The photo of a maritime-themed sock was all CNN’s Jim Acosta could broadcast to the world, via Twitter, from Monday’s White House press briefing, which press secretary Sean Spicer conducted with the stipulation that no one record video or audio of the gaggle. The sock, allegedly part of a newly purchased pair, were a bit of comedic relief. But as is often the case with the Trump administration, this was humor of the ominous variety.
Later, Acosta called Spicer “kind of useless.” (President Trump appears to agree, with CNN reporting later in the day that the White House was actively seeking a new press secretary.)
In their seemingly relentless battle against a free press, the Republicans now in full command of Capitol Hill have discovered a new weapon: silence. So far, it seems to be working better than outright assault, which was the method of press criticism deployed by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski against Michelle Fields of Breitbart News and, more recently, by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking about healthcare.
At least silence is legal, if still plenty troubling.
Trump, who delighted in attacking the media during his campaign, recently mused that he might eliminate the daily press briefing. He certainly seems to be working towards that goal: Spicer hadn’t spoken in front of cameras since the previous Monday. It hasn’t exactly been a quiet few days, between the Russia investigation, the death of seven U.S. sailors killed aboard the USS Fitzgerald and continued tensions with malefactors like North Korea and Syria.
“The White House has increasingly forged its own path with the press—holding off-camera briefings and gaggles, imposing restrictions on reporters’ use of audio and video feeds, inviting Cabinet officials to speak only about specific policy issues and rotating between Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” observed Jonathan Easley of The Hill.
The Sunday talk shows are always a good indication of what the White House thinks it has accomplished, and what it wants to accomplish next. To that end, Trump had no one to shill for his policies on the major networks. There was only bumbling lawyer Jay Sekulow, unable to say whether Trump was under investigation or not. There was nobody to clearly articulate the administration's plans on infrastructure, health care or taxes. Is it because such plans don't exist or because we aren't supposed to know about them?
To be sure, President Obama (and every president before him), also held off-the-record meetings with journalists. And the Obama administration sometimes worked to frustrate journalists, leading James Risen of The New York Times to call Obama “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” Never, though, did Obama dismiss the entirety of the Fourth Estate as a virulent entity that needed to be vanquished for the good of the nation. Nor did he traffic in “alternative facts” or tweet transparently false information. Obama could be adversarial, but he wasn't hostile.
Trump’s combative attitude towards the press, meanwhile, is less strategic than outright demagogic. “They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Trump has,” chief White House political strategist Steve Bannon said at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken,” he continued. “Every day, it is going to be a fight.”
Silence may be Trump’s most effective weapon in this battle, which explains why he hasn’t given a TV interview in weeks (though he continues to tweet). If the press doesn’t know what you’re doing, it can’t flog you for doing it.
“My guess is because they want their evasive answers not saved for posterity,” CNN’s Acosta explained on Monday.
Far more dangerous than Spicer’s silence is that of Senate Republicans furtively working on their version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA). Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, knows that AHCA (at least its draconian House version) is about as popular with the American public as professional lawn bowling. So he has simply chosen to work out the details of the bill in secret. Earlier this month, Sarah Kliff, who covers healthcare for Vox, described the brazen secrecy of the Republican effort, so at odds with what she had previously seen of the legislative process:
There isn’t much C-SPAN to watch these days because the Senate is running a remarkably closed process. There are no committee hearings. There are no floor speeches defending the policy provisions of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell instead has assembled an ad hoc working group to hash out the details of Obamacare repeal in private meetings.
Congressional Republicans seem to have no greater enemy than sunlight. Yet they claim to be working on behalf of the common man, the one shunned by the elite coastal media. If that’s the case, do they not want all people in “real America” to learn of all the wonderful things that Capitol Hill is doing on their behalf? What kind of political party refuses to shine light on its own good works?
Unless, of course, your average red-state citizen benefited from Medicaid expansion, or from the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on polluters, as well as from consumer protections put in place by the Obama administration. It could be, too, that that the hard-working Texan who voted for Trump wouldn’t be thrilled to hear about Jared Kushner’s dealings with Russian bankers, or about how the Trump Organization might be benefiting from the man in the White House. That’s why so much effort is expended on making sure he never hears about it in the first place. Best to just turn on Fox News, where Trump is always winning.
The attacks on the media are, in the end, a clever act of transference. Same for the attacks on “leakers,” who seem most often to have been federal employees genuinely frightened by this administration’s impulsive actions. The real fear is of the truth getting out, of Trump having to account for the vast gulf between what he promised his voters and what he has actually done for them.
Earlier this year, the conservative writer Kevin Williamson wrote a National Review column titled, brutally, “Ya Got Took.” The unfortunate subjects of that formulation were the men and women who invested their hope in Trump. Williamson described a common Trump pattern: “Do nothing, declare the problem solved, claim victory.”
Lately, though, the victories have been rare, while the problems have been mounting. So the administration has disappeared, like a preschooler tucked behind a curtain during a Saturday morning game of hide-and-seek. It’s not a very effective strategy, this silence, since it only emboldens journalists who know that something crucial is being withheld from them and, far more importantly, from the American public.
But it is, I suppose, better than being body slammed.
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