I don’t know how many of you watched the full hour-and-fifteen, but the level of mendacity had, I think, to have been unprecedented, and the style heretofore unseen outside of the West Wing.
The quickest way to get the gist across, though, is a short comparison to eight years ago. Here’s our last president addressing the situation and concerns of the auto industry:
And here’s our current president doing what seems to be his level best to get around to the same topic:
There are a lot of contrasts at work here. Obama in that pre-presidential conference and in his first presidential conference in February 2009 is focused on the business of running the country. He has a number of points he needs to get across, and he gets to them in order in what’s clearly a prepared speech. Then he takes questions from reporters that he calls on by name. He makes use of a wealth of facts and figures, all exact, some with citations, on subjects as diverse as mortgage fraud and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. He’s prepared and exudes calm at a time when the country was in financial free-fall.
Donald Trump, and I’ll get to this again later, doesn’t seem to have an objective. The presser was ostensibly about his pick for Labor, Alex Acosta, but he’s through that in the first paragraph and we’ve still got an hour and thirteen minutes to go.
The rest of the speech portion is, at best, confused. When the question-and-answer starts around twenty three minutes or so, the reporters’ questions impose some level of order, but Trump’s responses meander off-topic into insults and much personal aggrandizement without much bearing on the questions. There are a million and one recaps out there, and I don’t want to try to catalogue the whole thing when it’s already been done.
But there is one thing that I haven’t seen covered as much (and that’s as likely because you can only read so much as that nobody’s written anything). And that’s the kind of platform Trump lays out with regard to the press.
Up to now, the administration hasn’t been forthcoming with truthful information of any kind, and most of the questions from the press corps were based on the leaks that have been pouring out of the White House. And that did not sit well with POTUS:
What happens when I’m dealing with the problems in the Middle East? Are you folks going to be reporting all of that very, very confidential information, very important, very — you know, I mean at the highest level? Are you going to be reporting about that too? So, I don’t want classified information getting out to the public…
It’s an open question whether Trump actually understands what the role of the press is—to report information to the public—versus that of his administration—for better or worse, to protect information that he, as the head of the government, feels needs to be protected. But it’s clear what he wants to be the case:
All this information gets put into the “Washington Post” and gets put into the “New York Times” and I’m saying “what’s going to happen when I’m dealing on the Middle East? What’s going to happen when I’m dealing with really, really important subjects like North Korea?
We got to stop it.
What he wants, and what he’s pursuing, especially in those press conferences when he and Sean Spicer endeavor to only call on Fox News and National Review reporters, is a captive press.
…there’s nobody I have more respect for — well, maybe a little bit but the reporters, good reporters.
I don’t mind bad stories. I can handle a bad story better than anybody as long as it’s true and, you know, over a course of time, I’ll make mistakes and you’ll write badly and I’m OK with that…
You know what it is? Here’s the thing. The public isn’t — you know, they read newspapers, they see television, they watch. They don’t know if it’s true or false because they’re not involved. I’m involved. I’ve been involved with this stuff all my life. But I’m involved. So I know when you’re telling the truth or when you’re not. I just see many, many untruthful things.
And the only metric he acknowledges for that press is how it’s rated him; nothing but the reviews.
[Referring to Don Lemon’s show on CNN] Well, you look at your show that goes on at 10 o’clock in the evening. You just take a look at that show. That is a constant hit. The panel is almost always exclusive anti-Trump. The good news is he doesn’t have good ratings. But the panel is almost exclusive anti-Trump. And the hatred and venom coming from his mouth; the hatred coming from other people on your network.
And he demands the right to shape the narrative from the podium:
Now, they’ll take this news conference — I’m actually having a very good time, OK? But they’ll take this news conference — don’t forget, that’s the way I won. Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech, which was like every day. OK?
That’s how I won. I won with news conferences and probably speeches. I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people. That’s for sure. But I’m having a good time.
Tomorrow, they will say, “Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.” I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But — but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.
But tomorrow, the headlines are going to be, “Donald Trump rants and raves.” I’m not ranting and raving.
And he couches a little threat in the middle of the diatribe to drive the point home to anybody who’s listening. He says that he thinks the press would be “a lot better off, I honestly do,” if they were to report on him more like Fox and Friends, who are “very honorable people:”
The public gets it, you know. Look, when I go to rallies, they turn around, they start screaming at CNN. They want to throw their placards at CNN. You know.
That is, if you don’t let Donald Trump deal with you, he’ll have the public do it for him.
Chaff in the Air
Now, the thing about Trump’s presser, along with Sean Spicer’s increasingly unhinged performances, is that they seem like the main event, the thing we ought to be paying attention to. With other presidents, in some sense they were. Even the most dedicated reporter doesn’t have time to keep track of every movement of an administration, let alone the average citizen. So we relied on events like these. The government for the most part tells us what it’s up to (as Obama does in the two linked videos) and we rely on the press to dig up whatever goes unsaid.
Trump and Spicer and Kellyanne Conway seem to be taking a different tack, throwing out so many words so often that are so demonstrably false that it’s impossible to identify a narrative or follow it to its conclusion.
That no member of an administration seems to know what any other member is doing and that none of them seem either willing or able to tell the truth about the part they do know feels like news. Or at least it feels like it should be news. If this kind of thing had cropped up at the beginning of Barack Obama’s or George W. Bush’s terms, it would be news. A sudden explosion of discontent and disorganization after the campaign would bode ill for the government of the country.
But this, this press conference and the mess of these first four weeks, is not news, at least in the sense of news being “new.” Like Jeb Bush said of Trump way back when, “He’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Especially for those of us who voted against the sitting president, it feels good to do a little Kremlinology, analyzing every disagreement and misstep of the various mouthpieces on cable news.
But under the cover of what appears to be total incompetence, the work of a radically-rightist government goes on. And that’s what we need to be looking at.
The Work of the Government
Despite control of both houses of Congress, the Trump administration has kept mostly to executive action so far, including twelve executive orders and eleven presidential memoranda.
This week, we saw numbers 9, 10, and 12, which could be construed to be the president’s law and order platform. 9 and 12 set up task forces which will address ways to further combat “international cartels” and 10 states that the policy of the executive branch will be to “enforce all Federal laws in order to enhance the protection and safety” of law enforcement officers.
Trump was pretty vague about everything during the campaign, but he was clear that he would be “tough on crime.” These EOs are his nod in that direction, and they strike the same tone.
All of them paint a picture of an American heartland rapidly falling victim to gang violence and Latin American cartel warfare, despite crime being at a 45-year low. Similar to everything he’s done so far, they’re directed at an imaginary problem rather than a real one.
#10 is a response to the Obama Administration’s efforts to reign in police violence against African Americans. The order backs up the Republican response to the protests from 2014 to the present, which has been to categorize Black Lives Matter and all associated movements as participating in a war on police,
As far as actual laws, this week we saw _______.
Republicans have been using the Congressional Review Act, which allows a joint resolution from the two houses to overrule federal regulations through simple majorities and without an opportunity for a senatorial filibuster, to eliminate the last few regulations the Obama administration managed to put through.
On Monday the 13th, he signed a bill which repealed a Securities and Exchange Commission regulation that oil and mining companies had to disclose their payments to foreign governments. Why any reasonable person would want to further unshackle one of the least-regulated industries involved in the most corruption abroad is beyond me. Why an administration that’s very close to the oil industry would want to is pretty clear.
On Thursday the 16th, Trump signed a bill which repealed a rule from the Office of Surface Mining which protected streams and rivers from coal mining waste.
The Republican Congress, for its part, is doing its damnedest to pass the laws this country needs, like one that would allow you to hunt endangered gray wolves, or another that would permit ‘sportsmen’ to shoot bears from airplanes, likewise under the Congressional Review Act.
Resistance to these and to just about every action of the administration so far has been massive. So much so that members of Congress have gone into hiding to avoid their constituents and the entire Republican establishment has begun, as a rule, to refer to all protestors as paid provocateurs.
That that fiction has become necessary to mask the magnitude of what’s going on from the Republican base seems like a good sign. But it’s always been the methodology of dangerous reactionaries in power to hand-wave the opposition while claiming to serve the silent majority, middle America, Main Street, real America, or whatever new variation on the theme.
Chaos reigns for now in the White House, but the wheels of bad government will continue to turn regardless. It’s crucial that we stay focused not on the bluster but on the real consequences of real action.