While reading this morning’s crop of news and opinion, it struck me that there are several good examples here of stories that identify universal truths about Trump that are too often left out of the daily coverage.
Here is a (necessarily abbreviated) list of things about Trump that I think are essential context for any story about him. And not just fact-checks or think pieces! Because how can readers possibly be expected to understand what is going on otherwise?
But some of the lamest political journalism these days consists of reporters self-importantly grilling Democratic leaders about whether impeachment is on the table or not.
Of course it’s on the table.
That’s not the interesting part.
The interesting part is why it’s not happening yet.
And while a significant subset of Democrats believe that impeachment proceedings are already overdue, there are two things to keep in mind:
1. Members of the Democratic leadership have consistently made it clear that they will wait until the move to impeach is bipartisan (and/or special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding include such astonishing lawlessness that they feel they have no choice); and
2. Impeachment in the House doesn’t get rid of Trump. You need two thirds of the Senate to remove him – which means a significant number of Republican votes.
So if journalists want to cover the drama of impeachment – and they should – the people they should be hounding for answers (on the Sunday morning shows, on the CNN panels, in the Capitol hallways, etc.) are Republican members of Congress.
How do they reconcile Trump’s behavior with the country’s need for honest, predictable leadership? How is indefinitely shutting down the government in line with a president’s obligations under the Constitution? How is Trump’s company making money from foreign governments not an unconstitutional emolument? How much corruption is simply too much? Are they good with an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal campaign-finance violation being president? How is [whatever Trump has just done] not an impeachable offense? What do they consider obstruction of justice? What do they think is impeachable?
The point is that Trump has committed any number of what could reasonably be considered impeachable offenses. So what needs to change is for at least some Republican to publicly acknowledge that.
The Democratic House will pursue oversight that may amount to a de facto impeachment inquiry, undoubtedly finding out more unsavory things about the Trump presidency. The Mueller investigation will at some point become less opaque.
So at what point will a significant number of non-suicidal Republicans break ranks from Trump and disown his profound dishonesty, corruption and contempt for the law?
That’s the exciting and important question. Start asking it now, and don’t stop.
The new unified theory of progressive politics is that desperately needed changes along an entire spectrum of otherwise unrelated issues are all dependent on the same thing: reducing the way money and intense partisanship interfere with the fundamental exercise of democracy.
That’s why groups committed to such varied causes as the environment, civil rights, stopping gun violence, LGBTQ issues, human rights, just foreign policy, free speech, health care, corporate accountability, abortion rights, collective bargaining, immigrant justice – you name it – are enthusiastically joining with good-government, voting rights and campaign finance organizations in support of H.R. 1, the House Democrats’ 571-page democracy restoration plan.
After all, how does a common, pro-public citizens agenda stand a chance when money warps every element of the democratic process from who gets heard to who doesn’t get heard to who runs to how they run to who gets to vote to who doesn’t get to vote, to whose vote counts?
A position held by a solid majority of citizens means nothing if their messages are drowned out by massive amounts of dark money; if only candidates with corporate backing can win elections; if voters can’t get to the polls or are turned away; or if the legislative process is perverted by the prospect of lucrative job offers and legalized bribery.
A variety of leaders from among the 125 national groups who have joined a coalition supporting H.R. 1 spoke on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in support of the bill, which would enact small-donor funding for elections while ending secret money, voter suppression, extreme partisan gerrymandering and flawed government ethics rules.
It was hardly a surprise to see Fred Wertheimer, the dean of the campaign-finance reform movement, in attendance.
But what was Debbie Sease, federal campaigns and legislative director of the Sierra Club, doing there?
“The Sierra Club is an environmental organization,” Sease said. “We care passionately about clean air, clean water, finding solutions to climate change — so you might say, ‘Why would the Sierra Club think that the We the People Act, HR 1, is the single most important thing that we may do this Congress for the environment’?”
She explained: “We care passionately about clean air, clean water, finding solutions to climate change – and so does the vast majority of the American public. And the biggest things standing between the American public and those solutions have been the influence of corporate money and an electoral system that is broken.”
Until real democracy is achieved, she said, “we will not get those things.”
What was Christopher Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America, doing there?
“CWA members believe that Washington is rigged against the interest of ordinary working people,” he said. “They are crying out for anyone to bring our democracy back to its founding principles of ‘We the People,” not ‘We the Well-Connected With Huge Bank Accounts.’ That’s why we are so excited.”
What was Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, doing there? “The dark money that corrupts politicians and tilts the scales in favor of special interests must be addressed,” he said. “And no money is darker than the funds funneled from the National Rifle Association headquarters to Capitol Hill.”
What was Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, doing there? “Voting rights is an LBGTQ issue,” she said. “Today we stand with our colleagues representing other movements to urge Congress to move forward on HR 1, a bold sent of reforms that will serves as a much needed lifeline to democracy.”
What was Bishop Garrison, interim executive director of the Truman National Security Project, doing there? “We know good, inclusive governance is the first step toward making our nation safer, while ensuring we remain an effective leader on the world stage,” he said. “It is important to our national security that we keep dark money out of politics.”
Public Citizen is leading the coalition of groups. Its president, Robert Weissman, said there is a growing movement across the country demanding democracy reforms.
“The Americans people do know that it is the failure of our democracy that stands in the way of the agenda that they want,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily a progressive agenda. It’s an American agenda – to provide health care for all, to raise the minimum wage, to deal with the price gouging of pharmaceutical companies, to take on the existential threat of climate change.
“That agenda has the support of 70, 80, 90 percent of Americans,” he continued. “The reason we don’t get progress is because our political system is broken through corruption and the undermining of democracy.”
Weissman concluded: “The only thing they support more than the things I just listed is fixing the democracy itself, which gets 90 percent support in public opinion polls.”
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:
Advice for networks to minimize their utility as propaganda tools:
1) Before the speech, get a panel of experts on autocracy to explain what rhetorical devices autocrats use, so the audience will recognize them
2) Use a time delay. Check facts and correct lies during speech.
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:
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 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
Trump is why you need limits on executive powerFourth 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.