Donald J. Trump is frustrated. He’s the president of the United States, and yet there are limits to how he can use his power. He can’t just snap his fingers and end Obamacare; his travel ban got gummed up in litigation; he can’t flick a switch and “open up” libel laws; the regime in North Korea doesn’t appear to respect him too much.
And then there’s the issue of the Beltway media, which refuses to enable a man extraordinarily unfit for his responsibilities. NBC News, for example, reported on Wednesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had referred to President Trump as a “moron” after a July meeting at the Pentagon, not to mention that the top diplomat “was on the verge of resigning.” The story carried four bylines and extensive sourcing. CNN reported that Trump knew before Wednesday about the “moron” moment.
None of those considerations, of course, prevented Trump from blasting the story the way he commonly blasts negative press:
To that last attack, one Twitter user helpfully replied, “You also thought Obama wasn’t American, so you’re not exactly a great barometer of accuracy.”
Being president is a tough line of work. As the New York Times wrote in February, Trump came to the White House with a long background in manipulating, goading and feeding New York tabloids. His virtuoso work with reporters — including a stunt in which he impersonated his own PR guy — doubtless fed an expectation that perhaps he’d be able to pull the same moves in the nation’s capital.
He cannot, and so he lapses into autocratic desperation, as in this tweet from Thursday:
For context, the Senate intelligence committee has heard testimony about the distortions and propaganda of Russian-funded outlets such as RT and Sputnik. “The rapid expansion of RT’s operations and budget and recent candid statements by RT’s leadership point to the channel’s importance to the Kremlin as a messaging tool and indicate a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest,” noted a January report from the U.S. intelligence community. RT has attempted to convince its audience that the U.S. electoral system is beset with fraud. As for Sputnik, just take it from its former White House reporter: “They wanted me to be asking and writing stuff on this Seth Rich thing and I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”
That the president of the United States would suggest that U.S. news organizations deserve scrutiny ahead of RT and Sputnik is, once again, not surprising. Which is not to say it isn’t scandalous, because it surely is. In President Ronald Reagan’s day, the suggestion of any equivalence between Soviet propaganda and this country’s best media outlets would have fed outrage for weeks. As things stand today, there’ll be some op-ed-ing about this violation of our country’s constitutional norms, and on to the next stupid tweet.
Political analysts are careful never to attribute too much strategic forethought to Trump’s actions, but there’s an interesting and very frightening progression at work here. For months and months, Trump hammered the media on Twitter and in his public pronouncements. Unfair and biased were common critiques in the early days of his campaign; after “fake news” emerged as a way to describe intentionally fabricated reports, Trump decided to throw that term at the Beltway media, with CNN a frequent target; now comes the next step — action.
There will likely be no action on this particular request. The Republicans who now control Congress talked for seven years about repealing Obamacare and cannot even get that done. Spearheading an investigation of media outlets at odds with the First Amendment? Tax reform never looked so palatable.
That doesn’t mean that Trump won’t get his investigation of media outlets. That happens every day, via tens of millions of news consumers who demand accountability from the press, not to mention the robust corps of media reporters. And if Trump really, really must have this investigation under his terms, he can just sue us all and depose his adversaries in a court proceeding. Though he’ll have to do so under long-standing libel laws.