The evening of April 29th made clear that the Trump administration and the national press in Washington, D.C. are at war. This is not good news for Donald Trump although he may think it is at the moment.
In a childish sleight that typifies his personality and his presidency, Trump chose to decline his invitation to the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and instead traveled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a rally with supporters, two Saturdays ago. Perhaps he thought his absence would do great damage to the charity event, but in fact the dinner sold out, in part because reporters want to show they will not be bullied by the president and in part because it is a charity dinner and charity — aside from the tax implications — is a concept Trump does not understand. While Trump may understand publicity, he does not understand the role of the press when it comes to keeping an eye on government. He may also not understand that he is the government.
I once witnessed an exchange between the wife of a politician and a writer who had been skewering her husband in her weekly newspaper column. The two were meeting for the first time and when the wife of the politician realized who the columnist was she said, “Oh, I don’t like what you write.”
To which the columnist responded, “Thank you.”
While Trump lives to be loved by the crowds, reporters live to be loathed by the powerful. Trump’s decision not to attend the correspondents’ dinner was actually the highest compliment he could pay to the group assembled in Washington and to the institution of the press as a whole.
In Harrisburg, Trump turned up the anti-press rhetoric citing polls showing America’s dissatisfaction with the news media and claiming most journalists were supporters of Hillary Clinton. He used the reference to his “opponent” to stoke a chant of “lock her up” from the crowd and a few moments later stood proudly looking on as he ordered police to remove a protestor. “We love our law enforcement,” Trump said, with the self-satisfaction of someone who believes the police now exist to defend his right to enforce rules he makes up as he goes along.
In Washington, while the rhetoric was more subdued, the message could not be more clear. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Gods of Watergate and journalism’s last great era, were the keynote speakers. While not passing final judgement, their remarks sounded like the pre-indictment conversations that might take place in the office of a criminal prosecutor. The evidence of corruption and abuse of power by the target is all around and now it is just a matter of assembling it into a picture a jury can understand.
Like a hound on the trail of a scent, reporters become most focused on finding the truth when they detect secrecy, misdirection, and lies. All three have been abundant in the first four months of the Trump administration, yet Trump and his team persist in applying the very communication strategies that make them most likely to attract hostile coverage and they whine when their propaganda is not printed verbatim. The press is onto them.
“Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be.” Bernstein told his colleagues, who listened closely for inspiration. “And when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us. Yes, follow the money, but follow, also, the lies.”
The particular offenses of possible collusion with the Russians to win the election, and the conflicts of interest created by Trump’s family business interests and the responsibility of Trump’s public office were never mentioned, but no key was necessary to break the code in Bernstein’s remarks.
Jeff Mason, the out-going president of the correspondents’ association, challenged the president he could not directly confront, “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.” The room erupted with the energy of an army about to go into battle.
The vigor with which the press corps is committed to opposing the Trump administration at every turn is easily seen in the coverage of last week’s House vote to replace the Affordable Care Act. The news media grudgingly acknowledged the development as a win for the president, but were quick to point out that it is a small victory which at the moment changes nothing. Obamacare is still law. The Senate has no intention of passing the House bill as is. Millions could lose healthcare. House passage was engineered only to give the White House a much needed legislative victory.
The environment the Trump administration has created for itself guarantees the most skeptical coverage. The Trump White House is a paranoid place. The president and his staff are always on a war footing. They are always in a defensive crouch and always willing to fire a pre-emptive first shot toward perceived adversaries. This is a debilitating strategy and a poor starting point for leadership.
The press always has an adversarial relationship with government and that is the way it is supposed to be. The press acts as floor supervisor on behalf of the people. Trump can’t change that, but he could make the relationship more mutually beneficial if he ran a more open government, could tolerate or learn to ignore criticism, and focused more on his job and less on what the press is saying about him. Job performance is measured best by results not self congratulation.
By making the news media the enemy, Trump has presented himself as a target that cannot be ignored. Some may argue that the Trump administration could never hope to win fair coverage from a press corps overwhelmingly dominated by liberal thinking, but the president has made things worse for himself. The press collectively now has one unspoken but clearly understood goal; to do everything in its power to cripple the administration and if possible replace it.
“Follow…the lies” is not a plea for fairness, it is a call to arms.