law enforcement and the military, ignored foreign interference in our elections, turned the American people against each other, and generally demonstrated that the constitutional system of checks and balances is dramatically out of whack.

And then try to fix things.