We need new rules for how the president communicates with the press

It's all smiles in the White House Briefing Room in this White House photo.
It’s all smiles in the White House Briefing Room in this White House photo.

A comedian who will not be named opens up one of his movies with an old joke: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.'”

I was reminded of the joke by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple‘s article Tuesday on the White House Correspondents’ Association’s repeated requests for more press briefings from Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The correspondents’ association president, Olivier Knox, is certainly correct that press briefings these days are infrequent and short. As Wemple notes, “Sanders did a mere 13 briefings across June, July and August, for a total of nearly four hours.”

But more importantly, they are useless when it comes to genuine news gathering. They are a mockery of the format. They are a mockery of the press.

Wemple acknowledges that view, but explains his own:

The briefings are the one place where reporters can get on-the-record replies to their questions, even if those replies amount to junk-food information. Otherwise, reporters are dependent on the mercurial president’s comments at ceremonial events and, of course, “senior administration officials” spinning the news on background. And as Knox wrote in a piece titled “Save the (terrible) White House briefing” — and written during the Obama administration — the briefing conveys the helpful message that no one is above being questioned.

I agree that the press briefing is hugely important – in theory. White House reporters – again, in theory – serve as the representatives of the public. No one else gets anywhere near as much access to the president and White House officials. The press is uniquely in a position to demand answers to the questions the public most deserves to have answered.

This access is particularly relevant in this administration, as Trump limits his public appearances to campaign rallies filled with rabid fans, or institutional settings where his role as Commander in Chief precludes dissent.

But as with many other elements of his presidency, Trump has simply taken an existing trend one gigantic step farther. George W. Bush, for instance, also hid behind the presidency to avoid contact with people who even potentially disagreed with him. (See my extensive coverage of the “Bush Bubble” in the previousl incarnation of White House Watch).

Similarly, as long as I’ve been watching press briefings carefully (i.e. since Bush II) they’ve been quite overtly all about deflecting questions, rather than answering them.

Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Tony Snow and Dana Perino all became famous for their own special ways of saying nothing. (Although McClellan, to his undying credit, came clean afterwards – see here and here — which is probably why see him on cable TV about as often as you see Snow, who is dead.)

Barack Obama’s talk about transparency during his first presidential campaign made many journalists hopeful. (Boy did I have hopes.) But when Robert Gibbs walked up to the podium in the White House Briefing Room for the first time, it was no different. In fact, Fleischer chortled that the efforts to control press access and coverage belied Obama’s promise of open government.

News of Jay Carney’s appointment at first delighted his fellow journalists, but he quickly disappointed. Josh Earnest was more of the same.

And then came Trump, whose press secretaries – first Sean Spicer then Sanders – shifted from deflecting questions to answering with blatant lies and prickly hostility. Along with Trump’s Twitter feed and campaign-rallly free-association, they have created an alternate reality for Trump supporters where Trump wins all the time.

Sanders has actually taken Spicer’s dissembling to a new level. As Wemple writes in another piece, “She is the master of the unassailable and ultimately meaningless reply.”

Larger servings of that are not in the interest of the American public.

What should the White House press corps be asking for? Well, it doesn’t really matter what they ask for as long as Trump is president.

As with many unofficial White House rules that Trump has completely broken, maybe now is the time to fix it right, for the next presidency.

So let’s ask another question: What should the standards be, going forward, for a president’s relationship to the press? Can such standards be established in some objective and concrete fashion? What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to how often the president should hold press conference, sit down for in-depth interviews with non-sycophantic journalists, hold town halls, and so on?

How could such standards be enforced? Could civil society play a role?

Consider this the beginning of a long discussion on this topic. I’ll follow up repeatedly in the coming weeks and months, including with interviews with experts and suggestions from readers.

Hillary Clinton calls for a ‘big rejection’ of authoritarianism in the midterm elections

Hillary Clinton talking to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on September 18.
Hillary Clinton talking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on September 18.

The midterms will be a referendum not just on Donald Trump but on the future of authoritarianism in American politics, Hillary Clinton told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night.

“The actions that we have seen coming from the White House in this administration in the nearly two years since the election have raised all kinds of signal flares, alarm bells about what is happening to our democracy,” Clinton said.

“What I’m worried about is these authoritarian tendencies that we have seen at work in this administration with this president, left unchecked, could very well result in the erosion of our institutions to an extent that we’ve never imagined possible here.” She continued: “And I know that if we don’t have a very big rejection of those tendencies come in this midterm election, left unchecked and unaccountable, I think you will only see more of these attacks on our institutions, on our norms, on the rule of law that could do lasting damage.

“We’re not there yet, but that’s because we have an election. And it’s an election that could not be more critical to ending any continuing threat from authoritarian tendencies.”

Clinton is on a book tour for a new edition of her book, “What Happened.” An excerpt from the new afterword ran in the Atlantic on Monday, and I wrote about how she said the biggest challenge to democracy is not Trump himself, but “a small group of right-wing billionaires” building an “alternative reality” and the “increasing radicalism and irresponsibility” of the Republican Party.

She’s also very focused on the midterm, and what Trump does afterward. She told Maddow she expects him to fire many of his top appointees and start acting even more erratically – especially if there is no on in Congress holding him back.

“If we ignore the importance of the midterm election and there is no check and balance — we don’t take back one or both of the Houses of Congress then I think you’ll see even more of the dismantling of our institutions, with very dire effect,” she said.

Here’s an excerpt of her interview:

Congress gets a spine and nobody notices because it’s about Yemen

Screenshot from CNN.
Screenshot from CNN.

The legislative branch responded to the 9/11 attacks by ceding vast amounts of power to the executive branch. Congressional oversight has become a sad farce. Donald Trump is an imperial president.

So you would think it would be huge news if members of both parties, in both the House and Senate, joined together in significant numbers to seize one of Congress’s core, constitutional powers back from the president: the power to declare war.

Except that is what is happening pretty much right now, in the context of a brewing Congressional rebellion against U.S. support for the unconscionable Saudi-led bombing campaign that is killing civilians in Yemen.

And almost no one is paying attention. Certainly not the elite political media.

There’s an eerie parallel in the paucity of coverage of the actual war and the U.S. role there – although two particularly horrific attacks using U.S. bombs have gotten some attention recently, see below.

But purely in the context of the Trump presidency, a near-revolt by Congress is an amazing story.

It dates back at least to November of last year, when the House overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution stating that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen.

It was non-binding, nonspecific, and a far cry from the bill that Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) had originally introduced, directing the president to remove U.S. forces from Yemen unless they were specifically hunting terrorists.

But in an era of blissful acquiescence to the president’s whims, it was still an extraordinary sign of revolt. And instead of listless coverage, reporters should have been crawling all over the Hill demanding to know how and why a bipartisan group of House leaders defanged it, and what might have happened if Khanna’s bill had come to a vote.

Fast forward to late February, when Senators Mike Lee (Republican), Bernie Sanders (independent) and Chris Murphy (Democrat) fired off an op-ed demanding a vote on the U.S. role in Yemen. They wrote:

Since 9/11, politicians have become far too comfortable with American military interventions all over the world. It is time for Congress to play its constitutionally mandated oversight role with regard to war.

Trump’s Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis sent a letter to Congress warning that the move “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis — all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.”

And, as CNN reported. “The Trump administration and GOP leaders opposed the move, arguing the limited military support did not require congressional signoff. They also said US involvement in Yemen was needed to counter the threat from Iran.”

In the end, five Republicans supported the bill, but the rest rallied behind leadership. And with the help of 10 Democrats, the Senate tabled it by a vote of 54 to 44.

“Senators Reject Limits on U.S. Support for Saudi-led Fight in Yemen,” said the New York Times headline — which could instead have been about how Sanders and others came up just six votes short of a historic reassertion of Congressional war power in the name of humanitarian disaster.

In August, Murphy, who has championed the issue for three years, tried again to introduced an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would end spending that supports the Saudi bombing.

As Sludge reported, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby blocked Murphy’s amendment in a rider kill-off. But did it ever so kindly:

“The Senator from Connecticut has a worthy amendment and we’re all concerned about what’s going on in Yemen,” said Shelby. “This is something we’re going to have to address and I would like to work with him as would others on both sides of the aisle, because what’s been going on in Yemen is atrocious.”

The Defense authorization did require the administration to certify by September 12 that the Saudi coalition was helping end the war – or stop refueling coalition aircraft.

Trump put his name to a signing statement Congress didn’t have the right to demand such a thing.

But Pompeo ended up issuing a certification anyway. The New York Times headline: “Yemen Civilians Keep Dying, but Pompeo Says Saudis Are Doing Enough”.

Ro Khanna responded on Twitter:

Which brings us to the present day. Khanna and 10 House colleagues have announced their intention to introduce a resolution specifically invoking the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to withdraw U.S. forces from engaging with the Saudi-led coalition if it continues to escalate the conflict.

Such a resolution is considered “privileged” meaning that Khanna could force a vote even if Republican leadership objects.

With that in the works, there ought to be daily coverage by top congressional reporter about what it means, who’s in, who’s out, and why.

(Hint: In These Times reports that “Despite claiming concern over U.S.-backed atrocities in Yemen, some of the most influential Democrats in the U.S. House are refusing to publicly endorse the latest political effort to end the U.S. role in the Saudi-led war.”)

Should that effort fail, look for another one once the Trump administration officially notifies Congress of the next munitions sale to the Saudis.

Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation told the Hill that at that point, she thinks there is a “huge opportunity” to get a majority of senators to vote to block the sale.

Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, cheered on the congressional attempts to end U.S. involvement in Yemen last week, on the New York Review of Books website. He wrote:

It is unfortunate that the major media have given so little attention to the battle in Congress, because that is how this war will be ended and potentially millions of lives saved. The omission is not because US journalists are particularly sympathetic to this war. The New York Times editorial board, in a piece headlined “Saudis try to starve Yemen into submission,” effectively accused the US government of complicity in “war crimes.”

But most journalists seem to accept the imperial presidency as a political reality, and do not seem to realize that Congress has constitutional authority over decisions of war and peace and is in the process of reclaiming that authority. The implications of this historic shift would be enormous, as big as the destruction, mass slaughter, and chaos that has been caused by the endless series of wars and US military interventions unleashed since the 9/11 attacks seventeen years ago.

The Yemen story hardly lacks drama or gravitas . In fact, in an extraordinary piece of journalism published today, CNN today heart-breakingly documents the fragments of U.S.-manufactured bombs found at the scene of one attack after another in which civilians died. That included a strike on a wedding in April that killed 21 civilians including 11 children. Watch the video:

CNN had earlier found that the bomb used in a devastating attack on a school bus in Yemen in early August that killed 40 children was a laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin, and sold as part of a State Department-sanctioned arms deal. Here’s that video:

On the night of the school-bus bombing, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had this to say:

If I were to stand here on this broadcast and tell you that a  foreign power had bombed a school bus full of American children, there  would be no bigger story. We would be in a state of panic, horror, and  mourning, and certainly a media war.

In fact, the thought experiment doesn`t even work, because if that had happened, you wouldn`t need me to tell you about it at 8:45, you`d know minutes after it happened.

Well today a foreign power did bomb a school bus full of children, only it was Yemeni children, and the Saudi-led coalition that did that bombing is backed by us, by the United States…..

Now, the horror of this specific attack prompted a howl of outrage from Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. He wrote U.S. bombs, U.S. targeting, U.S. midair support and we just bombed a school bus. The Saudi/UAE/U.S. bombing camapign is getting more reckless, killing more civilians, and strengthening terrorists inside Yemen. We need to end this now.

He is right. Our government, our public dollars are paying to kill Yemeni children and it’s our government and our representatives that can stop it.

Trump sacrifices refugees on the altar of white anxiety

Stephen Miller (screengrab)
Stephen Miller (screengrab)

While your gaze may have been diverted elsewhere, Donald Trump on Monday took another major step toward extinguishing America’s reputation as an international beacon of hope and a place of refuge for people seeking to be free.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new cap on the number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States next year — 30,000 at an absolute maximum, a cut upon a cut, and an increasingly tiny fraction of a percentage point of the almost 69 million displaced people in the world today.

Major news organizations reported the move pretty straight — leaving the heartbreaking context to reaction quotes from immigration groups. They should have called it what it is: An act of astonishing, shameful cruelty, in the all-but-spoken-out-loud name of white nationalism.

There is no practical reason that the U.S. couldn’t handle many more refugees. The only reasons left, then, are racism – to slow the entry of non-white people into the country – and the politics of division.

The lowered cap is widely recognized as the work of Stephen Miller, the president’s particularly black-hearted senior policy advisor, who opposes not just undocumented immigration but immigration, period.

Miller has a enthusisastic audience in Trump. Miller reportedly wanted the cap lowered to 25,000; Trump at one point countered by suggesting 5,000. The final cap of 30,000 is down from 50,000 this year and 85,000 in the last year of the Obama presidency, although actual admissions were considerably lower.

Miller experienced a setback earlier this year when his “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy led to thousands of family separations, public outrage and a court-order retreat. But Miller moved on undaunted, evidently recognizing that pictures of brown people quietly suffering in the refugee camps and being turned down for entry are not as likely to capture the public imagination as those of children being snatched away from their mothers by people wearing U.S. government uniforms.

The new initiative is at least as effective in catering to the “white anxiety” preached by Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

As Mehdi Hasan writes in the Intercept, racial and cultural anxiety is what won Trump the 2016 election. And it’s what he’s counting on going forward.

But consider the sheer inhumanity of this particular decision, which Anne Richard, an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, described to Politico as the result of “a numbers game that’s being carried out by people who don’t care about refugees and are orienting this to their base.”

Depending on how you look at those numbers, they mean such different things. The marginal difference to the U.S. of accepting refugees is about nil. The marginal difference to a refugee is a future, or none.

Sen. Patrick Leahy issued an impassioned statement after Pompeo’s announcement, worth reproducing in its entirety:

In so many ways, this White House has shown a particular contempt for the world’s most vulnerable people seeking refuge from persecution and war.  What previous Republican and Democratic administrations believed was a moral responsibility – and a way to demonstrate that unmatched American power is derived in part from how we treat the powerless among us – the Trump administration shamelessly treats as a burden to be callously discarded.

As disheartening as this abdication of leadership is, spearheaded by the architects of the morally abhorrent family separation policy, this too will pass.  Our values and traditions are too deeply embedded in our national conscience to be abandoned so casually.  They will outlast this president.

It is now up to Congress, and the American people, to reaffirm what this Nation stands for. Which is that America will be – and always has been, at its core – a welcoming refuge for those seeking to be free.

 

particularly moving statement came from Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees – and that helped my immigrant father get legal status here in the late 1940s:

President Trump has once again betrayed America’s history and global leadership in providing safe haven for innocent human beings fleeing violence and persecution…

By setting the refugee number this low, this administration is betraying the commitments we made after World War II – followed by decades of bipartisan support – to ensure that the world never again turns its back on innocent people seeking safety. During a period of unprecedented crisis, America has signaled it is a nation in retreat, and as a result the outlook for refugees looks even more bleak.

A nation in retreat, indeed.

Pompeo’s announcement was defensive. “Some will characterize the refugee ceiling as the sole barometer of America’s commitment to vulnerable people around the world. This would be wrong,” he insisted.

And, as Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote in very effective debunking in the New York Times, it was also highly inaccurate.

Mr. Pompeo said refugees had to be weighed against a backlog of 800,000 asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision by immigration authorities about whether they qualify as in need of protection under United States law and will be granted status to remain.

But he vastly overstated the numbers, while making a linkage between two groups of immigrants that are not the same and are processed differently.

Specifically, about 730,000 immigrants  are waiting for their cases to be resolved by immigration courts. That doesn’t make the refugees or asylum seekers.

The use of refugees as a political football is classic Trump – and also specific to Trump, rupturing a decades-old bipartisan consensus. Consider this letter signed by an all-start list of foreign policy Mandarins from both parties in September 2016. It said in part:

As we ensure the safety of our own citizens, we should recognize that refugees serve as a source of national renewal. Fleeing horrors today, they will tomorrow emerge as patriotic citizens who give back to the country that welcomed them in their time of desperation. And accepting refugees demonstrates, at a time when it is so sorely needed, that America leads the world in marching toward a better future.

 

How will the next president keep the American people entertained?

Windsor Mann, a contributing writer for The Week, takes a light-hearted look at how we’ll miss Trump because he so entertaining. “The day after he leaves office,” he writes, “I will be bored.”

But this is a serious concern. How do we get the public to focus on the serious work of governing with even a fraction of the attention they give the you-laugh-you-cry crisis-a-minute look-at-me always-a-cliffhanger reality TV show that is the Trump presidency?

Or will people just tune out, until another huckster comes around?

That would be particularly disastrous because the American public – not just the elites — needs to embark, soon, on a major democratic restoration project. The first step includes a lot of questions. How does the political ecosystem recover? Can we, as part of a needed restoration, fix things that were broken even before Trump came along?  Do pre-Trump norms simply spring back into operation? What new laws do we need? Should we demand specific pledges by candidates? Does recovery require bipartisanship? Does it require a public reckoning?

Hillary Clinton brought up a lot of related issues in her essay in the Atlantic on Monday. But most of the press coverage was about her “slamming Trump.” The main argument – that our democratic institutions and traditions are under siege – was, I guess, too boring.

“The post-Trump era will be less frightening but more dull,” Mann writes. “It will be an unpleasant time for Americans. Not only do we demand entertainment, but we demand it from everyone, all the time…”

Brian Stelter, the host of “Reliable Sources” on CNN, addressed the issue on Sunday. “We’ve never seen a president like Donald Trump,” he said.

But in my humble opinion, we will never see a future president unlike him — at least when it comes to his use of TV. I have a sneaking feeling that every U.S. president from here on out will be a television star of some sort, maybe a lawmaker who knows how to create a TV moment, or a governor who knows how to throw a really great rally, or a businesswoman who knows how to connect through the camera.

It that inevitable? Or is there a way to engage the public in the work of democracy that doesn’t involve razzle-dazzle?

Trump welcomes another authoritarian to the White House

Polish president Andrzej Duda.
Polish president Andrzej Duda.

Struggling to cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, Donald Trump on Tuesday welcomes to the White House the president of Poland, whose far-right party has effectively put its formerly independent judiciary under strict political control.

Trump is evidently a fan.

He made his first European stop as president in Warsaw in 2017, where he effusively praised Poland for ardently defending Western values and democratic ideals – something Poland had been doing, more or less, since communism collapsed more than 25 years ago and until 2015, when the virulently nationalist Law and Justice Party swept the elections and began establishing one-party rule.

The party used the same authoritarian playbook that has been so successful for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As Stanford international studies professor Anna Grzymala-Busse described it for me last year: “First, target the highest courts and the judiciary, then restrict the independence of the media and civil society, and finally transform the constitutional framework and electoral laws in ways that enshrine their hold on power.”

Tuesday’s meeting is not precisely between two strongmen, however. The visiting  president, Andrzej Duda, is more of a figurehead; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice party’s chair, is the man who calls the shots.

Duda will be asking Trump to put a permanent U.S. military base in his country. Poland is offering $2 billion to build it, as protection against Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin hosts Hungary’s Orbán in Moscow on Tuesday.

In addition to Putin and Orban – who was the first leader of an EU or NATO country to endorse Trump’s campaign — Trump’s closest friends among world leaders include China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, and Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader overseeing a bloody, extrajudicial slaughter in the name of a war on drugs.

Update: The New York Times has published a marvelous article on Trump and Poland: Poland’s Leader Finds an Ally in Trump, Even as He Brings Courts to Heel.