ONE day in the American media it’s the continuing devastation from Hurricane Maria that continues to imperil Puerto Ricans. The next day dramatic stories in the New York Times expose the misbehaviour of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. There is reporting about the worldwide refugee crisis, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. But there is a Donald Trump angle to every one of them. You cannot escape him.
Trump has chosen to pick a fight with San Juan’s mayor over Puerto Rico’s ingratitude toward the U.S. over the delivery of relief assistance. Weinstein’s alleged sordid behaviour toward women in the movie industry recalls Trump’s stunningly insensitive remarks to a TV reporter about grabbing women by the crotch. All American foreign relations are now viewed through the prism of Trump, since the State Department has been emasculated, and the president’s national security apparatus is staffed primarily by foreign policy innocents, ideologues and politically dependent functionaries.
The New York Times has been a frequent and recent target of Trump’s Twitter tantrums as it continues to confirm its status as the nation’s newspaper of record and its conscience. It is therefore instructive to listen in on a recent colloquium sponsored by the Times at George Washington University in the nation’s capital.
Participating were the newspaper’s executive editor and Pulitzer Prize winner Dean Baquet, chief White House correspondent Peter Baker, and Maggie Haberman, a rising reporter who gained considerable notoriety during the last presidential election campaign. Their subject was Trump in general and his combative, sometimes frightening attitude toward the media generally and in particular newspapers such as the Times, Washington Post and even the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal. Television networks, especially CNN and NBC, but also Fox News at times, have also come under fire from the bombastic chief executive.
These editors and reporters know Trump. They said he clearly feels a sense of almost instinctive grievance toward the press despite the fact that he benefitted immensely from media coverage of his presidential campaign last year. He has also been a fixture in the back pages of the New York tabloid papers for over 30 years, and has enjoyed and likely profited from his resulting notoriety. The Times staffers said he truly has the tempestuous personality revealed in his public appearances and tweets.
They also believe this presidency is the most transparent in recent American history – and perhaps ever. The White House may well be as chaotic as it appears to be, and leaks like a sieve. Recent American presidents have tried with varying degrees of success to plug unauthorized leaks and have at times cloaked their obsession with secrecy in the mantle of national security. With some 40 million Twitter followers privy to some of the president’s momentary thinking, this White House represents a big change. There is always a Trump story to write.
The Times editor Baquet said the thing that might scare him most is the threatening desire to curtail press freedom that many feel is the instinct and perhaps the real intent of Trump and his attorney general. Such threats often take the form of aggressive federal investigations of leaks. That, Baquet said, could lead to dangerous responses such as potentially wiretapping Times reporters. Such governmental actions would represent an unacceptable and even unconstitutional example of existential threats to freedom of the American press.
Now there is a new fight between Trump and the media. Recent articles have noted that the president has actually accomplished very little of his campaign agenda, which has been superimposed on the White House to an unprecedented degree as his presidential agenda. He has railed against the current tax laws, immigration, trade deals like NAFTA, international agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal, the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare, and most of the other achievements of his predecessor.
Supporters and critics alike have noted that there has not so far been much success in reversing or amending such policies and legislation. Trump increasingly has been shuffling the responsibility for action down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Republican dominated House and Senate. But the politicians on Capitol Hill, unlike Trump, face elections next year. They will be cautious and may resist an increasingly unpopular president.