When Trump blows hard, the daily news coverage is way too soft

Originally published on Medium.

Books and op-eds have lately been helping the public more fully grasp just how dysfunctional, deceitful and amoral the Trump White House is. But the daily news stories (unless they are about those books and op-eds)? Not so much.

Consider the formulaic, not particularly enlightening coverage of Trump’s assertion Tuesday (followed by a tweet Wednesday) that his administration had done a great job helping Puerto Rico after it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

This was really a Trump doozy, not just outrageously, objectively wrong — even crazy — but redolent of so many of Trump’s most horrible characteristics: racism, lack of empathy, cluelessness and/or mendacity, and narcissism.

And, for good measure, it cast considerable doubt on his placating platitudes about how prepared his administration is for a massive hurricane currently bearing down on the Carolinas.

The New York Times story was a huge missed opportunity, relying on a slightly snarky tone and stenography instead of putting his comments in their appropriate context.

Here’s the lede, by the profoundly talented and extraordinarily accomplished Frances Robles (so I blame her editors):

President Trump patted himself on the back Tuesday for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico, where the government estimates that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria last year.

The first real pushback, after two more paragraphs of Trump stenography, is a nitpick about Trump’s misleading mention of a ship-based military hospital.

It isn’t until the eighth paragraph that we get, in the form of a quote from a third party, to the point that should have been made explicitly at the top:

“If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, in a post on Twitter.

And nowhere in the story does it explain how many of the deaths were due to negligence, what precisely that negligence was, or why Trump might have neither cared much about Puerto Rico to begin with or now thinks it was a success.

The Associated Press story was a word salad of uncontextualized stenography, leading up to a “you decide” nut graph:

The administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico received widespread criticism, and he battled with Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. But after visiting the island last September, Trump said that Puerto Ricans were fortunate that the storm did not yield a catastrophe akin to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

At the Washington Post, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner at least put some needed context in the lede, reporting that “researchers have estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths.”

They further explained:

In a report published last month, George Washington University researchers estimated that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria had led to 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm. The government of Puerto Rico has embraced the estimate, which the researchers arrived at by comparing the number of deaths after the hurricane to typical death rates and adjusting for a range of variables.

And they noted that an after-action report from FEMA had acknowledged some degree of fault.

But it was nevertheless a pretty listless story.

Let’s be real: To pretty much anyone who has the least idea of what happened in Puerto Rico, or what’s going on in Trump’s head, the only human reaction to what Trump said about Puerto Rico is a double-take.

And here’s where CNN, for a change, really shone. Instead of trying and failing to cram a double-take into the formulaic he-said-she-said incremental newspaper story, CNN’s folks reacted like human beings.

Right after cutting away from Trump’s live remarks, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin brought on White House correspondent Kaitlin Collins and expressed appropriate incredulity.

Three thousand people died according to this most recent George Washington University study and the administration’s response is still under fire. Where is this incredibly successful even coming from?

Collins replied:

That’s the question a lot of people are going to have after hearing the President’s comments there…. [T]he President looking back at Puerto Rico saying that it was an unsung success, that it was very successful, talking about the praise they received after that hurricane hit for the administration’s response. Which frankly, Brooke, just isn’t the case here. It’s actually been widely criticized because, of course, at first the death toll was in the dozens, and then it was raised to roughly 3,000 people who died there in Puerto Rico.

Half an hour later, CNN’s Jake Tapper drilled down in a conversation with CNN political commentators Angela Rye and Amanda Carpenter that hit all the right notes. Enjoy and learn:

Tapper: Obviously, when it comes to this pending storm, we’re all hoping for the best and hoping the Trump administration does everything it can do.

But the president saying that Puerto Rico was an unsung success, when the latest official government death toll from the government of Puerto Rico—and let’s remember these are American citizens—that’s a U.S. territory—is 2,975 dead. That is an unsung success.

Rye: No, it’s an unsung inaccuracy…. [N]ot to mention the number of people and families who had to relocate completely off the island, not to mention the fact that their economy is now on life support, and electricity is not all the way functioning, it’s far from a success.

And the fact that Donald Trump today would spend more time singing his own praises, rather than really leaning into a conversation with people in leadership there to figure out how they can really overcome and really have a success story for this particular storm, I think is very telling.

Tapper: Do you think, Amanda, that there are — President Trump doesn’t have the people around him who tell him, hey, by the way, don’t say that about Puerto Rico, it’s not a success, and they just upgraded the death toll to 2,975, that’s not a success, it’s embarrassing?

Carpenter: Perhaps, but I also think there’s probably people in the White House that have given up on trying to message the president.

I mean, look at his performance when he actually went to Puerto Rico. He is throwing out paper towels like he’s Santa Claus giving out goodies.

And I think this is part of the warped approach that he has towards disasters. He views it as an opportunity to hand out money and goodies for which people should be grateful to him. And he doesn’t understand the devastation and the fears.

And, honestly, if he thinks Puerto Rico is a success, I’m a little nervous. That makes me more nervous about Florence coming in.”

The purloined letter solves the mysterious case of the ‘internal resistance’

ary Cohn at the White House in July 2017.
Gary Cohn at the White House in July 2017. (White House photo)

Originally published on Medium.

Exhibit A in support of Trump insiders’ efforts to “control his impulses and prevent disasters” is the letter Gary Cohn stole off his desk.

As the Washington Post recounted in the first story on Bob Woodward’s new book:

Cohn, a Wall Street veteran, tried to tamp down Trump’s strident nationalism regarding trade. According to Woodward, Cohn “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” that the president was intending to sign to formally withdraw the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn later told an associate that he removed the letter to protect national security and that Trump did not notice that it was missing.

CNN has now posted the letter itself, dated September 5, 2017, as reproduced in Woodward’s book.

So, is this an example of Trump’s advisers saving him from unwittingly causing disaster and mayhem? Hardly.

For one, it’s been conflated with another Woodward anecdote, this one dating to January 19 (so the day before Trump’s inauguration?) at which Trump questioned the massive military presence in South Korea. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly told him.

Even in that case, Trump’s questioning, while ridiculed by Washington insider and “adult in the room” Mattis, is actually not ridiculous at all. Jeff Faux raised the same question in The Nation just last March in his article “Why Are US Troops Still in South Korea, Anyway?

“Citizens of our democracy looking for an answer soon find themselves lost in a fog of babble about America’s ‘vital interests.’ ” Faux wrote. He concluded that the U.S. military presence isn’t needed to defend South Korea, and by posing a threat to North Korea heightens tensions rather than lowers them.

But back to the actual letter, formally withdrawing the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea.

You will note that it is labeled “Pre-decisional/Deliberative” — so it wasn’t the copy Trump would actually have signed. And it doesn’t claim to end the trade deal — it provides 180 days notice, and includes an offer to negotiate.

Indeed, Trump had, a few months earlier, proudly announced his intent to end the Korea trade agreement right away — with no notice. In an April 2017 interview with the Washington Post, Trump called it “a horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.”

His expressions of concern were hyperbolic — no surprise — but not entirely inaccurate.

As Lori Wallach, Public Citizen’s trade guru, explained to CBS Marketwatch(right around the time Cohn was whisking the letter off Trump’s desk), “The Korea agreement is the most dramatically failed of the free-trade agreements based on the model started by NAFTA.”

The data is brutal. Despite promises from George W. Bush and Barack Obama about how amazing it would be for U.S. workers, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea almost doubled in the agreement’s first five years. U.S. agricultural exports actually declined while a deluge of Korean cars were sold on the U.S. market.

Wallach had warned as much five years earlier, calling the deal “a job-offshoring, unsafe-import-flooding, ‘Buy America’-killing, food-safety-undermining, drug-price-rising, foreign-corporate-treasury-raiding, financial-deregulating trade agreement” that benefited giant multinational corporations most of all.

Flash forward to six months after Cohn took the letter off Trump’s desk: The administration announces a series of revisions to the Korean trade agreement, calling it “a major win for American workers and American businesses.”

But their net effect is laughable. Renegotiations left key issues that might have made a difference unaddressed, such as the elimination of job outsourcing incentives and addition of serious labor and environmental standards.

Scrapping the deal entirely would have been better for American workers.

Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president. He is abusing executive power, violating norms that protect our democracy, and trying to divide and confuse the country.

But the only thing the members of the “resistance” inside the administration seems to care about is protecting themselves — “resisting” Trump’s attacks on the military and its contractors, multinational companies, and orthodox GOP principles Trump didn’t run on and doesn’t share.

What don’t they care about? As Mehdi Hassan wrote this week for the Intercept — in the context of the anonymous Trump official who bragged in the New York Times about being one of the diligent insiders frustrating Trump’s agenda — “The widespread dishonesty, the rampant corruption, the brazen racism, the growing authoritarianism, the accusations of collusion — none of that tops your list of Trumpian abuses and infractions.”