America’s Newspapers Just Played Right Into Trump’s Hands

Nothing flatters an independent journalist less than the sight of him forming a line to drink from the same fountain as his colleagues. Such a spectacle will unfold on Thursday, August 16, as 200 or more editorial pages will heed the call sounded by Boston Globe op-ed page editor Marjorie Pritchard to run editorials opposing President Donald Trump’s unrelieved press-bashing. Participating dailies include the Houston Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, the Denver Post, as well as the Globe. Joining the movement are the American Society of News Editor and the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Dan Rather is on board as is the Radio Television Digital News Association.

“Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming,” Pritchard’s appeal declared.

It goes without saying that press bashing, Trump-style, is alarming. His critiques rarely point to genuine Continue reading “America’s Newspapers Just Played Right Into Trump’s Hands”

Week 64: Trump’s Not Afraid of Lying to Mueller. Just Telling the Truth.

All the yelping by Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jay Sekulow about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III setting a “perjury trap” for President Donald Trump ignores the fact that their client, who has tweeted and spoken 4,229 (and counting) alternative facts since the inauguration, knows how to tell the truth when placed under oath. Deposed in his libel suit against journalist Timothy L. O’Brien in 2007, Trump concede 30 whoppers he’d told over the years—lies about his debts; his wealth; the size of his stake in a Manhattan development; what he charges to give speeches; the size of the Trump Organization; and so on.

Trump wasn’t entirely truthful in the deposition. You’d be disappointed if he had been, right? According to O’Brien, he lied about his business relationships with organized crime figures. But setting that fib aside for a moment, Trump isn’t so much afraid of being caught lying to Continue reading “Week 64: Trump’s Not Afraid of Lying to Mueller. Just Telling the Truth.”

Week 63: With Trump’s Crowd, the Common Thread is Russian Money

Like most sharks before him, former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort kept two sets of books. As the tax and fraud case against him playing out in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., this week under the direction of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III demonstrates, Manafort bookkeeper Heather Washkuhn followed the scruples of her profession in producing an accurate tally of Manafort’s financial condition, one that he appreciated.

“He was very detail-oriented,” Washkuhn said of Manafort. “He approved every penny of everything we paid.”

Navigating from his bookkeeper’s honest ledger, Manafort invented new numbers that set a course for fraud, prosecutors argued. The genuine numbers showed Manafort’s consulting firm, Davis Manafort Partners International, entering financial freefall starting in 2014 when he lost pro-Putin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as a client. In response, Manafort cooked documents that would vouch for the bank loans he sought to Continue reading “Week 63: With Trump’s Crowd, the Common Thread is Russian Money”

Week 62: Trump’s Losing a Tabloid War to His Own Lawyer

Not since Donald Trump salted the New York tabloids in the 1980s and ’90s with his signature formula of leaks, lies and lunacy has our daily news diet tasted so vividly of scandal. The New York Daily News may be near death and the New York Post not far behind, but thanks to the yellow sensibilities of MSNBC, CNN and the Fox News Channel, we get to drink deeply every night from the Trump scandal sewer!

You’ve got secret tape recordings airing on television of Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen talking about how to structure a payoff to one of Trump’s paramours—a Playboy model—that will buy her silence. You’ve got someone leaking to CNN the shocking news that Trump knew all along about the meeting between Russians peddling Hillary dirt and his son and son-in-law and campaign chairman, and is prepared to tell just that to special prosecutor Continue reading “Week 62: Trump’s Losing a Tabloid War to His Own Lawyer”

The Shining

Bill Shine thinks of the White House as his show and of himself as its top booker.

The former Fox News executive, who became President Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff for communications this month, exercised his booker’s prerogative on Wednesday as he “disinvited” CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins from an open Rose Garden press event. In a subsequent dressing-down Shine gave to Collins in his office, he explained that the ouster was in retaliation for her persistent questioning of Trump at an earlier photo-op, where she represented the television pool.

“Did Michael Cohen betray you, Mr. President?” Collins called out twice as Trump’s press session with president of the European Commission terminated.

She followed with, “Mr. President, are you worried about what Michael Cohen is about to say to the prosecutors? Are you worried about what is on the other tapes, Mr. President?”

And Continue reading “The Shining”

Week 61: The News Was All Russian and Mueller Made None of It

From every news tributary and watercourse flowed one story this week that drowned out all others: Its name was Russia.

The big gusher remains Russian’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of it, which will put former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort on trial next week. But a new feeder stream opened up as President Donald Trump completed his trip to Helsinki where he genuflected to Russia President Vladimir Putin, made a series of secret deals and promises with the strongman, pronounced Putin’s proposal that Russian investigators interrogate American citizens—former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul specifically—an “incredible offer”, and flipflopped yet again on the question of Russian culpability in the monkeywrenching of the election. This flash flood culminated an invitation by Trump for Putin to visit the White House in the fall—a knockdown surprise to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats! Continue reading “Week 61: The News Was All Russian and Mueller Made None of It”

Some Dare Call It Treason

Since Donald Trump cannonballed into national politics three years ago, the chattering classes have resorted to dozens of shorthand descriptors to define him and his place in American culture. The early slams included bully, sexist, misogynist, sociopath, racist, sham populist, a pathological liar and narcissist, fascist, sexual harasser, demagogue, and even madman. Seeking deeper historical context for his outlier ways, writers consulted history’s back pages in efforts to find his antecedents, comparing him to the “bad-tempered, distractible doofus” Kaiser Wilhelm II, red-baiter Joseph McCarthy, race-baiter George Wallace, Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, legal thug Roy Cohn, radio rabble-rouser Father Coughlin, Biff Tannen from Back to the Future, and P.T. Barnum, the barking 19th century showman who also happened to invent the beauty pageant.

The many Continue reading “Some Dare Call It Treason”

Week 60: It’s the Names That Don’t Appear That Matter Most in New Indictments

In a densely detailed and staggeringly specific indictment, a federal grand jury guided by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III threw the book today at 12 members of the GRU—the Russian military intelligence agency—charging them with cybercrimes and attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The named defendants include Viktor Borisovich Netyksho, Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, and Aleksey Aleksandrovich Potemkin, but the scope and sweep of the crimes described—the hacking of emails and computers; the infiltration of U.S. election infrastructure; and the distribution of stolen electronic information—and the fact that the multifaceted operation was run by the GRU dispel the idea that its principals could have been rogue elements. The scheme had to have been officially approved and ordered by former KGB director Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, to use his patronymic, who goes diplomatically unmentioned in the indictment.

These new hacking charges, combined with the February indictment of 13 Continue reading “Week 60: It’s the Names That Don’t Appear That Matter Most in New Indictments”

Week 57: Mueller Plays Defense as Trump Pounds His Credibility

The manipulation of publicity is lawfare by other means. President Donald Trump didn’t devise that maxim, I did. But he could have. Ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III sparked his investigation alive, Trump has been undermining Mueller and the FBI with taunts and insults that if put to a beat could pass for one side of a rap battle. You could call the track “Witch Hunt!”

Trump’s immediate goal, as Abigail Tracy writes for Vanity Fair, is to pollute Paul Manafort’s potential juror pool with a zig-zag of nonsense and hype that will deter them from convicting him or anybody else Mueller prosecutes. (Mueller requested the judge approve a questionnaire to screen jurors for bias, usually a move the defense would make after extensive pretrial publicity.) Secondarily, Trump wants to prejudice the American public in his favor, seeing as they would serve as the defacto Continue reading “Week 57: Mueller Plays Defense as Trump Pounds His Credibility”

Trump Loses His Superpower

Donald Trump is good at many things, but his greatest gift may be his ability to distract the newshounds by shouting “Squirrel!” and sending them sniffing for a new story. But this week, the dogs wouldn’t stop gnawing on the president’s leg, no matter what he said.

His Cabinet secretaries might be grateful. The crying-babies, kids-in-cages press coverage about the U.S.-Mexican border pushed a Forbes story about Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ foreign investments to the inside pages. And as for every reporter’s favorite Trump administration piñata, the border story has been as great for Scott Pruitt as it has been horrible for Donald Trump.

A couple of months ago the Environmental Protection Agency administrator was Washington’s hottest copy, with the press corps lighting him up again and again for his profligate, unethical, and dodgy ways. Reporters busted him for everything from dispatching aides to run personal Continue reading “Trump Loses His Superpower”

Is It OK to Sleep With Your Sources?

Why shouldn’t reporters have sex with the people they cover?

The answer, everybody will tell you, is orgasmically obvious: It’s the same reason reporters shouldn’t partner in a business with their sources or go vacationing with them! Such mixing contaminates the end product with the unforgivable taint of compromise and conflict of interest, hence the taboo. Also, sleeping with a source can be interpreted as payment for information—another no-no in American journalistic circles. A third worry: Any normalization of sex-for-news-tips transactions would increase the already onerous demands and expectations that some sources force on reporters—mostly female reporters—to put out for them.

So on this we all agree: Journalists shouldn’t sleep with their sources, something most in-house ethics manuals endorse. If you score with somebody you cover or with a source, you’re supposed to tell your boss and recuse yourself from the beat. New York Times guidelines instruct the paper’s journalists Continue reading “Is It OK to Sleep With Your Sources?”

Week 56: Trump Bellows at Deep State as Mueller Puts Manafort in Manacles

Stripped of one of his tailored suits and dispatched to a jail cell by a federal judge for violating bail by asking witnesses via encrypted messages to lie for him in court, will former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort finally flip and become the cooperating witness special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has groomed him to become? Or will Manafort fight to the last legal motion the swelling charges of money laundering, bank fraud, serving as an unregistered foreign agent and obstruction of justice brought against him? Or will he play the role of political martyr in hopes of a pardon from the suddenly pardon-minded president?

Place your money on pardon. Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani didn’t even bother to encrypt his offer of a get-out-of-jail-free card for Manafort on Friday as he spoke to the New York Daily News about his jailing. “When the whole thing is over, things might Continue reading “Week 56: Trump Bellows at Deep State as Mueller Puts Manafort in Manacles”

Constitutional Crisis? What Constitutional Crisis?

What if that constitutional crisis over the subpoena or indictment of Donald Trump that every TV pundit, wringing sweaty palms, has forewarned never comes to pass?

By constitutional crisis, I mean an unprecedented state of affairs that contributes to a decline in the Constitution’s perceived legitimacy or sends a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off emergency pleading to the Supreme Court. Looking wide and far, I see no such decline, no such headless chicken. Do you? Even Trump’s whimsically executed pardons, which come loaded with potential pardons for those who’ve been indicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, have done no more “damage” to our faith in the Constitution than, say, President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Even the president’s Twitter histrionics—which reached personal-best status this week as he attempted to inject a conspiracy theory that originated on Reddit about “Spygate” starting in 2015 into the conversation—have not harmed the Continue reading “Constitutional Crisis? What Constitutional Crisis?”

How Does Scott Pruitt Survive?

Environment Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt wants whatever is on offer—only he wants more of it, and he wants it giant-sized, preferably swathed in leather and shimmering like precious metal.

Since taking office as President Donald Trump’s first and so far only EPA chief, Pruitt has distinguished himself on two fronts: Obviously, he’s labored to annul many of the agency’s existing regulations. But even more obviously, he has swept giant snowdrifts of unflattering news about his grasping behavior into the press.

Day after day, month after month, Pruitt feeds the maw of the bad publicity machine with his overreach and overexposure. In ordinary times, his outrages would have earned him a dismissal and he would have joined the scores of high-level Trump functionaries who’ve been fired or forced to resign. Yet he endures. Just a month ago, he went to Capitol Hill for interrogation and he took more punches than Continue reading “How Does Scott Pruitt Survive?”

Week 54: Pardon-crazy Trump Forgives Everyone Except Sessions

From President Donald Trump’s compassionate heart has come a bundle of pardons. He first extended his presidential grace to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff convicted of criminal contempt. “I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly,” Trump said as he granted the pardon. Then he pardoned sailor Kristian Saucier for taking photos inside a classified area of a submarine, stating before the pardon that the Saucier’s treatment had been “very unfair.”

Next, he extinguished Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s perjury conviction from the records. “For years I have heard he was treated unfairly,” the president said as he issued the blessing. “It’s about time,” the president said upon pardoning fighter Jack Johnson, forgetting this time to comment on the unfairness of his treatment. Trump returned fairness to his rhetorical mix this week as he pardoned conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, tweeting, “He was treated very unfairly by our government!”

Trump Continue reading “Week 54: Pardon-crazy Trump Forgives Everyone Except Sessions”

Week 53: Trump Goes Spy Hunting and Gets Skunked

Master table-turner Donald Trump is at it again, spinning the latest damning news from the Russia investigation and flinging it back at his critics to make him look like a victim, not a perp.

This week’s twirl of the table had Trump spinning his interpretive energies into “SPYGATE,” his racy label for the alleged “Criminal Deep State” conspiracy against him. Why call it Spygate? Trump, who lives for catchy buzz-phrases and slogans, told an ally he wanted “to brand” the informant as a spy, and that such language would leave a more lasting impression on the media and public.

On Sunday, the president issued his pompous “I hereby demand” decree on Twitter that the Department of Justice investigate his suspicions that the Obama administration had “infiltrated or surveilled” his campaign. According to Trump’s theory, the FBI wasn’t investigating the possible penetration of his 2016 presidential campaign by Russian Continue reading “Week 53: Trump Goes Spy Hunting and Gets Skunked”

Elon Musk Isn’t a Media Critic. He’s a Media Assassin.

Journalists love nothing more than to be slapped around, so Elon Musk’s sustained caning of them during the past few weeks has brought nothing but sunshine and smiles to newsrooms all over America. Directing his Twitter ack-ack at the press all day Tuesday, the tech titan behind Tesla and SpaceX blamed the press for the election of Donald Trump, damned reporters as “holier-than-thou” hypocrites, and pitched the idea for a media-rating site called Pravda that would assess the credibility of news outlets.

“Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired,” Musk tweeted. “Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks ‘You’re just like Trump!’” he added, dismissing the reporters from Reveal who had published an expose of safety conditions at the Tesla plant as “some rich kids in Berkeley who took their political science prof too seriously. Continue reading “Elon Musk Isn’t a Media Critic. He’s a Media Assassin.”

Trump Is Winning His PR Battle With Mueller. So What?

Trump’s accusers and their allies woke up this morning fretting perhaps for the first time that perhaps their quarry would elude special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s net. Axios’s Mike Allen noted in the lead item of his morning newsletter that the “anti-Robert Mueller chorus” has ground louder and more strident thanks to critiques and broadsides by people like Mark Penn, Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz, Republican members of Congress, media mouths like Sean Hannity and other Trump stalwarts.

“Hour by hour, these voices try to chip away at the case against Trump and the justification for it all,” Allen wrote of what he calls the “sabotage strategy.” The anti-Mueller movement has worked like “powerful echo chamber … to smear Mueller, muddy the waters, and make the investigation a red vs. blue issue.” And it’s working. The efforts have turned public opinion, and the White House Continue reading “Trump Is Winning His PR Battle With Mueller. So What?”

Week 52: Mueller and Trump Celebrate One (Rocky) Year Together

Donald Trump proved himself a terrible gift-giver last month when all he got wife Melania for her 48th birthday was … a card. He’s done Robert S. Mueller III much better, spraying him indirectly with a pair of “no collusion” tweets as the first anniversary of the special counsel’s appointment passed. Mueller didn’t give his anniversary partner anything in return, although a piece of paper—a subpoena to testify, perhaps—would have been keeping with tradition.

What Trump wants, of course, is an end to the relationship. Instead, Mueller seems more committed than ever to preserving the relationship as he continues excavating into Russian monkeying with the 2016 election. Without leaks or fanfare, he’s gone deeper and wider, rolling up guilty pleas among intimates and hangers-on in President Donald Trump’s orbit, getting people to flip, and sent his first perp to jail. This week, for example, he persuaded the son-in-law Continue reading “Week 52: Mueller and Trump Celebrate One (Rocky) Year Together”

The Last McCain Swoon

Like a beloved major leaguer playing his final season, accepting gifts and receiving toasts at his last appearances at opposing teams’ stadiums, John McCain finds himself in his death-bed bombarded by pre-obituary accolades from the press. The press, which McCain has long jokingly referred to as “my base,” has already issued so many sugary summations of his life and political career that by the time he dies the obituary writers will have nothing to chew on but a smattering of scraps.

In recent weeks McCain has been lauded in print for his decency, his courage and his congeniality. He’s an icon. No, he’s an American hero! No, make that the conscience of the Senate! Bret Stephens and Gail Collins of the New York Times have gathered around the cracker barrel to reminisce in a piece embarrassingly titled “Maybe We Don’t Deserve John McCain” about the glories of covering Continue reading “The Last McCain Swoon”