“The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand!”
The comment was a variation of the theme that Trump played on Thursday, after pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democrats, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama, and to CNN’s offices in New York. “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he tweeted then. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
In a press briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders gave an emotional preamble about Saturday’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead. Sanders appeared near tears as she read a statement calling anti-Semitism a “plague to humanity” and the incident “an act of hatred and above all an act of evil.”
Sanders at first tried to shift the onus off reporters (“No, the president is not placing blame” for violent acts, she said at one point) before deciding to place the same blame where her boss already had.
“The very first action that the president did was condemn these heinous acts. The very first thing that the media did was condemn the president,” she said, adding, “You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of the country.”
(In fact, CNN covered the news as it occurred. CNN President Jeff Zucker later issued a statement criticizing the White House for its “total and complete lack of understanding . . . about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media.”)
As always, formulations such as “the media” are nebulous; pressed for specifics by CNN’s Jim Acosta, Sanders wouldn’t say which media outlets are “the enemy of the people,” a phrase Trump has invoked before. (For the record, he described the New York Times, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and CNN that way in a tweet last year.)
But she nevertheless continued the president’s line of attack, telling Acosta: “I think it’s irresponsible of a news organization like yours to blame responsibility of a pipe bomb that was not sent by the president, not just blame the president but blame members of his administration for those heinous acts, I think that is outrageous. And I think it’s irresponsible.”
Trump has made media-bashing a signature part of his political persona, railing against “the fake news” media within days of announcing that he was running for president in mid-2015. The theme has found fertile ground among his supporters, who routinely jeer reporters assembled in the media-holding areas at his rallies.
But Trump seems to have ratcheted up the blame-the-media rhetoric in recent days, with the advent of two national crises and with just over a week to go before Election Day.
“It does feel to me that the president feels that this is a winning strategy with some of his supporters before the midterms,” said Jane Hall, an associate professor of journalism at American University and a former Fox News analyst.
Hall said Trump disparages the news media to bulletproof himself from criticism and to boost his credibility among his supporters.
By way of explanation, she referred to a comment Trump reportedly made to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl when Stahl asked Trump why he was so critical of journalists: “ ‘You know why I do it?’ ” Stahl said he responded. “ ‘I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.’ ”
One of the many unusual things about Trump, said political communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, is that he is his own “hatchet man,” unleashing attacks from the presidency’s bully pulpit. Historically, she noted, presidents have risen above the fray and delegated the job to underlings and surrogates.
While supporters might cheer Trump’s eagerness to attack, the downside is that doing so trades away the president’s stature and traditional role as consoler in chief, she said.
“By sacrificing that capacity, he’s lost something that other president have used in important fashion during moments of national tragedy,” said Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Think about President Ronald Reagan after the space shuttle exploded in 1986, or Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, or President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she said. “There are times when the nation needs its leader to speak not as a partisan but as the embodiment of the nation. That’s a major reason [previous] presidents haven’t descended into attack mode. . . . The president and his advisers have been aware that the office of the presidency exists in privileged space. Donald Trump is not capable of [using that] because he has assumed a completely different role as an attack man.”
Trump’s pugnaciousness, and his seeming inability to unite the country, came up toward the end of Monday’s press briefing when NBC News reporter Hallie Jackson asked Sanders, “At what point does a national tragedy take precedence over the president needing to punch back? If not now, when?”
Sanders replied: “I think you saw the president do exactly that in the wake of a national tragedy, not just this week but every time our country has experienced the type of heartache and pain that we have over the last week. This is a president who has risen to that occasion and worked to bring our country together in a number of occasions.”