Yesterday at 6:55 a.m., Trump managed to dredge up a policy issue that dates back decades and thrust it into the 21st century:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
By 7:18 a.m., CNN “New Day” co-host Chris Cuomo was grilling Trump presidential transition team communications director Jason Miller on the topic, pointing out the Supreme Court has ruled that flag-burning — whatever you think of it — is protected under the First Amendment. From that point onward, CNN, never shy about using its facilities to pound away at an issue, went for it. With around 20,000 words — by a count compiled from the network’s excellent transcripts module* — CNN hosts, commentators, guests and correspondents masticated, dissected, gnawed on, analyzed and otherwise obsessed over the issue. And never stopped.
There was Cuomo with Scottie Nell Hughes, Paul Begala and Kevin Madden. There was host Alisyn Camerota with Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.). There was Cuomo and Camerota with CNN politics executive editor Mark Preston. There was host Carol Costello with CNN politics reporter Sara Murray. There was Costello with Zeke Miller and David Lauter. There was Costello with Trumpite Anthony Scaramucci and CNN media reporter Dylan Byers. There was host Brooke Baldwin with legal guru Jeffrey Toobin. There was reporting by CNN politics reporter Manu Raju. There was Wolf Blitzer with George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. There was Kate Bolduan … Anderson Cooper … Don Lemon — all with further commentary and exploitation of … that one tweet.
The cheesy highlight of the day’s proceedings, of course, came from Blitzer, who tried some wordplay to limp effect: “Burning issue. Trump ignites new controversy by suggesting that anyone who torches the American flag should lose their citizenship or go to jail, the tweeter in chief unleashed again and raising constitutional questions,” said Blitzer. Sneering aside, most of the CNN coverage was filled with facts and sober-minded analysis. Toobin provided the most helpful insights, noting that not only could Trump not criminalize flag-burning, he cannot “as a penalty, take away someone’s citizenship. You can put people in prison. You can execute them. You can take away their right to vote. But forcing people against their will to surrender their citizenship is not something that’s available to the government.”
So wide-ranging was the coverage of the tweet that it touched on whether the news media should be covering the tweet. Byers said yes in one sliver of CNN’s flag-burning-coverage day: “I think the question is, a threat to infringe upon First Amendment rights before the guy’s even stepped foot in the Oval Office to begin his term. And I think those are serious and legitimate concerns.”
An argument against Twitter-based reporting came from Politico’s Jack Shafer, who claims that Trump drops these crazy and fact-challenged outbursts to distract from bigger, negative stories and to bait his critics.
Here's the breaking news investigation that Trump is trying to distract you from reading/discussing/retweeting: https://t.co/ULqq3VFTuj
— Jack Shafer (@jackshafer) November 27, 2016
Such a critique may, in fact, give Trump too much credit as an organized and linear strategist. Look what happened on CNN minutes after Trump unfurled on flag-burning. Cuomo sits down with Miller for an interview, and he’s committed to pressing the spokesman on the First Amendment. Miller doesn’t seem too excited to oblige. After Cuomo asks if the Trump team agreed that flag-burning was legal, Miller replies, “But Chris, it’s completely ridiculous … it’s terrible and it’s despicable. But, the big news, though, Chris this morning — you saw this and I know we’re going to get to it, Dr. Tom Price to run HHS and Ms. Seema Verma to run CMS — two additional administration picks that have a big, big impact on repealing Obamacare.”
Those picks, Cuomo assures Miller, would get some airtime. But he says that when the president-elect says something, “we gotta listen.” So he asks Miller again whether flag-burning was constitutionally protected. Miller: “No, we can completely disagree that this issue. … Absolutely should be illegal, but again, we know why we’re here this morning — we’re going to talk about transition team, we’re going to talk about what this government is going to do for the American people, and I think most Americans would agree with me that flag burning should be illegal.”
See what happened here? Trump’s flag-burning tweet stepped all over his transition team’s own message. And in pressing Miller on the issue, Cuomo revealed how little respect there is in Trumpland for the Constitution. Be it resolved that the media should report extensively on Donald Trump’s tweets, along with everything else.
*Count includes discussion of the flag-burning issue as well as adjacent material on the prudence of freaking out about Trump’s tweeting.