Jonathan Swan, whose ‘exclusive’ blew up in his face, is the poster child for getting played by Trump’s White House

Jonathan Swan, looking very pleased. (Screenshot)

Jonathan Swan, who covers the White House for Axios, is getting lots of well-deserved grief for his giddy and enabling exchange with Donald Trump over birthright citizenship, which led to an enormous and embarrassing media circus on Tuesday as news organizations chased Swan’s story, hyped it, then (in most cases) realized it was just that much more Trump bullshit aimed at riling up his base before the midterms.

Swan is the poster child for Axios, the noxious political website created by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei as proof that worming ones way into getting access to highly-placed sources is way more profitable than, say, actual journalism.

Swan is an Axios scoop machine. But consider what he’s scooping.

The folks who hand him “exclusives” are not brave whistleblowers doing a public service by exposing lies.

They’re people who know Swan will play his role in their game of attention-getting score-settling.

Swan knows exactly what the game is, and how little it has to do with actual journalistic values. I know he knows, because he wrote an article about it for Axios back in May. Why do you leak? He asked his White House sources.

“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”[…]

The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”[…]

A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.[…]

Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.

This actually leaves out what may be the most common form of Trump White House leak: The trial balloon. Trial balloons are planted leaks (or “pleaks“) to test public reaction to a policy proposal – with the added benefit that they reduce the shock element and make it feel like old news once the proposal is formally announced. It was a tried and true White House tactic long before Trump. But it’s never been used to float such abhorrent proposals.

I browsed through some of Swan’s biggest scoops, and found stories like like Exclusive: Trump vents in Oval Office, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” and Exclusive: A leaked Trump bill to blow up the WTO or Scoop: Leaked document reveals Navarro’s brashest tariffs yet, all of which seemed like pleaks, intended to test and soften the resistance to what was to come.

I found Scoop: Trump’s obsession with the “terrible” FBI building, in which Swan writes admiringly about Trump’s desire to micromanage the rebuilding of the downtown FBI headquarters – while missing the obvious story, which is that Trump blocked a plan to move the FBI elsewhere, which would have made room for a luxury hotel that would have competed with his own.

I also found a lot of gossipy clickbait like Scoop: Kelly says Trump probably contributing to staff chaos stories or Exclusive: Trump’s nightmare: “The snakes are everywhere”.

Swan also had a huge scoop in September, when he reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. “Rod Rosenstein has verbally resigned,” he initially reported, later changing that to “offered to resign.”

As for Swan’s big, credulous no-pushback birthright citizenship scoop, sharp-eyed reporters saw the problem right away. The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein was surely among the first:

There was much more to com.

At Splinter, Libby Watson wrote:

At best, Swan has his priorities extremely out of whack, positioning the value of his exciting scoop over the horrifying implications of this policy; at worst, he doesn’t care about what this change would mean at all, and had to be reminded to pretend that he might. (The Axios piece does not contain the word “racist” or “racism.”)

Matthew Ingram wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review that the whole incident

amplified the concern that some media outlets still don’t appear to have learned one of the central lessons of the Trump presidency: He will routinely say things that aren’t even close to being true, and if you credulously repeat them—even in tweets—without saying they are false, you are arguably part of the problem.

The Intercept’s Sam Biddle declared that “the new video clip debuted today by Axios may be the ne plus ultra of media toadying.”

But hey, some good may well come of all this.

Swan’s question was so clearly staged for PR purposes, Trump’s supposed plan was so implausible, his insistence that the U.S. is alone in its birthright policy was such an incontrovertible lie, and the whole thing was such an obvious attempt to get attention before the midterms, that this may prove to be a turning point in Trump coverage.

You could actually watch such a turn at the New York Times in real time on Tuesday. First came the breathless, credulous news story (in pink), which was eventually rendered accurate (see the edits in green). It was then joined by a properly contemptuous legal analysis by Adam Liptak (“The words of the 14th Amendment are plain”), which then made way for a Peter Baker front-pager worth celebrating, about how Trump “seems to be throwing almost anything he can think of against the wall to see what might stick, no matter how untethered from political or legal reality.”

Does that mean the Times won’t get fooled again, next time Trump plays the media for chumps? And that other major newsrooms have finally learned their lesson? I wouldn’t bet on it, but a guy can hope.

Stop letting Trump hog the spotlight

Bernie Sanders in 2016,

Major news organizations need to start paying less attention to Donald Trump, and more attention to the voices of the American majority who hold starkly different values.

Starting with Bernie Sanders.

Let me explain.

I spent a chunk of yesterday engaging in spirited social media discussions about who, what and where the voices of anti-Trumpism are, and why they aren’t a more significant part of the elite political discourse. I had written a post about core values I think most people share, that Trump does not.

Then, this morning I awoke to a classic example of how anything Trump says can immediately dominate the news cycle.

In an interview that was intended to generate ratings for Axios’s latest venture — and obviously granted by Trump as a favor to the publication in return for its slavish devotion to his every word — reporter Jonathan Swan joyfully goaded Trump into making the hyperbolic assertion that he would proceed to end birthright citizenship. He also didn’t counter Trump’s blatant lie about the U.S. being the only country with that policy (30 countries have it.)

Now, that’s something he can’t do and probably won’t even try to do, but it perfectly served Axios’s need for attention and Trump’s ongoing campaign to make the midterms a referendum on scary immigrants, rather than him.

Other news organization responded with speed and alarming credulity, some making it sound, at least initially, like a done deal — and failing to even hint to readers that this was not the least bit credible.

Let’s stipulate: The man gets way too much attention.

So back to yesterday’s discussion.

What I heard pretty consistently is that there is no one voice of anti-Trumpism, there are multitudes. That is in part because the nature of the beast.

 

And it’s true. The notion of putting all one’s faith in the Leader is High Trumpism. Progressives are more iconoclastic and diverse. Similarly:

 

To which Rebecca Solnit herself responded: “The opposite of charismatic authoritarian leaders is leadership in civil society: all of us.”

But on the other hand, I also heard a lot of this:

And this:

 

And this:

 

The runner-up was Beto.

 

But right behind were Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and some newer voices as well.

So why aren’t these people’s voices being heard every day – and not just as “critics” quoted in an article about Trump, but in articles of their own?

One explanation struck me as particularly convincing. For some reason it won’t embed, so I’ll just cut-and-paste. Lara A. Ballard wrote:

Well, a lot of them are women or minorities, so they get pilloried by white male leftists the minute they stick their neck out. So, for example, if I threw out the name “Kamala Harris,” the reaction on your FB feed would be like I was chumming the water for sharks.

I responded:

The political media and political establishment across the spectrum still tend to squelch women and minority voices relative to white men. I don’t think it’s fair to say that white male leftists inevitably pillory, but I think that if, as seems reasonable, the voices of anti-Trumpism are mostly women and minority, that would partly explain why it’s not being heard more loudly. Depressing. So how do we fix?

And Lara Ballard wrote back:

Good on ya for your response. If you want to know what it takes to fix this problem, it starts with white men like yourselves teaching yourselves not to holler like a hit dog at the mere mention of the topic. I got all sorts of white woman privilege myself. Restraining my own urge to holler takes training. We have to take a deep breath and say to ourselves, “I’m not always going to be in charge here, and that’s okay.” Like, maybe this isn’t even our problem to fix, and we should take the lead from some members of racial minorities who might already know how to fix it, if we would just listen to them and let them lead us.

Another possible explanation for the lack of coverage in the national press corps is that the action is local.

 

And finally, there was a fair amount of media bashing, some of it completely deserved:

Been down so long it’s looking up? Pro-democracy effort kicks off on Nov. 7

The good news when it comes to America’s ailing democracy is that there’s so much bad news that the moment is ripe for a comprehensive fix.

At least that’s the thinking that enlivens a new, broad-based campaign to expand voting rights, enforce ethics, and limit money in politics. The push for all three begins the day after so many others campaigns end: On November 7.

“Opportunities for major political reforms do not come along very often,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, one of 100 national groups cosigning the Declaration for American Democracy.

“We have today a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and a democracy under attack from within,” he said. “The stage is set for major reforms.”

The coalition is focusing on major structural issues. “Only by winning foundational reforms to our politics, can we hope to move forward the substantive policies,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. She led a conference call on Tuesday.

The group’s goals are “to rebalance our moneyed political system, empower everyday Americans, ensure equal justice for all, protect the public’s right to know, reduce barriers to participation in our elections, vigorously enforce voting laws, and fix our ethics laws.”

Wertheimer, the dean of campaign finance reform, said there’s never been as large a coalition taking such a holistic approach.

But how do you get heard over the din? With the news cycle being so fast, how to do you get people to focus on long-term structural issues?

“So many folks are recognizing that this is essential,” Gilbert said. “By joining together we will be infinitely louder and able to cut through.”

“There’s no question that the American people are basically disgusted with the way the system works,” Wertheimer said. “That doesn’t get you over the hump. But this coalition has the capacity for grass roots action, which is the key to winning these fights,” he said. “They will not be won in Washington.”

That said, coalition members realize their job will be easier if Democrats take at least one chamber on November 6.

Democrats have said that their top priority if they win the House will be passing a sweeping reform package and coalition members are working on it.

“We’ve had a lot of trouble getting Republicans to join in these reform efforts, so I don’t expect them to join at first,” Wertheimer said. “But over time, that will change.”

The coalition’s goals are not Trump-specific. But, as Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible put it, “A healthy body would have rejected Trump just like a healthy body rejects a virus.”

Trump willingness to use the military for crassly political purposes sets off alarms

Trump on USS Gerald Ford
Trump aboard the U.S.S. Gerald Ford in March 2017. At the commissioning ceremony, he encouraged servicemembers to lobby on his behalf.

By sending 5,200 active-duty troops to the southern border where there is no invasion and no war zone, Donald Trump is using the military for nakedly political purposes.

“This is using the troops as props,” Jason Dempsey, a former infantry officer now at the Center for a New American Security, told the New York Times.

And not just the troops. According to the Washington Post, Trump is also sending Black Hawk helicopters with “night-vision capabilities and sensors, carrying troops trained in the kind of aerial combat missions used by the military in active war zones.”

The deployment is being called “Operation Faithful Patriot.”

The major theme of Trump’s pitch in the run-up to the midterm elections next week is that this is a nation under siege. He has called particular attention to a ragtag caravan of migrants 900 miles away traveling on foot and hoping to be granted asylum. Sending troops is a way to keep that story in the news, and ratchet up the drama.

This use of troops is troubling not just because it’s a waste of resources, heightens tensions at the border, raises some potentially thorny legal issues, and is flatly embarrassing.

It’s also the first clear sign that Trump, who loves surrounding himself with military pomp and subservient generals, and who treats appearances before military audiences like campaign rallies, also has no compunction about asserting his commander-in-chief authority for overt personal and political gain.

And it could only get worse. Defense Secretary James Mattis is said to have kept some of Trump’s worst impulses in check, but he is widely seen as a dead man walking in Washington, soon to be replaced by someone whose qualifications will almost inevitably include loyalty to Trump.

The New York Times last month quoted “aides” who “said Mr. Trump was pondering whether he wanted someone running the Pentagon who would be more vocally supportive than Mr. Mattis, who is vehemently protective of the American military against perceptions it could be used for political purposes.”

A few weeks later, Trump described Mattis as “sort of a Democrat” in an interview on “60 Minutes” and said “it could be” that he’s going to be leaving soon.

Fundamentally, Trump seems to have no appreciation or even recognition of two of the most important safeguards of democracy: civilian control of the military; and the military’s detachment from politics.

He has put generals in top positions of power – including at the White House and the Pentagon. And he has delegated most – but not all – decisions to military leaders.

After a disastrous mission in Niger in October, Trump said “my generals and my military, they have decision-making ability” – while at the same time blaming them for the mission.

Less than three weeks into his presidency, Trump kicked off a speech at MacDill Air Force Base by celebrating his election victory and referencing polls that showed support from a large percentage of the military.

“We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he said. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”

In July 2017, at the commissioning of an aircraft carrier, Trump asked the largely uniformed audience to call their lawmakers to pass his budget.

A few months later, at the Coast Guard commencement, Trump complained bitterly about his treatment by the press and critics: “No politician in history – and  I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said. “The people understand what I’m doing – that’s the most important thing.”

In Thanksgiving addresses to troops last year, Trump praised himself: “We’re really winning. We know how to win. But we have to let you win,” he said. “They weren’t letting you win before.”

Will Trump’s next political use of the military be abroad? There have of course already been several questionable acts. Five days into office, he casually approved a raid in Yemen that killed women and children while failing to achieve any of its objectives — then lied about it and used a Navy SEAL’s widow to make him look presidential at his first congressional address. His continued support of the Saudi coalition bombing campaign ravaging Yemen defies any non-political explanation. His April 2018 strikes on Syria raised questions of whether he was “wagging the dog” to distract attention from the Robert Mueller probe.

Trump’s abuse of his commander-in-chief powers will become much more likely if he fires Mattis, replaces him with someone more amenable, and further succumbs to his ulra-hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who has previously called for military action against Iran.

Could Trump even turn to the military for support in a political crisis? And how would it respond?

Two data points from a recent Military Times poll offer some insight into the latter question. Trump’s “approval rating among active-duty military personnel has slipped over the last two years, leaving today’s troops evenly split over whether they’re happy with the commander in chief’s job performance,” the poll found. And officers have a “significantly lower” opinion of him than enlisted troops.