On the day when the Access Hollywood tape came out, one month before the 2016 election, I wrote a “Trump Time Capsule” item whose first paragraph, in its entirety, was:
That tape, of course, was the one on which a vintage-2005 Donald Trump was recorded saying in his always-recognizable voice that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Leading up, of course, to “Grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything.” Then Trump swallowed some Tic Tacs, stepped off the bus, and smilingly greeted and embraced the female TV host he had been ogling and talking while aboard the bus.
“Good God,” because personal crudeness of this scale was far beyond revelations that had stopped pre-Trump political campaigns. Edmund Muskie early in 1972, Thomas Eagleton later in 1972, Gary Hart in 1988, Howard Dean in 2000—I won’t go into details, but by the standard of “Grab ‘em by…” these previous political storms would qualify as minor showers. (Actually, I encourage you to look into the possibility that the “embarrassments” that stopped Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 could have been the result of a set up, as I wrote last year.)
But of course Trump’s campaign was not derailed, by this or anything else:
- Trump initially dismissed the comments as “locker room talk.”
- The next day he released a video in which he said, for one of the few times on record, that he “regretted” his remarks on tape. (He read the following words looking straight at the camera: “Anyone who knows me, know these words don’t reflect who I am [sic]. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”)
- On the same afternoon that the Washington Post broke news of the recording, Wikileaks began releasing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. (A witness for the Mueller report later said that Trump’s advisor Roger Stone coordinated this timing with Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Stone denied being involved but last year was found guilty and sentenced to prison for lying about the case.)
- Some elected GOP officials criticized Trump—including, amazingly, his running mate Mike Pence, and then-Senator John McCain, who called on Trump to drop out.
- But within a week, most Republicans were aboard again—and for Trump, a potentially campaign-ending event was just another bump in the road. His party, and his voters, would stick with him.
What’s the connection? These past few days have been another “Good God” moment, even by the standards of the past few years.
At his multi-hour rally/”briefing” on Thursday evening, Trump speculated that heavy external (or internal) exposure to ultra-violet light, or perhaps drinking or injecting disinfectants, could be a solution to the virus.
Because Trump later falsely claimed that he had been quoted out of context, or was joking, while saying this, it’s important to observe what he looked and sounded like when saying these things. Starting at time 26:00 of this CSPAN video, you can see that he was in dead earnest—and acting as if he was offering a great insight—when he said the following words:
Here’s a question that some of you [the press] are probably thinking of, if you’re totally into that world [of science], which I find to be very interesting.
Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light… Supposing you brought the light inside the body [sic], either through the skin or some other way.
And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.
While Trump was saying these words, one of his scientific advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx, was captured on film as her face went ashen at the idiocy of his comments. But she was then called to the microphone, and as she has done several times before, she pointedly avoided saying that Trump’s comments were not just ignorant but actively dangerous, especially if anyone was considering drinking disinfectant. As noted earlier, her medical colleague Anthony Fauci has continued to pull off the remarkable (and public-spirited) trick of maintaining his previous reputation for honesty, while retaining a position in Trump’s retinue. Fauci is unique in that status. Everyone else who has entered Trump’s service has fallen into the pit of reputational destruction.
The next day, Trump claimed that he was being “sarcastic” and making a joke with the comments. This is his standard last line of defense when caught in a particularly egregious statement. For instance, he says his call on “Russia” to release Hillary Clinton’s emails had just been a joke. That excuse was a lie, and anyone who saw the “disinfectant” video knows he is lying about that now.
Almost immediately, the manufacturers of Lysol and other disinfectants, along with numerous public health agencies, put out statements warning against drinking these products. But one day after the press conference, the New York Daily News reported that the city’s health department was investigating 30 cases of New Yorkers who had swallowed or otherwise been “exposed” to household disinfectants. Reporters from the Washington Post quoted Dara Kass, of Columbia University Medical Center, on the difference between this and Trump’s previous, now-discredited advice that people start taking a certain kind of pill:
“The difference between this and the chloroquine [pills] is that somebody could go right away to their pantry and start swallowing bleach. They could go to their medicine cabinet and swallow isopropyl alcohol,” Kass said. “A lot of people have that in their homes. There’s an immediate opportunity to react.”
Kass explained to the Post that people who ingest such chemicals often die, and those “who survive usually end up with feeding tubes because their mouth and esophagus were eroded by the cleaning agents.”
“It’s horrific,” she said.”
And of the 53 Republicans who make up Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority? How many have spoken up to criticize the president—on the specifics of this new “plan,” or on what the comments reveal about his approach to reality in general—or to warn the public against his advice?
As best I can determine, two days after Trump’s comments, that number is zero. This is the Vichy Republican bargain they made after the Access Hollywood tapes. It is the bargain that keeps an obviously unwell man in power now. It is the bargain for which they should be remembered.
On Friday, April 17—yesterday, as I write—Donald Trump sent out three tweets that were unusual even for him. They followed angry protests by groups objecting to the shut-down orders in several states; news photos showed many of the protesters wearing Trump hats, many carrying weapons, and some with Confederate flags.
Why is this spate of tweeting notable?
As so often with Trump, because of its mere existence. Of course there have been clashes between federal and state policies through U.S. history. In post-World War II America, the clearest cases are from the Civil Rights era. For instance, in 1957, Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to overcome resistance to school-integration orders, led by the governor, Orval Faubus. In the 1960s, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson directed federal efforts to enforce civil-rights orders in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.
But these were efforts to bring local practice into accord with nationwide policy. Trump was doing the reverse: implicitly encouraging local resistance to the very strategies his administration is recommending for the country as a whole. Nothing like this has happened since at least the time of Reconstruction, and probably not since before the Civil War.
Because of its partisanship in a time of national emergency. One state that moved even earlier toward shutdowns than Michigan, Minnesota, or Virginia was Ohio. And in Ohio as in the other three states, there were angry “open things up!” protests at the state capital this week. But the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, is a Republican, while the governors of the other three states are all Democrats. (Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, and Ralph Northam in Virginia. Also, all six U.S. Senators from these states are Democrats.)
So at a time when his own White House task force has been trying to work with governors of both parties, Trump was notably singling out “opposition” governors. Also, as reported in The New York Times and The Guardian, many of the protests were planned and financed by partisan conservative organizations.
- Because of its crudeness and incoherence. As for crudeness: An invocation to “your great 2nd Amendment” being “under siege” is not subtle enough to qualify as a dog whistle. Chris Murphy, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut (and a Democrat), spelled it out:
And, incoherence: The entire premise of the administration’s “mitigation” strategy is to encourage people not to congregate, so as to reduce the ultimate death toll from the pandemic. The head of that administration was cheering on those defying the strategy.
Because of the sharpness of the reaction. A few hours before the statement from Chris Murphy, above, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, gave an extended, mocking retort to Trump at his daily briefing yesterday. You can see it on this C-SPAN video, starting at around time 1:05. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Cuomo said, recounting how often Trump had asked governors for their support. “Thank you for doing your job.” And he was just getting started, as you can see.
Through these past weeks of pandemic crisis, Cuomo and other governors have been notably collegial and respectful toward Trump and his administration in their public presentations. Like other leaders during other crises, they set aside, for the time being, their personal and partisan differences. But yesterday it was No More Mister Nice Guy from Cuomo.
All this during the week when total U.S. deaths from the coronavirus crossed the 35,000 line, and, for the first time in U.S. history, every state in the nation was officially subject to a federal “major disaster” declaration.
In a rally-briefing lasting more than two hours this past Monday afternoon, Donald Trump issued a royalist view of executive power not once but several times. (Which is of course his tendency, with any point he wants to make.) You can see one of the clearest instances in this C-SPAN video starting around time 46:40. Trump is asked what he would do if he decided to “open up” the economy, but state governors didn’t agree. What would be his authority in that case?
“When you say my authority — it’s the president’s authority. It’s not me.
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”
Several things were remarkable about this statement.
- One is its mere existence—regardless of the elaborate checks-and-balances built into the Constitution, regardless of the 10th Amendment’s limits on central-government powers vis-a-vis the states’, regardless of … anything.
- Another was the reaction of the “strict Constructionists,” “institutionalists,” libertarians, and classic conservatives who make up the GOP majority in the Senate. Rather, the absence of reaction. Of the 53 senators in that group, the number who made a public objection to a claim of absolute presidential power was …. zero, as best I could tell. Would you like an illustration of how timid this group is? Even Fox News figures dared challenge Trump’s statement on-air. (More on the silence of the Republican lambs, here, and from Charlie Sykes, a longtime Republican who is now a leading critic of Trump, here.) Governors from both parties objected, as did Democratic legislators. If only the Constitution could talk.
- And one more was Trump’s backing off from this claim 24 hours later, when he said he would “authorize” each of the states to adjust plans as they see fit. This of course was a face-saving fiction. None of the governors had required Trump’s “authorization” when they issued their stay-at-home orders, starting with early moves by Mike DeWine in Ohio, a Republican, and Gavin Newsom in California, a Democrat. None would need Trump’s okay to lift, alter, or extend their states’ plans.
I note this claim for the long-term record: An American president asserted his absolute executive authority, from a White House podium, with virtually no resistance from America’s “conservative” party.
This week Donald Trump announced the departure of a press secretary who differed from all predecessors in a basic way: She didn’t do the job.
In more than eight months in office, this press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, appeared frequently on Fox programs but never once held a White House briefing for reporters. Three of her predecessors in the Trump era—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders—appeared often enough in the White House press room for their briefing styles to become the basis for Saturday Night Live cold-open routines. (This was before Sanders suspended briefings in her final months on the job.) Grisham’s briefings couldn’t be mimicked, because they didn’t occur.
Her successor will also be someone who differs from anyone who has held the job before. The new secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, will be the first press secretary to begin the job with a bone-dry reservoir of trust and goodwill from the press.
Through the modern history of this job—which probably begins with Steve Early, spokesman for Franklin Delano Roosevelt through most of his long years in office—press secretaries have been in an impossible situation. They need to be discreet enough about an administration’s internal dealings that the president will still trust them. But they also need to be open enough that reporters will still think the press secretary is trying to get them closer to, rather than farther away from, the truth. They need to speak “the truth,” to maintain trust and respect from the press. But not “the full truth”—not every single detail they know—to maintain trust from the president and other officials.
Finding the “right” position is a day-by-day struggle. If a president can’t trust a press secretary to keep some things quiet, then the secretary will be left in the dark, away from the White House inner circle. Then if the reporters realize that a press secretary is an outsider, his or her influence practically vanishes. But if reporters find out later on that a secretary was withholding information that could have been shared—or, worse, sending false signals—then the damage to the press secretary is even worse.
In the days before Trump, awareness of this struggle is what distinguished the best press secretaries. Some of them come straight from jobs on “the other side” of the press/politics divide. For instance, Jay Carney went from Time magazine to become an Obama press secretary; Ron Nessen was an NBC News correspondent and then worked for Gerald Ford. Some are longtime aides and confidants of a president. Jody Powell, a young campaign staffer, represented Jimmy Carter as press secretary, and Bill Moyers played a similar role with Lyndon Johnson. Some are “public affairs professionals,” who have done this job in other circumstances. For instance: Dana Perino, who became press secretary at the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, or Marlin Fitzwater, who worked for Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.
They came from different backgrounds, but all these previous press secretaries tried to strike the balance between giving out too much information, and not enough.
Under Donald Trump, only one press secretary seemed even to recognize this challenge. From day one, the unfortunate Sean Spicer was stuck trying to defend “largest Inaugural crowd in history!” claims. Spicer’s awareness of his preposterous position was the most appealing thing about his brief time on the briefing-room podium.
With Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the struggle abated, since her remarks were aimed at a one-person audience, Trump himself. Stephanie Grisham avoided the tension by not dealing with the press at all, and confining herself to Fox. Kayleigh McEnany is one more step down this road, since her background as a public figure was as a cable-tv “panelist” during the 2016 campaign, where her role was not to express a “conservative” or even GOP-loyalist perspective but instead to defend whatever it was that Donald Trump had done or said.
As Caleb Ecarma pointed out this week in Vanity Fair:
McEnany, like her press-bashing boss, [has taken every] opportunity to attack the news media. “The media’s best hope is for Donald Trump to suspend his rallies,” she said. “They have been wanting him to stop this, they know it’s his avenue to speak directly to the American people. So we’re going to follow the president’s lead, we’re not going to cave to the media and Joe Biden.”
There appears to be nowhere McEnany isn’t willing to follow Trump, even dating back to his conspiracies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. In 2012, when Trump was accusing America’s first black president of being born in Kenya and was thus ineligible to serve, McEnany chimed in support of the unfounded theory, tweeting, “How I Met Your Brother—Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows.”
In a 2016 CNN segment archived by Media Matters, McEnany stepped out to defend the then-candidate’s infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy” hot-mic moment, shrugging off the remark as “implie[d] consent.” [JF note: I wrote about the “grab ’em” episode at the time, here.]
Every press secretary has ups and downs in his or her relationship with the media. They add to their store of trust in certain moments; they run it down at others. The struggle between duties to the president and to the public, between saying too much and saying too little, defined the job.
Now the struggle is over. No previous press secretary has started the job with no cushion of credibility whatsoever. That’s where this one begins.
In his rally-briefing yesterday at the White House, Donald Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending that Americans wear masks or similar face coverings when in range of other people.
You can see C-SPAN’s coverage of the whole briefing here, including Trump’s repeated emphases that this was a voluntary recommendation—“You don’t have to do it”—and that he, personally, would not comply. Important fact note: Trump, unlike virtually all other Americans, is exposed only to people who have already been tested for the virus, as reported here by NPR.
Around time 3:50 in this clip, he says “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Then more definitively:
This is voluntary. You don’t have to do it.
I am choosing not to do it.
This is not the first time presidents have been called upon to deliver public health messages, nor even the first time during a presidential election year.
In the fall of 1976, Gerald Ford—who had never been elected either president or vice president, but who became president two years earlier, when Richard Nixon resigned—was in a close race for reelection. He ultimately lost, very narrowly, to the former one-term governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. (For the record: I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign staff then.) The race became close enough that practically every “controversial” stand that Ford took could arguably have made a difference in the outcome.
Among the issues that fall was swine flu. Starting early in that election year, public-health officials had been worrying that the newly mutated virus could reach pandemic proportions and become a modern counterpart to the deadly flu of 1918. They launched an all-out effort to produce a vaccine, and to get as many Americans as possible inoculated.
The story is long and tangled, both in scientific and in political terms. You can read fascinating accounts of what health officials got right, and wrong, in the 1970s swine flu era here and here, with links to other reports. One central issue was that the vaccine available by the fall of the year was a “live virus” version, rather than “killed virus,” which entailed a greater (though statistically still small) chance of side effects.
For the moment the relevant point is: The country’s political leadership was asking the public to take a controversial step, namely getting swine flu shots. And the ultimate political leader, Gerald Ford himself as president, prominently set an example by doing this himself. Thus the photo you see above.
The obligation to model the behavior they would like others to adopt is one all presidents have been aware of, even if they have imperfectly complied.
They talk about faith, and most of them have gone to religious services. They say that citizens should pay taxes, and they produce evidence that they have done so themselves. They urge people to be charitable, and they know that their own donations will be scrutinized. They talk about families, and they are photographed with their spouse and children—no matter what they’re doing when photographers aren’t there.
Some part of their brains recognizes the value of connecting with “what we [as a government] say” with “what I [as a person] do.” And they make sure the public sees evidence of them setting this example — as Barack Obama did during the H1N1 flu wave of 2009.
Trump’s reaction to the mask-wearing recommendation—fine for the rest of you, but that’s not for me—is of course far from the only illustration of his feeling that he need not set a personal example. See also: military or civic service; marital fidelity; scrupulousness about the appearance of financial conflict or family favoritism; recognition of “no person is above the law”; etc.
It is also not the most unreasonable stand he has taken. As NPR noted, everyone he meets is tested for the disease—so he is not likely to catch it from any of them, and they will be monitored after contact with him. And as Trump himself pointed out yesterday, the Oval Office is not a surgical operating room, and masks would seem odder there than in some other venues.
But Gerald Ford also had reasons not to follow the advice he was giving the country. He could have said: I’m extremely busy; I’m in the middle of an intense reelection campaign; I have great medical care around me if I should get sick. I am thinking about the reception Gerald Ford would have met, if he had said: I want all Americans to be inoculated. I am just choosing not to do it myself.
The episode I’m about to mention has been receiving saturation social-media attention for the past few hours, as I write. But because the accelerating torrent of news tends to blast away each day’s events and make them hard to register—even a moment like this, which I expect will be included in histories of our times—I think it is worth noting this episode while it is fresh.
Until a few days ago, Brett Crozier would have been considered among the U.S. Navy’s most distinguished commanders.
He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1992 and then entered training as a naval aviator. He was qualified first as a helicopter pilot, and then in the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter planes. He was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz during the Iraq war, and he held an ascending series of staff and command jobs—as you can read in his Pentagon biography, here. He received a master’s degree from the Naval War College; he became executive officer (second in command) of the nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan; and he became commander of the amphibious ship Blue Ridge. Then late last year, as a Navy captain, he took command of the Nimitz-class nuclear carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the 4,000-plus people in its crew.
Last week, coronavirus sickness spread rapidly among the Roosevelt’s crew members. Five days ago, on Sunday, Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle published an email by Crozier, addressed to his naval superiors, asking that the ship be diverted from its normal duties so that sick crew members could be treated and the spread of disease could be slowed. Gafni and Garofoli did not say how they had received the email, but it had been copied to a large number of recipients and not marked as sensitive; Crozier must have known it was likely to become public when he sent it.
The four-page letter, which you can read in full at the Chronicle’s site, used the example of recent cruise-ship infection disasters to argue that closed shipboard environments were the worst possible location for people with the disease. It laid out the case for immediate action to protect the Roosevelt’s crew, and ended this way:
7. Conclusion. Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed US. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. A portion of the crew (approximately 10%) would have to stay aboard to run the reactor plant, sanitize the ship, ensure security, and provide for contingency response to emergencies.
This is a necessary risk. It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety of our Sailors. Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care…
This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors. Request all available resources to find NAVADMIN and CDC compliant quarantine rooms for my entire crew as soon as possible.
“Breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.” “We are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors.” “Unnecessary risk.” In any walk of life, such language would have great power. Within the military—where terms like faith and trust and care have life-and-death meaning, and are the fundamental reason people follow leaders into combat—these words draw the starkest possible line. This course is right. The other course is wrong. Thus a leader spoke on behalf of the people “entrusted to our care.”
The letter got widespread attention in the press, and became a PR problem for the Pentagon and the administration. A commander was in effect saying that the command structure was mis-serving the troops; the command structure was not amused.
- Yesterday, April 2, four days after the letter’s appearance, the acting secretary of the Navy formally relieved Crozier of command of the Theodore Roosevelt. That is, Thomas Modly, the acting secretary who was himself a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator, fired Crozier from one of the most consequential command roles in the Navy. Crozier’s offense, according to Modly, was exercising “extremely poor judgment” in letting his plea become public. Also, Crozier’s letter had “unnecessarily raised the alarm of the families of our sailors and Marines.” Modly was quoted in Stars and Stripes saying that the letter “creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true.” A commander had gone outside channels and created a “perception” problem.
- Last night, soon after Crozier had been “relieved,” he took his last walk off the ship as commander, down a gangway to the dock in Guam. As he left, the men and women serving with him signaled where their respect and loyalties lay. Videos that, based on current information, appear to be authentic, showed the crew heralding him on his departure, with supportive cheers of “Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” This account from Stars and Stripes gives a sample. Based on information available as I write, it appears that he took a stand, and is paying the price.
Brett Crozier will no longer be one of the Navy’s most powerful commanders. He remains in the service, but his command has been taken away.
He will likely be remembered among its leaders.
At his rally/press conference this evening, March 29, Donald Trump effectively said that doctors and hospitals in New York are selling masks “out the back door,” accounting for current shortages.
You can see it for yourself here, on this C-SPAN video, starting at time 12:00. Trump notes the shortage of masks and says:
Something’s going on. And you ought to look at it as reporters.
Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?
Through his public career, Trump has been notable for his projection, in the psychologists’ sense of that term. What he is aware of in himself is what he claims to detect in others.
For instance: He has a long history of making up “sources”—his posing as “John Miller” in leaks to New York reporters back in his real estate days, and in his “lots of people are saying” stories. Thus he accuses reporters of doing the same. His own children are dealt into his business arrangements. Thus this is his point of attack against Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.
If you asked most Americans why emergency rooms and ICUs might be running short of masks, the last possibility they would think of is that the masks were “going out the back door.” We are talking about doctors, nurses, and medical staff working around the clock in increasingly difficult circumstances. We are talking about hospital administrators now thinking about beds, ventilators, space in temporary morgues. All of these health staffers are coping with sick and dying people, while wondering when they, themselves, might get the disease.
It had not even occurred to me that people like these might be skimming off masks and selling them.
But this is what occurred to Donald Trump.
Projection. It’s something he might have thought of himself.
This afternoon, Trump put out a tweet that rivaled “out the back door” in its bottomless lack of empathy. He said:
Trump is a problem, but clearly he cannot help himself. No one who could talk about his personal ratings, when the public was dealing with economic collapse and mounting deaths, would do this if he had any sense of empathy, decency, or impulse control.
The 53 Republicans who control the Senate could do something on the country’s behalf.
But the number who have spoken up about Trump’s descent these past few days?
Zero, as far as I can tell.
Just before the 2016 election, and then again after its results became clear, I did a series of Atlantic items on a challenge I thought the press was not prepared for.
The challenge was dealing with a major political figure—Donald Trump—who fit no previous pattern of how presidents or other major figures conceived of “truth” versus “lies.”
All politicians, like all people, will lie about matters large and small. But most politicians, like most people, usually lie for a reason. They want to avoid blame or embarrassment. They want someone to like or treat them better. They want to paint themselves in a better light. They’ve talked themselves into “believing” a more comfortable version of perhaps-painful truths.
We all know examples from daily life. In the life of public figures, it means things like: Richard Nixon lying about Watergate (in hopes of not getting caught). Bill Clinton lying about his affairs (ditto). Lyndon Johnson concealing what he knew about the worsening situation in Vietnam (so as not to complicate his re-election chances). FDR concealing his physical limitations (so as not to have them complicate his political and policy goals).
So in dealing with the political universe as of the summer of 2015—the time when Donald Trump entered the presidential race—the press could start by asking: What’s the reason a certain statement might be a lie? What would a president — a mayor, a senator— have to gain by shading the truth? The related assumption was that people wouldn’t go to the trouble of crafting a lie without a reason to do so. Lies are harder to remember than the truth; they involve more work in getting people to back up your story; they involve the risk that you’ll be caught.
What made Donald Trump different was not how much more frequently he lies — though he does so at a prodigious rate. (As Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’s fact-check team, among others, have tirelessly chronicled.)
Rather the difference was that Trump so plainly recognized no distinction between true and false—between what the “facts” showed and what he wanted them to be, between what he wanted people to think and what they could see for themselves. Some public figures are unusually “willing” to lie; Trump seemed not even to notice he was doing so. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous book “On Bullshit” bears on this phenomenon—people who just talk, in a slurry of “true” and “false,” with no concern or even awareness of the difference between the two.
In Trump’s case it became clear long ago that he lacked the mental filter that alerts most people to the boundary between true and false. He would probably sail through any lie-detector test. He does not care if his claim can be instantly disproved (eg, his “landslide” victory, actually one of the narrowest in history). He does not care if his lies contradict one another, as when he attributes the same “someone told me” story to different sources from one day to the next, or rolls out his ludicrous “Sir” anecdotes. He does not care if a lie does him any good—who believes, or cares, whether his uncle was “a great super genius” as a professor at MIT? He does not care that the Adonis-like heroic portrait that has hung for years at Mar-a-Lago would be a source of mirth for most viewers.
“The news media are not built for someone like this,” I wrote two months before Trump was sworn in:
[We have] as president-elect a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care….
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.
None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
In that item, “A Reflexive Liar in Command,” and then a follow-up, “Dealing with Trump’s Lies,” I set out press guidelines for the time ahead. The first one was:
1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst [that “millions of people” had snuck into the polling places and voted, presumably for Democrats], The Washington Post and The LA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.”…
By contrast.. the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.
What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.
It’s nearly three-and-a-half years later. Everything we saw about Trump on the campaign trail we have seen from him in the White House, including the limitless fantasy-lying.
I submit that these three-and-a-half years later, much of the press has still not rebuilt itself, to cope with a time or a person like this. Or with a political party like the subservient Trump-era GOP.
To choose only a small subset of examples, from only the past three days’ worth of history, here are some illustrations. These are words and deeds that, each on its own, would likely have been major black-mark news events in other eras. Now they are just part of the daily onrush.
1) Us, and them. Two days ago, on March 27, Donald Trump signed in the Oval Office the most expensive spending bill in American history. Getting it enacted required sustained, major efforts from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and from Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who got every one of his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill.
After Lyndon Johnson relied on Republican support to get his civil-rights and Medicare legislation through the Congress, he made sure that the Republican leaders from the House and Senate were with him for the signing ceremonies, to receive some of the first pens he used. (When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the Oval Office, he had only Democratic legislators around him—but that was because of near-unanimous Republican opposition to the bill.)
Structurally Trump’s situation this week was like LBJ’s: he was signing a bill the other party had played a crucial role in passing. But when Trump signed the bill yesterday, not a single Democratic legislator was present. Pelosi said she had not been invited.
Every other president has tried, at some point, to expand his support beyond those who originally voted for him (which is why all others have at some point had popularity ratings of 60 percent or 70 percent). Every other one has at some point tried to express the interests of the entire public, not just “the base.” Trump has never done either—and that failure is so baked-in that it barely registers now.
Obama used precious months in his first year trying to get GOP support for his medical plan; he failed; and a running press critique thereafter was that he should have been doing more to “reach out” to the other side. (Recall the whole “Have a drink with Mitch McConnell” motif.) I haven’t seen any columns fretting about Trump’s failure to “reach out” to Pelosi or Schumer. “That’s just Trump.”
2) “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In this past Friday’s version of his marathon TV sessions—the supposed “health” briefings that have become daily hour-long substitutes for Trump’s campaign rallies—Trump said that most of the governors now requesting federal aid were friendly to him. But not all, and the ones who weren’t “appreciative” had better watch their step.
Trump was asked what he meant about being “appreciative.” His answer (as you can see starting at time 24:00 of this C-SPAN video):
“Q. You say the governors are not appreciate of what the federal government has done. What more—
“A: [breaking in}: I think the governor of Washington [Jay Inslee] is a failed presidential candidate. He leveled out at zero in the polls. He’s constantly tripping and—I guess ‘complaining’ would be a nice way of saying it…
In Michigan, all she does is—she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying [whining voice] ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault…’
“I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job…
“Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him—I’m a different kind of guy—I tell him, Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him.
“Don’t call the woman in Michigan….
“You know what I say, If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
What would have made news about this passage in any other era?
- First, the naked favor-trading: What Trump is saying about the states of Washington and Michigan is more or less what led the House to impeach him last year, regarding Ukraine. That is: threatened use of federal power and favors, to reward political friends and punish political enemies—and in this case for unconcealed, openly stated political reasons.
- Second, the crassness and cruelty, to leaders coping with life-and-death emergencies in their home states. “A failed presidential candidate.” “She has no idea what’s doing on.”
- Third, the misogyny: Repeatedly avoiding the name of Gretchen Whitmer, elected last year as governor of Michigan, and calling her “the woman in Michigan.” Check the C-SPAN video if you’re in doubt about the dismissive tone of these remarks, and recall Trump’s frequent references to “Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Nancy Pelosi.”
There was some brief press followup on all these points, but mainly it was again normalized as Trump being Trump.
3) Lies, lies, lies. I’ll leave to the other chroniclers a complete list of the several dozen lies in Trump’s live-broadcast appearances in the past few days. On Thursday, he went on at length about the bounty of tariff payments that the U.S. was receiving “from China”—which revealed either a black-is-white misunderstanding of how tariffs work, or a Harry Frankfurt-style indifference to the bullshit of what he was saying. (None of the White House reporters challenged him about his tariff claim.)
Here is just one consequential lie to stand for the rest: Trump repeatedly claims, and has done so every day this past week, that no one possibly could have seen this pandemic coming, and that everything was great until just a few weeks ago.
Of the countless reasons to know this is false, consider this Politico story on the detailed, 69-page playbook the National Security Council had prepared for coping with just this kind of emergency. The exact timing, origin, and biology of this new disease of course came as surprises. But the consequences and choices are ones any competent government would have foreseen.
Just a month before the 9/11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, George W. Bush received a memo famously titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Many years later, press analyses still pointed this out. For years after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, congressional Republicans held several dozen hearings, to determine whether the Obama administration should have been more prepared.
In the past few days’ papers, I see no followup on this NSC report. Press standards for covering Trump have already factored in, and thus implicitly forgiven, the corruption and incompetence.
4) Repeating the mistakes of 2015. Starting in the summer of 2015, cable channels began running live Trump rallies, because they were so “interesting.” People watched. Ratings went up. And by Election Day, Trump had received billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. One calculation of the value was $5 billion; another, $2 billion. In either case, a lot.
Without this coverage—this decision by TV outlets, to improve their ratings by giving limitless free, live airtime to Trump—he could never have become the Republican nominee, let alone the president.
Trump himself clearly views the “briefings” about the “virus” — really, rallies about his greatness—as this year’s substitute for the live rallies he can no longer hold. But the cable and broadcast outlets, as if 2015 and 2016 had never occurred, are covering his daily briefings as they did the rallies of days gone by. For more on why this is a mistake, please see this suggestion from Jay Rosen of PressThink, about how the media could shift to “emergency setting”, and this from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the problem of nonstop live coverage of Trump telling lies.
The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.
In the second of his two extended live-TV performances yesterday—a White House coronavirus update, following a Fox News “virtual town hall”—Donald Trump said that prospects in the effort to control the virus were improving. As you can see starting at time 2:30 of this C-Span video, he said:
I’m very proud to be your president, I can tell you that.
There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and see light at the end of the tunnel.
Most of today’s living Americans were born in 1980 or afterward. (The median age in the U.S. is now just over 38.) Most of them would not instantly recognize the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,”
But Donald Trump was born in 1946, and he would know this phrase. During his teenaged years and his early 20s, when hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries were being drafted for service in Vietnam, and when more than 50,000 of them were killed, those words were among the most infamous parts of the American lexicon. Like “it became necessary to destroy the town, in order to save it”—a possibly apocryphal phrase attributed to a U.S. military officer, about the scorched-earth policy—“light at the end of the tunnel” came to symbolize the sustained folly of the war in general, and the illusion that success was near at hand.
The closest post-Vietnam examples would probably be early proclamations about the Iraq war: Dick Cheney’s pre-war assurance that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and George W. Bush’s triumphal appearance under a “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Or, early in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Among pre-Vietnam examples, a counterpart might be Neville Chamberlain in 1938, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in Munich, and then returning home to declare that they had ensured “peace for our time.”
During and after the Vietnam war, “light at the end of the tunnel” became so familiar and polarizing that one of the most publicized libel suits of the era, in which four-star General William Westmoreland sued CBS News for $120 million, centered on these very words. As the New York Times reported during the trial, in 1984:
Gen. William C. Westmoreland and a lawyer for CBS argued yesterday over one of the most memorable phrases of the Vietnam War, with the lawyer suggesting that the general had misled Washington into believing there was “light at the end of tunnel” in 1967 and the general saying he had not used that expression.
“I never had quite that degree of optimism,” General Westmoreland told the jury at his libel trial against CBS in Federal Court in Manhattan.
But the lawyer, David Boies, showed the witness a Nov. 26, 1967, cable he had sent during a visit to Washington to his deputy in Saigon, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, in which the phrase “some light at the end of the tunnel” was bracketed in quotation marks.
People of my parents’ generation would hesitate or catch themselves before “peace for our time.” News-conscious people of my children’s generation would recognize the freight that comes with saying “mission accomplished” or “heck of a job”
And people of Trump’s generation, and mine, would recognize that “light at the end of the tunnel” is not what you would say if you wanted to convey genuine confidence, any more than you would say, “I am not a crook” if you wanted to convey genuine innocence. You cannot have been alive in that time and not have absorbed this phrase.
The typically young members of a White House speechwriting staff—the people who worked on the script from which Trump read yesterday—would not know this phrase from their own experience. But in normal White Houses, they would have looked these things up. (When I worked, in my 20s, on a White House speechwriting staff, our “spare time” reading was from the volumes of past presidential addresses.)
But Trump himself would have to have been familiar with this phrase. So yesterday, as he saw the note cards, did he see the phrase—and not remember it? Did he remember, and not care? I don’t know, and it doesn’t make a difference in his response to the current pandemic. But it is one more illustration of things we have heard and seen, which we would never have seen before.
Two other for-the-record elements from Trump’s public performances yesterday.
- With several of his scientific experts behind him, explained how much worse the 1918 flu pandemic was:
“That was a flu where if you got it, you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying.”
In fact, the mortality rate during that devastating worldwide illness was between 2 and 3 percent—not around 50 percent, as Trump claimed. Most of the experts around Trump knew better; none of them said anything. I can’t quickly think of a case of another president making such a wildly inaccurate basic-fact claim, without a quick “For the record, the president meant to say…” cleanup.
- Three times yesterday, Trump said that his goal for “opening up the country” again was Easter Day.
- During his Fox town hall: “I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that.
It’s such an important day for other reasons. I’ll make it an important day for this too I would love to have the country opened up an rarin’ to go by Easter.”
- After the town hall, he said: “Easter’s a very special day for me. And I see it in that timeline I am thinking about. And I say, Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full.”
- And when answering press questions about “why Easter?” later in the day: “It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful timeline.”
- During his Fox town hall: “I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that.
This year’s Easter Day is April 12, or 19 days after Trump’s announcement. As of yesterday afternoon, while Trump was talking about the Easter “timeline,” the official confirmed-case count for the United States was nearing 47,000, and the death toll was in the low 600s. I’ll note in this space where the numbers stand 19 days from now.
Being president is even harder than it looks. Success in the job requires a wider range of talents than any one human being has ever had: Private persuasive and horse-trading skills. Public ability to inspire. The analytical capacity to grasp decisions that lack any “good” answer. The emotional capacity to read the moods and needs of the country, as those change. Physical stamina. Psychological balance. A ruthless ability to judge character, especially among allies and staff members. A similarly steely ability to block out bitter and hurtful criticism—otherwise, you couldn’t function—without becoming deaf to warnings of genuine problems. And that’s just the start of the list.
As I noted in a piece about Barack Obama as he neared the end of his first term, these demands of office are so many, so different, and so complex that the question is not whether a given president will fail in office. All of them will fall short in some parts of the job. The relevant question is whether the areas of each president’s inevitable failures will matter more, or less, than those of his success. John Dickerson went into the ramifications of “The Hardest Job in the World” in a big Atlantic story two years ago. (Update: Dickerson did an eloquent brief segment on the requirements of presidential leadership-in-crisis, on Face the Nation yesterday.)
Because this job is impossible, people who hold it go through a predictable change of attitude toward their living predecessors. On arrival, new presidents usually think: Look at me! I’ve won the biggest prize in public life. I don’t know why these other guys messed things up so badly. Let me show them how it’s done!
The years go on; the problems mount; Congress is a headache; the public can’t be pleased. Predictably, presidents develop “strange new respect” for the only other human beings who understand what they are going through. Usually when running for the office, presidential candidates criticize those who came before—directly, if mounting a challenge, or indirectly, in suggesting how much better things will be under new management. But after a president has been roughed up for a while, he’s more careful in his criticism. (Really, it’s hard to find on-the-record examples of many of the first 44 presidents criticizing their predecessors.) Sometimes in public, more often in private, presidents go to those who have left office to ask: What do you think? Or: Can you help us out?
This reality was the premise of a question an hour into Donald Trump’s very long press appearance yesterday afternoon. In the exchange—which you can see starting at time 59:00 of this video—a reporter asked Trump:
In previous crises like the tsunami, and Katrina, past presidents have called their predecessors and said, Hey I need you to step in, and do something like that.
Do you have any interest in reaching out to presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter—
Before he finished the question, Trump was talking over him to challenge the premise. Trump answered:
Look. I have the best people in the world. I think we’re doing an extraordinary job.
If you look at the H1N1 [under Obama], if you look at that whole—that was a disaster, that was a tough period of time for our country. You look at so many other things that weren’t handled very well, whether it’s Katrina [under GW Bush] or something else.
Look, I respect everybody. But I feel I have an incredible team and I think we’re doing an incredible job….
I don’t want to disturb them, bother them. I don’t think I’m going to learn much.
What this reveals about Donald Trump’s self-regard and Dunning-Krugerism is too obvious to need elaboration. Also his intolerance for even imagined criticism, and his instinct to respond with an attack. In this case, the question invited him to step into the long tradition of presidents facing crisis. Instead he used it not only to elevate himself but also to diminish the others. (“So many things that weren’t handled very well.”) Others presidents likely thought such things to themselves, especially early in a term. But they would not have said them—on nationwide TV, during a crisis, when supposedly trying to inspire, unite, and heal.
Two other remarkable events of the day:
- When told by a questioner that Mitt Romney had isolated himself (presumably after meetings with his Senate colleague Rand Paul, who yesterday tested positive for the disease), Trump acted surprised. “Romney’s in isolation?” he asked. When told it was true, he said, with obvious sarcasm, “Gee, that’s too bad.” (You can judge the tone for yourself, starting at time 43:40 of this clip.)
Again, many public leaders might have thought this of their rivals. No others would have said it out loud.
- I mentioned earlier the extraordinary position of Anthony Fauci, during the pandemic. He has a lifetime’s worth of credibility behind his words and advice. But he is being made to stand almost every day, on live TV, behind a president saying things that Fauci then needs–tactfully—to correct.
The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas had an interview with Fauci yesterday morning, in which he said that the administration had not pressured him to be more visibly supportive — “I’m not sure why.” Later in the day, Jon Cohen of Science published an interview unlike any I have read from a figure who was still serving within Trump’s orbit. A sample:
Q: You’re standing there saying nobody should gather with more than 10 people and there are almost 10 people with you on the stage….
A: I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.
Q: What about the travel restrictions?… It just doesn’t comport with facts.
A: I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?
What I want, as of today, March 23, is for him to stay there, as long as he can.
These things were notable about yesterday’s installment of what has become the regular daily White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic:
- That it happened at all. Early last year, Donald Trump directed Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then his press secretary, to stop conducting daily press briefings, which had been routine for press secretaries for decades. Sanders held her last briefing a little more than a year ago. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, has not held any at all. Until this month, Trump himself had appeared at very few formal press conferences. The last one I find a record of was in September, 2018. Instead Trump would talk at informal press scrums, usually while walking to or from a helicopter.
Now Trump is on TV, answering questions, day after day, including the weekends. This brings us to…
- That it was a virtual campaign rally, At two of the briefings this week, Trump had dropped his previous pooh-poohing of the virus threat, and his personal criticism of media figures and other politicians, and had instead struck a somber, “we’re in this together” tone. As I noted here, this shift in tone was greeted by some in the press as a sign of Trump’s new statesmanship.
In the past two days, Trump has been back to the more accustomed tone of tweets and his rallies. In those settings he has had two constant themes: that he is so great, and that his critics are such cheating losers, each point usually based on information that was false.
The tone, and the false data, returned yesterday. Much of what Trump said was false: Most dramatically, his claim that the FDA had just approved use of an anti-malaria drug for treatment of COVID-19, and that it would be a “game-changer.” (FDA officials immediately clarified that they had done no such thing.)
Trump’s new fondness for these “briefings,” and their increasing conversion into Trump campaign rallies with scientists rather than local-government officials as the supporting cast, should cause cable-news producers to reflect on the path they are headed down.
In the year after Trump declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015, cable channels ran so many of his “Lock her up!” rallies live and at full length, that the coverage amounted to hugely valuable free campaign publicity. One source calculated the free-airtime values as being worth several billion dollars.
From Trump’s point of view, it makes sense to turn these events into the unfiltered airtime he used to count on at mass rallies. From the media’s point of view, it made sense to cover the first few of them live. But given the rising falsehood quotient in what Trump says, and his determination to cut off or divert questioners who try to ask about these falsehoods, cable networks should stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.
Their real reason for live coverage back during Trump’s rise was that ratings went up: People wanted to watch these spectacles. Even if that’s still true, we certainly have learned that Trump will use most of his time to attack and lie, and that panelists’ corrections never catch up. In time of crisis, cable-news channels are making the public less informed, and thus increasing public danger, by providing such a convenient platform for lies.
Also, as a practical matter, if the briefings were no longer covered live, Trump would lose interest in attending himself. Then the scientists could come back on stage—and eventually they could be covered live again.
- That Trump edited the script. As Jabin Botsford, a Washington Post photographer noted, Trump scratched out the word “corona” in his speaking script, and replaced it with “Chinese,” so that he would talk about the threat of “the Chinese virus.” When he read most of the rest of the prepared text, Trump sounded as if he were seeing it for the first time. This was a word he cared about.
- That he ended with … this question. I lack the spirit to go into all of this now. You can read the story here and here. Again, nothing like it had ever happened at the White House before.
Update: As I write I see that Jay Rosen, at his Press Think blog, has come to the same conclusion about live event coverage. His item covers many other steps in what he calls “emergency mode” handling of Trump, but on live events he says:
Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us….
We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.
I agree with that, and with Rosen’s conclusion, addressed to readers:
We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place
In a tweet last night, Donald Trump resurrected the term “Chinese Virus,” for the pathogen otherwise known (including by Trump in many earlier tweets) as the coronavirus.
This afternoon, at the now-daily press presentation about the virus and disease, Trump was asked why he used this term—given the bitter public and governmental response it has evoked in China, and recent reports of racist anti-Chinese reactions inside the United States. (For instance, the starting entry of a widely shared Twitter thread yesterday from Jiayang Fan, a writer for the New Yorker, is below.)
At today’s conference, Cecilia Vega, of ABC, mentioned the possibility of racist backlash to “Chinese Virus.” She directly asked Trump, “Why do you keep using this?” (You can see the exchange starting at time 1:44 of this video.)
Trump snapped back with what amounted to two points: First, that he was just calling things by their real name, and second, that he was getting back at China for suggestions that the U.S. was really to blame.
Why keep using the term?
Because it comes from China. That’s why. It’s not racist at all. I want to be accurate.
I have great love for all of the people from our country. [sic] But as you know, China tried to say, that it was caused by American soldiers.
That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen. As long as I’m president.
My purpose for the moment is not to review the full history of pejorative names for diseases—for instance, why syphilis was called “the French disease” by 16th-century Italians, to which the French responded by calling it “the Neapolitan disease.” Nor about the acute sensitivity in China to being seen as a source of filth and disease—something that would be an insult anywhere, but which in China comes with a distinct historical background that makes it particularly inflammatory. (Rough parallel: Think of any familiar defamatory stereotype used against Africans, or Latin Americans, or Jews, or any other group. Then think of a U.S. president using that in tweets and statements.) Nor about the point my colleague Graeme Wood astutely makes: that the real scandal is what the administration does (and fails to do), more than what it says. Nor the likelihood that the animal-human transfer that gave rise to this pandemic probably occurred in wild-animal markets in China. (Evidence suggests that the transfer that gave rise to the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic a dozen years ago took place somewhere in North America, but the disease was not generally known as “the American Flu” or “the Mexican disease.”)
Rather it is to note this moment in the United States’s relationship with its most consequential foreign partner-and-competitor. While the combined public-health and economic catastrophes of the moment are commanding attention, the China-U.S. interaction may have moved in a distinctly darker direction.
Neither the United States nor China is big and dominant enough to force the other country—also big, also dominant—to do something its leadership or public genuinely does not want to do.
But both the United States and China play a large enough role in the other’s economic, strategic, environmental, cultural, and overall situation that each can make life significantly better, or worse for the other—not to mention effects on the rest of the world.
The story of the past nearly five decades, starting in the Nixon-Mao era, is of U.S. and Chinese public and private leaders generally looking for ways to work together as wary partners, more frequently than they looked for ways to confront each other as outright foes. (I described this dynamic in an Atlantic article, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” four years ago.) And the story of the past five years, as I described in that same article, is of sharper and sharper differences between the countries. That was even before the trade-war confrontations of the past three years.
Now the leadership of each country is acting, in public, as if it has nothing to lose by insulting and provoking the other. Witness the accusations from Chinese officials that the U.S. may have intentionally engineered the virus and unleashed it on an unsuspecting Chinese public, or the public use of “Chinese Virus” by a president, in full awareness that it is a flash point on the other side, and the reported private use of “Kung-Flu” by a White House staffer.
Yesterday the Chinese government took a step that even the most grizzled China hands found shocking: It revoked the press credentials for U.S.-citizen reporters from the three leading U.S. newspapers—the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal—and began the process of expelling them from the country.
During the long ups and downs of U.S.-China relations—with the lows of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the U.S. bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999, the Chinese military jet that ran into a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in 2001, the recurring trade disputes, plus the assorted highs—Chinese officials had never taken this step before.
As with most things in China, the logic of this move is probably mostly internal, as part of the ongoing years-long domestic crackdown underway in the time of Xi Jinping. (Alex Dukalskis of The Wilson Center and University College Dublin laid out internal-Chinese dynamics in a tweet thread today.) But it is a very significant escalation of the U.S.-Chinese showdown — and one that, as best I can tell, went unmentioned by the U.S. president yesterday, and today until the press-questioning part of his presentation today.
Late in the press conference, a reporter asked Trump what he thought of the Chinese move, and “what is your message to the Chinese about transparency.” (You can see it starting at time 2:08 here.)
“I’m not happy to see it,” Trump said, as if he were talking about the latest fall in the stock market, or problems for the cruise industry. Then:
I have my disputes with all three of those media groups. I think you know that very well.
But I don’t like seeing that at all. I’m not happy about it at all.
And then he moved on. Just looking at the words, you might imagine it was a Voltaire-like “disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” But if you watch you’ll see that it came across as a minor issue—an occasion for registering his unhappiness with these same three papers, and to shift to something more interesting.
I hope that this most consequential relationship for the U.S. will not be another casualty of the pestilence. But as I write, on March 18, it appears to have taken an under-publicized turn for the worse.