Give up on getting this White House to answer reporters’ questions; focus on the next one

Sarah Sanders. (White House photo)

It’s time to declare press relations with this White House a total loss.

The latest news is that members of the White House press corps are so desperate that they are demanding that Sarah Sanders spend more time insulting them, lying to them, and not answering their questions.

White House Correspondents’ Association president Olivier Knox called the White House’s abandonment of regular briefings a “retreat from transparency and accountability” that “sets a terrible precedent.”  Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote that the briefings “show reporters at least attempting to get at the truth by questioning those in power.”

But the practice under Sanders has been so perverted and debased that there’s simply no point asking for more.

As with so many other important, valuable presidential practices that Trump has smashed to bits, what we need to do is start thinking about how to put them back together when he’s gone.

Maybe Trump has done us a service, in a way. The reality is that White House-press relations – judged by the standards of transparency and accountability — were in terrible shape even before he came and declared journalist the “enemy of the people”.

Consider those daily press briefings folks are getting misty-eyed about. During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, press secretaries consistently saw their job as issuing a talking point then batting down questions, not answering them. Despite Obama’s pledge of transparency, press secretary Robert Gibbs smoothly picked up the deflection baton from Dana Perino.

Admittedly, simpering Sean Spicer and sneering Sarah Sanders turned that into a truth cudgel, but it’s been a long time since a press secretary straight-forwardly answered an embarrassing question.

Some critics have attacked the press corps for not taking more concerted, even organized action against Trump’s press office. But news organizations tend to want to operate with complete independence. And anyway, there have never been any agreed-upon standards about how much access and transparency a White House should be required to provide.

So here’s our chance. Let’s set high, formal expectations for the next president. Simply being “better than Trump” is way too low a bar. The idea shouldn’t be to raise the bar a bit, it’s to set a whole new bar.

Let’s get presidential candidates to pledge to meet those expectations. Then, every time they fail to meet them, it’s news!

What about a minimum number of press briefings and press conferences? A minimum number of sit-down interviews – and not just with friendly journalists? Regular access to decision-makers? More people authorized to speak on the record? And a commitment to explain what went into a decision rather than just repeating a stale talking point?

In fact, I think campaign reporters, rather than swallowing and regurgitating whatever crumbs they can get, should prioritize making clear public distinctions between candidates who are genuinely open to taking questions and being held accountable (if there are any) and those who are so circumscribed by fear of a bad sound bite that they say nothing beyond their pre-polled talking points.

(My advice to candidates in the latter category: Your opposition will create bad sound bites no matter what; better to drown them out than try to avoid them.)

I hope the next president continues to use Twitter to give the public insights into their thinking. But our expectations should be much higher than that. Back in 2008, I proposed a number of things that Obama could do to live up to his campaign promise to use the Internet to “create a transparent and connected democracy”.

He didn’t. And then Trump came along. But let’s try again. Let’s push for a White House web site that provides a window into the decision-making process, where some meetings are streamed live; where the president’s full daily calendar is posted online and visitor’s logs are updated frequently; where you get some sense of what is really going on in the White House and how responsive it is to the American people’s needs.

Let’s establish some basic, reasonable ground rules that almost everyone can agree upon for transparency and accountability. And then let’s hold the next president to them.

Let’s treat this like what it is: A full-on national crisis

ABC on the Iranian hostage crisis.

The field of American political journalism can make a lot of amends in the next few days if it allows itself to realize that the nation is now in full crisis mode, and starts to reflect that in its coverage.

For the many mainstream journalists still trying so hard not be perceived as taking sides, who have never found the right moment to say “Fuck it, I can’t do this anymore,” this would be a good time. There is nothing even a tiny bit normal about this anymore.

If federal law enforcement officials actually have evidence that Donald Trump suborned perjury before Congress, then impeachment proceedings are an absolute necessity, and each and every continued expression of support for Trump from Republican officials is a newly revelatory — and highly newsworthy — admission that they are putting party over country.

The news stories about this should be ceaseless and the coverage should relentlessly ask: Why isn’t this happening?

Meanwhile, huge swaths of the government are shut down, in what is nothing less than the president taking his own branch of government hostage, causing massive ongoing damage to the economy, to regular people, and for what? Because Ann Coulter challenged his manhood?

The press should be treating it like the Iranian hostage crisis – a dominant story that is major news every single day that it goes on.

As for impeachment, the timing for the Atlantic’s “Impeach Donald Trump” cover this week turned out to be really quite perfect: Even those who quibble over what qualifies as a high crime cannot possibly argue that suborning perjury before Congress doesn’t qualify. (The news did, however, make the magazine’s amazing compilation of 50 Moments That Define an Improbable Presidency suddenly feel a tad out of date.)

Yoni Applebaum writes in the Atlantic piece that Trump’s “actions are, in sum, an attack on the very foundations of America’s constitutional democracy.”

And while journalism about impeachment proceedings focuses almost exclusively on the potential downsides, Applebaum compellingly argues that beginning the process begins the healing, by “shifting the public’s attention to the president’s debilities, tipping the balance of power away from him, skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking, moving the fight to a rule-bound forum, and dealing lasting damage to his political prospects.”

Even before the latest news, as he noted, there was urgency. “With every passing day, Trump further undermines our national commitment to America’s ideals. And impeachment is a long process.”

As I’ve written before, journalists need to stop stifling their outrage about Trump’s affront to American and journalistic values. And now, the object of their outrage should primarily be the Republicans who continue to defend the radical, impulsive, destructive, compulsive liar they have backed in some sort of awful Faustian bargain so far.

From “Blazing Saddles”

As for the shutdown, there’s no excuse to keep treating it as simply another news story, quoting people on both sides – and more recently, marveling at the tit-for-tat. Consider a few key facts:

  • There is no precedent for a president simply refusing to do his job (lead a functional executive branch) when he doesn’t get his way. He is actually holding himself hostage.
  • Previous shutdowns took place when budget negotiations stalled, and were all ended with short-term funding bills to allow for further negotiation.
  • There were and are no negotiations.
  • This is now the longest shutdown ever and there is no end in sight.
  • Trump doesn’t seem the least bit alarmed, because government is basically the enemy, anyway.
  • The shutdown is causing horrible distributed affects – untold damage to the economy, to workers, to people who require services — that take a while to come into focus and can only become uppermost in the public mind through relentless press coverage.

The two crises are of course directly related. Trump sees continuing the shutdown indefinitely as a way of consolidating his base on the assumption that they will save him from impeachment whatever comes, because, by his reckoning, “You can’t impeach somebody that’s doing a great job.”

Let’s hope that at editorial meetings in newsrooms across the country today, top editors stop to recognize that we are at an inflection point, and history will not only judge Donald Trump, it will judge  them as well.

On presidential emergency powers, Congress is AWOL as usual

Brennan Center graphic

The sweeping nature of presidential emergency powers – some of which are so classified we don’t even know what they are – is the direct result of Congress’s inability and unwillingness to fulfill its constitutional role as a check and balance on the executive branch.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University put out a major new report last month on the 123 statutory provisions that allow a president to invoke emergency powers. Just days later, Trump began threatening to declare a national emergency to get the military to build a border wall if Congress won’t give him the money to do it. Talk about timing.

At an all-day convening of experts Wednesday devoted to exploring the issue, however, the major villain wasn’t Trump; it was a Congress that has consistently allowed the executive branch to encroach on its powers.

“Congress has become less functional,” said Avril Haines, who served as Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor and deputy CIA director. “And presidents have moved into the breach.”

Where Congress, for instance, once defended its prerogative to declare war, it has effectively ceded control by allowing three presidents to unilaterally broaden the scope of the Authorization to Use Military Force it passed after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Haines said the AUMF and the two major legislative sources of presidential emergency power — the National Emergencies Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act — each qualifies as “a piece of legislation that was intended to pull more power back to Congress but actually ended up giving more authority to the executive.”

It’s a historical fact that American presidents never relinquish powers they or their predecessors have successfully asserted. (See, i.e., Obama Makes Bushism the New Normal, September 3, 2014.)

Haines succinctly explained why: “From the executive branch perspective, if you’re concerned about whether you have the authorities” that you just might need someday, “you do whatever you can to maintain those authorities.”

She acknowledged that such power-hoarding “leads to distortion” of the system of checks and balances. She suggested that Congress step in to make sure emergency powers are time-limited going forward.

Other experts also suggested that Congress provide some guidance on what does and does not qualify as a national emergency – as there’s no such definition now.

Liza Goitein, the co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program and convener of Wednesday’s meeting, noted that Trump has put his unique twist on the question of declaring a national emergency.

To the extent that it’s reasonable to grant a president the power to take emergency action, it’s when there’s no time for Congress to weigh in,

But in the current situation, Trump has announced that he is waiting to see if Congress will act before declaring a national emergency on the border to build the wall.

“It gets the entire principle behind emergency powers backwards,” Goitein said

The Brennan Center report focuses on emergency authorities that have been specifically approved by Congress – including two that Trump’s lawyers are said to be eyeing to get the wall built. (Both, however, are too limited to justify such a move, Goitein told the conference.)

But the even scarier-sounding presidential emergency powers, which Goietein addressed in an accompanying article in the Atlantic, are outlined in highly classified draft executive orders, proclamations and messages to Congress called Presidential Emergency Action Documents that presidential aides carry wherever the president goes – so they are one signature (now Trump’s) away from becoming operational. Goitein writes:

PEADS are closely guarded within the government; none has ever been publicly released or leaked. But their contents have occasionally been described in public sources, including FBI memorandums that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act as well as agency manuals and court records. According to these sources, PEADS drafted from the 1950s through the 1970s would authorize not only martial law but the suspension of habeas corpus by the executive branch, the revocation of Americans’ passports, and the roundup and detention of “subversives” identified in an FBI “Security Index” that contained more than 10,000 names.

Goitein continues:

It will fall to Jeff Sessions’s successor as attorney general to decide whether to rein in or expand some of the more frightening features of these PEADS. And, of course, it will be up to President Trump whether to actually use them—something no previous president appears to have done.

I asked a panel of former senior national security and defense officials at the event whether a declaration of martial law remains among today’s PEADS. And I asked Haines specifically if she had any regrets about any PEADS that Obama left in place, now that Trump is president.

Christopher Fonzone, a former legal adviser to Obama’s National Security Council, waved me off. “I really think it’s going to be tough to talk about the substance of what PEADS are,” he said, citing their classification.

And Haines ducked my question. “I have a lot of regrets in my life,” she said.

Saikrishna Prakash, a University of Virginia law school professor, discussed how today’s presidential emergency powers have almost no historical basis.

The Constitution enumerates a total of three emergency powers for the president, he said:  to make recess appointments, to issue pardons, and to summon Congress back into session.

“If there’s a crisis, Congress should be summoned,” Prakash said of the presidency as originally envisioned.

In short, he said, the presidency is weak, Congress has vast authority, and if the president feels the need to act without congressional authority, he has to ask Congress to absolve him afterward.

Over time, it’s become completely different, Prakash said. “The president claims some sort of vast and unspecified authority to deal with emergency; Congress has delegated that authority by statutes; … and presidents never say they’re sorry.”

What didn’t come up Wednesday was what if anything the public or civil society or the opposition party could do if Trump declares a national emergency with wide-ranging effects — say, if there’s a terror attack, or if he feels particularly vulnerable politically.

Seems to me that someone should organize a teach-in to grapple with that possibility.

Regrets about drone policy are rare among Obama officials, even with Trump now at the helm

Screengrab from Defense Department video of air strike that destroyed the homes of Basim Razzo and Mohannad Razzo, as described in New York Times Magazine article

Trump is why you need limits on executive power Fifth in a series: Donald Trump’s use and abuse of powers bequeathed him by Barack Obama – particularly the power to unilaterally kill people abroad – vividly demonstrates what a mistake it was for Democrats to continue George W. Bush’s expansion of executive power rather than rein it in. But they still don’t seem to get it. See the other articles in the series here.

In November 2017, the New York Times Magazine ran an extraordinary piece of reportage by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, called “The Uncounted.” Khan and Gopal found that casualties from air strikes had been underreported by the U.S. government, possibly by a factor of 31.

The story prompted a solemn and pained response from two Obama officials who had been involved in the program: Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper. Unlike other colleagues, they acknowledged that profound, structural change is necessary:

The Times story is one of faulty intelligence driving wrong-headed assumptions that decimate innocent lives and embitter survivors. It is a story about how a legal and bureaucratic fog can make it almost impossible for tragic mistakes to come to light, too often leaving instead a false sense of comfort that such mistakes never happened at all. And it is a story about a policy that warrants honest discussion, and change. We both worked with that policy up close. In the Obama White House, one of us was responsible for human rights, the other for coordinating the counter-isis campaign. In this respect, we were part of an administration that fell short.

Malley and Pomper identified serious structural problems with the U.S. air strikes:

Broad criteria for who or what could be targeted were superimposed upon imperfect systems for identifying those targets, which were exacerbated by the opacity of after-action verification and reparation procedures. All of this was compounded by a natural tendency to give U.S. military operators the benefit of the doubt.

There were safeguards put in place to avoid civilian casualties. But “both of us believe that these steps did not do enough,” Malley and Pomper wrote.

What they recommend is tougher standards to “ensure we err more often on the side of caution” and “acknowledging error” and radical transparency about policy and post-strike assessments.

But even they didn’t call for effective restraints on this power through congressional legislation or judicial oversight. The closest they came was this:

[I]t’s at least worth pondering whether someone from outside the chain of command — possibly from outside the executive branch altogether — should be able to check the Pentagon’s work, bringing the kind of perspective that only comes with distance.

The “honest discussion” they called for never happened. Other Obama officials remained silent.

In fact, the only regret I’ve heard other former officials express about Obama’s drone policy is about transparency.

For instance, Ryan Goodman, who served as special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense, has written that transparency as regards the number of civilian casualties was lacking, and should be improved. But he doesn’t explain why it wasn’t under Obama.

Harold Koh, the noted legal scholar who served as Obama’s first State Department legal adviser, briefly discusses drone policy in his new book. He acknowledges the obvious reason he and his colleagues didn’t feel obliged to strengthen oversight on drones: “The Obama administration anticipated that its work would be carried on by a Hillary Clinton administration.”

He further acknowledges that the rules now appear to be “up for grabs” instead:

It remains unclear how scrupulously these legal and policy rules—particularly the “near-certainty” rules to ensure that civilians are not targeted by drone strikes or other military action—are now being followed by the Trump administration.

But there are apparently no lessons learned. When it comes to reform proposals, Koh simply repeats the same call for more transparency that he issued upon upon leaving the administration in 2013. He writes:

The Obama administration [was not] sufficiently transparent—to the media, to Congress, and to our allies—about the legal standards and decision-making process that it applied to its use of drones. The inevitable release of necessary pieces of the administration’s public legal defense came too little and too late. This spurred a left-right coalition—running from Code Pink to Rand Paul—to speak out against the drone program, fostering the perception that the program was illegal, unnecessary, and out of control. The public lost track of the real issue, which was never drone technology per se, but rather the need for transparent, agreed-upon domestic and international legal process and standards.

So if Obama had just done a better job of explaining himself, Koh argues, the easily confused public would have been fully satisfied. Beyond that, nothing to see here. Move along.

Next in my series on drones: Democrats aren’t even trying to rein Trump in.