Archive for February 2017

Hang together or most assuredly…

February 25, 2017

14028757974_98159df9bb_b.jpgThe institution of a free press is at risk and democracy depends on it. (That’s why it’s protected in the First Amendment.)

Many Republicans believed and many non-supporters hoped that the campaign rhetoric would fade, and President Trump would put behind him and dampen the provocative positions taken by Candidate Trump for the purpose of garnering votes. The President’s latest statements at CPAC, escalating his war on what he calls “The Enemy of the People,” i.e. the Press, foreshadows a continued assault on the press. If effective, this would substantially weaken media’s ability to provide the important check/balance on the administration that Madison and company felt important enough to put at the top of the Bill of Rights.

I understand President Trump was (as he does) playing to the crowd. But combine that with the same day’s events–Sean Spicer’s blocking selected news organizations for a White House briefing, and Steve Bannon’s continued references to the press as “the opposition party, “–and it all looks like a well-orchestrated attack rather than the president just wandering off script to stir up the conservative crowd.

As others have pointed out, a strained relationship with the media is not unique to this administration. Its inherent in a system of checks and balances that there will be tensions between the checkers and those getting checked. President Obama made similar attempts to exclude Fox News in the face of its ongoing attacks. But, Obama smokes cigarettes too, which most rational people agrees unhealthy. Doesn’t make it a good idea.

The press has the power to bring pressure to bear on the administration through its influence on the citizenry, but ultimately the consequences don’t play out for three years and nine months. In the shorter term, reporters can choose not to report on those things that the administration wants reporting on, but with so many media outlets, the absence of coverage by one or a few publications will only hurt them.

So, maintaining the stature of the press requires unity. The press have to see the big picture importance of preserving their common interests, a difficult thing for competitors. The administration strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between media outlets with differing political dispositions in order to exploit the difficulty. Divide and conquer, in the words of Philip of Macedonia (no relation).

Fox’s Shepard Smith gets it. He defended his network’s arch rival and ideological opposite with “CNN is not fake news.” Sean Hannity doesn’t. After the recent Melbourne rally, his headline read, “Trump takes on the press and delivers devastating knockout.” I watch him occasionally for exposure to the full spectrum of views and I note he describes every attack on the media adding the word “liberal” in front of media. There is a bigger picture he’s missing.

Going into this blog, I had the Franklin quote about hanging together or hanging separately in mind. (Have been thinking about the founders a lot lately as I am in the middle of Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition.) The National Review’s David French got there first with that quote in his opinion piece on the press blockage. Good for him and his publication (as conservative as its founder Bill Buckley) for seeing the big picture. I hope he is correct in his assertions:

…the White House should know that it’s move is completely unsustainable. Every news organization with any integrity will rightly boycott briefings if the White House excludes disfavored outlets. This is yet another one of the informal but effective checks on White House power. While a portion of Trump’s base may hate the media so much that they’re fine if Sean Spicer ends up only briefing Gateway Pundit, most of the rest of America finds press exclusion ridiculous. 

In fact, my hope is that there rest of America finds the press exclusion dangerous.


Gates and the Wisdom of Experience

February 4, 2017

images.jpegJust over a week ago, Robert Gates spoke at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event. Of course, the first days of the Trump presidency were high on the list of questions he received, and he responded with unique perspective.

You have to think Mr. Gates view is balanced. A lifetime republican, he served both Bush adminstrations as head of the CIA and Defense Secretary respectively. But after the next transition, he was retained by Obama to run the Defense Department. Last, September he loudly criticized candidate Trump in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, but more recently advised the transition team, and, evidently, put forth Rex Tillerson and General Mattis for their cabinet positions.

Much of the discussion in Boston was about advice Gates would give the new president during that first week in office. About the White House and the media, he stressed the importance of a free press (and Congress, by the way) as the guarantors of liberty and that it is a mistake to make the press an enemy. Candidly he disclosed that most presidents privately share some of the feelings with which Trump has been so very public. But, rather than getting hostile, he advised that Trump should consider whether the media may be right. In fairness, he also thinks the media needs to take it down a notch and get their heads out of the Twitterverse.

Asked for his advice on implementing change, Gates was very clear that President Trump needs to listen to the career pros who have been at this for a while. Gates has concerns about foreign policy going forward. Isolationism is popular because foreign policy is so outside most people’s day to day; it’s up the president to bring a global perspective to the people. He pointed to Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, John Kelly, and General Mattis as tough minded individuals who will tell him what he needs to hear.

So how’s it going? Not great viewed through the lens of Secretary Gates’ advice. The day after this talk, Steve Bannon suggested the “opposition party,” aka the media, should “keep its mouth shut.” Relations have continued to spiral down with the latest hub bub over the Bowling Green “massacre” and subsequent travel ban, both fictional which drove the press bonkers. And @realDonaldTrump still tweeting about “FAKE NEWS” in the wake of his awkward phone call with Malcom Turnbull.. Almost unbelievably, one of today’s early morning tweets from realDonald was:

After being forced to apologize for its bad and inaccurate coverage of me after winning the election, the FAKE NEWS @nytimes is still lost!

Is the press blowing some of this out of proportion? Yes, I think so, but such is the nature of an adversarial relationship.

On the foreign policy front, Oy vey! According to the AP (a credible source in my mind if not Bannon’s) with regard to the seven country travel ban:

At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.

The reorganization of the National Security Council suggests the likelihood that the President will, now officially as well as unofficially, discount input from the experienced folks that the former Defense Secretary says he should be relying on. In the wake of that move, Gates himself went public calling the demotions of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs “a big mistake.” Senator McCain (Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee) is “worried about the NSC” for the same reasons.

So, who is the President listening to? In Judy Woodruff’s Wednesday NPR interview with Vice President Pence, she inquired about the extent of Bannon’s influence. He responded that the President “asks for input from everyone in the senior circle, and a lot of people outside the circle.” Pence is a master of staying on message, but honest, in my estimate. Still, the “a lot of other people” seemed like a bit of an afterthought, and it’s unclear to whom he was referring. I’m sure the Presdident is calling the shots. My concern is that he is only listening to his like-minded, tight inner circle most of whom have little experience in the business of running a country (and playing nice with others). Trump took some good advice from Gates on some key appointments; it would be great it he were to listen to him and them.