Fool the networks once, shame on Trump. Fool them twice, shame on them.


I can understand why network executives granted Donald Trump the airtime he wanted last night.

They knew he would lie. But these are not brave people. And they — at least initially — had at least some reason to believe that Trump might commit some urgent news, and they might look stupid or disrespectful if they missed it.

But there will be no excuse next time.

Trump commandeered the airwaves for nothing more than one more tired toot on his racist dog whistle. He lied constantly, of course. There was nothing presidential about his address; it was pure politics. There was no news. It even sucked as TV.

Yes, there’s an urgent national crisis, but it’s the one of Trump’s own making: The partial shutdown of the U.S. government. He barely addressed it.

The networks made the wrong call. And they failed to reverse themselves even after Trump apparently indicated to network anchors who accepted his invitation to an off-the-record lunch that the speech was a formality even he didn’t think would make a difference to anyone.

(Why would the anchors go, if not to inform their networks’ decision about whether to broadcast or not? The answer, sadly, is because they are enablers by nature.)

The networks then failed to rise to the occasion either with real-time fact-checking or by properly setting the stage. There was lots of good advice flying around yesterday, and they should have taken it. For instance, from one of my favorite media critics of the moment:

But now that the networks have been well and truly played, publicly humiliated, and lost a lot of ad money to boot, let’s hope they have learned their lesson.

Let’s hope they are now emboldened, so that next time Trump asks for airtime, they will either flatly reject him or demand solid reasons for why they should accede.

They should demand that he credibly demonstrate why a presidential address is justified, what urgent national need he is responding to, and what is new and urgent about the message he is sending to the American people.

Barring that, they should tell him to take his dog whistle and shove it.

UPDATE: When I posted my thoughts on this topic last night on Twitter, they were greeted with more than a little skepticism. Here’s more:

The ongoing challenge of covering Trump is playing out in front of your eyes

Photo by @jeffmason
Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s charge that Times news coverage has become “unmistakably anti-Trump” quickly prompted a well-earned rebuke from former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to the effect that “being pro-truth should not be mistaken for being anti-Trump.”

This is hardly a new debate. When it comes to covering politicians and government officials who lie, there’s always been great tension within our major news organizations between the journalistic devotion to truth-telling and the self-inflicted fear of being perceived as taking sides. It’s the source of many of mainstream journalism’s greatest failures – and arguably led to Trump’s election.

But that tension has never been quite as front-and-center as it is now, with Trump’s constant assault on the truth, and his spread of misinformation, fear, and hatred.

In fact, it plays out every day on the pages of the Times and the Washington Post as journalists wrestle publicly with how to report on Trump while not serving as unwitting megaphones for deception.

Trump’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday presented precisely such a challenge, and led to mixed success.

Writing in the Washington Post, Anne Gearan correctly minced no words in the lede of her front-page story, calling the meeting a “a 95-minute stream-of-consciousness defense of his presidency and worldview, filled with falsehoods, revisionist history and self-aggrandizement.”

Over at the New York Times, meanwhile, national political reporter Michael Tackett was joined by full-time fact-checking reporter Linda Qiu on a page A12 story where they offered readers what they called “some takeaways and fact-checks.”

The New York Times approach – with its more overt fact-checking – was way more successful.

The Washington Post, for instance, simply declared:

Trump defended his push to fund his promised border wall, parrying complaints from Democrats who have called the wall immoral by remarking, “Then we have to do something about the Vatican, because the Vatican has the biggest wall of them all.”

The Times added some crucial context:

(Vatican City has walls, but they do not enclose the entire territory and visitors can easily enter some parts.)

The Post story was appropriately critical of Trump’s bizarre comments about Afghanistan:

Amid concerns within his own party about whether he will pull troops out of Afghanistan, Trump offered a discursive and somewhat inscrutable account of the fall of the Soviet Union, blaming it on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But it then quoted him at some length, the only pushback coming from the observation that Trump was “breaking with the stance taken by past U.S. administrations that the invasion was an illegitimate power play against a neighboring nation.

The Times, by contrast, disputed Trump’s assertion that Russia “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” even though it had good reason to invade the country “because terrorists were going to Russia”:

(The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, beginning a “decade-long attempt by Moscow to subdue the Afghan civil war and maintain a friendly and socialist government on its border,” according to the State Department.)

The Times also fact-checked another Trump comment about Russia and Syria:

He protested that some characterized the withdrawal as aiding Russia, insisting that “they’re not happy.” (In fact, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria “correct.”)

The Washington Post reported this without any hint that it was not true:

He took credit for falling oil prices, arguing they were the result of phone calls he made to the leaders of oil-producing nations.

Readers were left to their own devices to determine if they were being lied to. They were.
Yes, after rising to a four-year high in October, oil prices plunged more than $30. But that was arguably due not to Trump phone calls but to two other factors:

  • His childishly-written statement expressing continued support for Saudi Arabia even after the grotesque premeditated ambush assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi apparently ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; and
  • Fears about weaker oil demand amid a potential slowdown in the global economy due to persistent worries over how Trump’s trade wars could hit economic growth.

The Washington Post simply quoted this Trump inanity:

“They say I am the most popular president in the history of the Republican Party,” Trump said.

The New York Times added another crucial parenthetical:

(Actually, Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was 88 percent at 701 days into his term, according to Gallup, the same as President George W. Bush at the same point. Over all, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings among his own party have largely hovered below Mr. Bush’s.)

The Washington Post stenographically reported:

He defended his controversial negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by stating that if he had not reached out, there would have been a “big fat war in Asia.”

That is an absurd statement to leave unrefuted. It is lunatic alternate-universe fantasy.

Both papers allowed some of Trump’s most extreme hyperbole speak for itself, which I guess is OK.

From the Post:

Trump, who did not serve in the military and received draft deferments during the Vietnam War, suggested he would have made a good military leader himself.
“I think I would have been a good general, but who knows?” Trump said.

And:

He claimed that if he wanted to, he could have any government job in Europe and be popular there. He cast his unpopularity among European publics as a sign he is doing his job well.

The Times offered up:

Trump said he did not want to be critical of his predecessor; rather, he wanted to make the point that walls work. Drones and other technology, he argued, had more limited capacity. “I know more about drones than anybody,” he said.

And:

“I could be the most popular person in Europe,” he said. “I could run for any office if I wanted to.”

Both articles ended with arguably the most laugh-out-loud whopper of them all. From the Post:

The president, who frequently faces criticism for his light public schedule, also bemoaned the lack of credit he has received for what he views as the many accomplishments of his first two years.
“I have to tell you, it would be a lot easier if I didn’t do anything, if I just sat and enjoyed the presidency, like a lot of other people have done,” Trump said.

I sympathize. How do you even begin to refute such insanity?

Extra credit to the Washington Post, which noted the elephant in the room:

The Post called attention to the “large poster of himself evoking ‘Game of Thrones’ on the table before him.”

The Times’s Tackett, clearly recognizing his oversight, posted an item on Thursday all about the poster, noting that “Trump did not talk about the poster. Nor did any of his cabinet members seated around him, or even Vice President Mike Pence, who was sitting directly in front of it. And he made no connection to the date on the poster — two days before Election Day.”

Also see:

It’s time to start ignoring what Trump says – as much as possible

Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage

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

How the Los Angeles Times could beat the New York Times in Washington: By covering politics with a view from California instead of nowhere

The argument that the president can be trusted with extreme unilateral powers is no longer credible, right?

Hellfire missiles and a guided bomb unit under the wing of a Reaper drone.
Hellfire missiles and a guided bomb unit under the wing of a Reaper drone.
Trump is why you need limits on executive power Fourth 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.

The fact that Donald Trump can unilaterally, extra-judicially, and in complete secrecy send drones to kill people abroad who pose no immediate risk to anyone is the single clearest example of the extreme and excessive expansion of executive power in the United States.

It’s not the only one. Other leading examples including the widespread use of bulk surveillance with no oversight and the (until recently) completely unchallenged appropriation of Congress’s war powers. But I focus on drones because they are such a concrete manifestation, they give presidents such an easy and sanitized way to kill, and their rampant and secretive use is the legacy of Democrats every bit as much as Republicans.  

The argument that extraordinary powers like these would never be abused because the president could always be trusted was never particularly persuasive to begin with.

And now, after the 2016 election, it is no longer even vaguely credible.

So you might think that Trump’s rise would have changed the political calculus — and that, outside of Trump dead-enders, there would be a pretty strong consensus that new checks on presidential power are necessary.

You might think that Democrats would recognize that while Trump is in many ways an aberration, he represents precisely the kind of monarchical, tyrannical threat that our system of checks and balances should be able to handle; and that the constant accretion of executive power from one president to the next is dangerous; and that it’s not enough to say the Democrats will handle it responsibly — you have to give some of it up next time you’re in power.

And yet it seems like it’s only the old, familiar voices we hear calling for stronger checks and balances. Top Democrats, national security hawks and neocons alike are largely treating it like a personnel issue that will be solved once Trump is gone.

New and newly energized democracy reform groups are doing marvelous work — but excessive executive power in the area of national security is not on their radar.

Perhaps some would-be critics brushed these concerns aside because, up until Thursday, there was at least one “adult” in the room. But he’s gone. 

What about the architects?

I’ve wondered, specifically, about the former Obama officials who helped craft targeted killing policies that involved no consultation with Congress, no oversight, and nothing like due process as we commonly understand it – and then memorialized their rules in a form that was not in any way binding over future presidents.

I’m not suggesting that they should realistically have been prepared for a Trump presidency. But now that they know such a thing is possible, do they wish they had done anything at all differently? Or have they at least changed their minds going forward?

It appears not.

“I haven’t seen too many of them reckon with their own role in providing these opportunities,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s Center for Democracy.

National security officials who suddenly got alarmed after the election at the power that President Trump was going to have — and who have taken issue with his decision-making since then — nevertheless are not advocating for a restructuring as much as they are waiting to feel confident about the president again, Kaufman said.

Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism in the Obama White House, expressed satisfaction with the fact that Trump didn’t actually throw away every single bit of Obama’s drone policy.

Trump’s new policy lowers the needed threat threshold set by Obama, expands the universe of targets set by Obama, eliminates layers of review created by Obama, and requires no direct White House involvement. But (at least officially) it retains a requirement of “near certainty” that no civilian bystanders will be killed before launching an operation outside a war zone.

Hartig, writing in Just Security, called that “a huge vindication of the Obama approach to overseeing drone operations.”

Practically speaking, however, Trump has made an end-run around the “near certainty” standard outside war zones – by expanding the war zones.

Harold Koh, the noted legal scholar and who was a skeptic about unilateral executive power until he served as Obama’s first State Department legal adviser, recently published a book titled The Trump Administration and International Law, in which he writes at some length about Obama’s attempts to bring what he calls the “Forever War” to an end.

The International law blog Opinio Juris held an online symposium about Koh’s book after it came out — and some progressives expressed profound disappointment about the policies Koh and Obama crafted, and Koh’s excuses for them.

Rita Siemion, legal counsel at Human Rights First, wrote that Koh’s expressed desire to bringing the Forever War to an end was belied by his support of the view that the president can unilaterally declare which geographic regions are war zones — in which looser, wartime targeting rules can be applied. (Trump has done precisely that with Yemen and Somalia.)

Amnesty International’s Daphne Eviatar wrote that Obama ultimately “didn’t narrow the field of conflict at all”:

On the contrary, the conflict has spread to more countries, so that the US under the Trump administration has employed lethal force in at least eight different countries, and there is no end in sight for what Koh himself laments has become a “Forever War.”

In Koh’s response to his critics, he didn’t suggest any new checks and balances, writing only that he would have preferred for Obama’s drone policy guidelines to have been “cast more firmly as executive or presidential orders” rather than memos. And, while grudgingly acknowledging that “many of the international law issues… were not perfectly resolved during the Obama administration,” Koh bristled at criticism. He complained:  

[I]t seems strangely counterproductive and mistimed — amid Trump’s daily radical and pervasive attack on the international legal institutions of our postwar legal order — for rule-of-law commentators to join in Trump’s attack on Obama and Clinton and remain fixated on critiquing the flaws of the Obama Administration.

But fixing Trumpism is about more than simply getting past him and fixing what he broke. It’s also about fixing the flaws in our system that Trump was able to exploit — and restoring the checks and balances that were allowed to get out of whack based on the assumption that future presidents could be trusted to use their enormous unilateral powers responsibly.

Happy Holidays to all of you. Posting will be light during the next two weeks. And please consider making a donation to White House Watch.

Next: A rare regret about hubris.

With Mattis gone, what’s stopping Bolton and Trump from sending drones into Iran?

Trump is why you need limits on executive power Third 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.

Despite Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and impulsive personality, there’s been remarkably little public concern about his possible abuse of his great powers as Commander in Chief.

That’s likely because there has been, at least in theory,  at least one “adult” in the way: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Jim Mattis
Jim Mattis

But with Mattis gone, the vast, unchecked powers that the presidency has accumulated over the years suddenly seem a lot more dangerous.

The timing of the departure – coming right as Trump ordered the withdrawal of troops from Syria, and maybe even Afghanistan – suggests that Mattis left because he felt Trump was being too dovish. But keep in mind that Trump a few months back called Mattis “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.” So the bigger concern is that Trump will now feel unfettered about intervening elsewhere.

Mattis’s departure has been predicted for months. And back in September, the New York Times published some speculation about what kind of person Trump would choose to replace him.

Helene Cooper 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.” (My italics.)

Matttis notably gave in when Trump ordered him to send thousands of active-duty troops to the Mexican border in a crassly political use of the military just before the midterm elections. But there was still a sense that he would only let Trump go so far. 

With Mattis gone, what’s the worst  that could happen? Look no further than Mattis’s arch-enemy John Bolton, the uber-hawk whose growing influence as national security adviser will now be essentially unchecked.

Bolton has long advocated for bombing Iran and pushing for regime change there.

At the United Nations in September, Bolton declared that “The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over. The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior. Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you.”

He specifically targeted Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “We will use every tool available to pursue Soleimani and others like him,” Bolton said. “Iran’s leadership will no longer enjoy a life of security and luxury while their people suffer and starve.”

I’ve been writing lately about the danger of unchecked power in the hands of any president — and this president in particular. It hasn’t exactly gotten people riled up like I thought it should.

Well, this is when it matters that George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama, vested the presidency with the authority to send drones to kill people of their choosing around the world.

This is when it matters that there are no rules about targeting people for death. (Obama adopted some for himself, but they have no authority over Trump.)

This is when it matters that modern presidents have successfully established the precedent that they can attack sovereign nations from the air on their say-so without notifying Congress or getting its approval.

What, now, is stopping John Bolton, like John Brennan before him, from deciding that someone is a threat and putting him on a kill list? 

Who thinks Trump would stop him?

And what happens if that leads to war?

Tomorrow: The argument that the president can be trusted with extreme unilateral powers is no longer credible, right?