Some matters are urgent, others are important. The president’s allegation of wiretapping has certainly risen to an urgent level in Washington, but it distracts from important developments such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s shaking up the status quo on North Korea and the beginning of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s hearings. Time and again, coverage of the Trump administration’s substantive governing priorities has been disrupted by the president’s own unforced errors. Earlier today, FBI Director James B. Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee that he has “no information” to support the president’s claims. Even though nothing new was revealed, “no information” will be today’s main story — not Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court or follow-up analysis from Tillerson’s trip to Asia.
The media, the Congress, the FBI and others are grinding through pointless hearings and hollow headlines only to arrive at the obvious conclusion that President Barack Obama didn’t wiretap Trump Tower and the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russian government. Journalists are so fixated on political stories and nonsensical tweets that members of the administration who legitimately advance the president’s policy agenda sometimes must compete for the media’s attention. Major policy objectives and important events continue to be overshadowed.
If there was ever a time when the urgent met the important, it would be now. North Korea continues to make progress on its nuclear weapons program and endanger the lives of tens of millions throughout Asia, if not yet America. But the media is covering non-stories about wiretapping and collusion that never occurred. It’s not easy to present nuanced Chinese, Japanese, and Korean interests in a sound bite. And to discuss North Korea’s nuclear posture requires authoritative analysis from sometimes-boring analysts. Yet much of the media is consumed by an urgency that overlooks the important.
President Trump’s White House is bifurcated. There is one group that does the governing and liaises with congressional leadership and policymakers and then there is a second cadre that feeds the media and compliant surrogates that sustain the trivial. The latter is burdened with having to offer contorted explanations for gaffes and wild tweets. This perpetuates a near-constant state of denial, fantasy and conspiracy. A few, including Vice President Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, have to straddle both sides. It consumes a lot of energy.
The president’s unwillingness to back down from mistakes has come at the expense of those working to advance his agenda. Just as loyal Republicans can be proud that the president is acting on his promise to bring about seismic changes, those who see discord, danger and chaos also have good reason for their anxieties.
We have a bifurcated White House, one where mistakes aren’t walked back, but rather doubled down on. Staff contort reality until a new gaffe or outlandish miscue takes hold. And so, the endless cycle continues. It remains to be seen whether the political appointees and White House staff who engage in serious policymaking are thankful for or contemptuous of their colleagues who go out each day and sustain Trump’s bizarre outbursts and obvious contradictions. For every defense of the president’s wrongful tweets and outlandish claims, important matters of public policy and legitimate successes are relegated to second-tier coverage.
It would be good if today’s hearings put an end to the media’s obsession with the president’s claims about wiretapping. The White House shouldn’t comment about the wiretapping at all and just let the collusion story burn out.
Last week, Trump advanced his foreign policy agenda in Asia, made serious progress with the health-care repeal-and-replace effort, and held a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that was overshadowed by body language and other events. And today, the Senate Judiciary Committee began its confirmation hearings for the president’s Supreme Court nominee. By any measure, that is a lot of serious work.
Everyone is entitled to making beginner mistakes, but it’s time for avoidable distractions to stop taking center stage.