Republicans erupted in outrage Tuesday upon learning that a Cabinet officer has been using a private email account for official business. Long known for their unshakable commitment to proper information technology practices, the GOP pledged that this abuse of authority would not stand. Here are the details:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used personal email for official business on a “limited” number of occasions, according to a report released Monday by the agency’s inspector general.
The report found fewer than 100 emails sent or received to personal accounts between Jan. 20, 2017, when President Trump took office, and April 10, 2018. It said most messages were in the first six months of 2017, from a single writer offering advice on potential candidates for agency positions. The writer, who was not identified, also included other department employees on his or her messages, using their official government email addresses.
Of course, I’m kidding about the outrage, just as I’m kidding in suggesting the Republicans’ feigned outrage in 2016 over Hillary Clinton’s use of private email was rooted in their unshakable commitment to I.T. security. This DeVos story once again gives away the game.
And as Matt Shuham reminds us, other Trump administration officials who have used private email for official business include Mike Pence (as Indiana governor), Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Stephen K. Bannon, Reince Priebus, Stephen Miller, and more. It’s not just that they don’t care about whether their emails are secure; they also don’t care about being called hypocrites.
Nor do other Republicans, and why should they? It’s not like there’s any kind of consequence.
The reason I raise is because we’re headed into another election in which they’re going to do the same thing they did in 2016: take some trivial matter about the Democratic presidential nominee, and try to turn it into The Most Shocking Scandal Ever, the thing the entire campaign should be about. And they’re counting on the media to fall for it.
Let’s not forget that Hillary Clinton’s emails got more coverage than any other topic during the 2016 campaign. As one study found, “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”
That, like everything else journalists do, was a choice. Every day, they chose to write about her emails and not, say, health-care policy or climate change or the fact that the Republican nominee was an obvious con artist.
And we can already say what will happen in 2020. At some point in the campaign — more likely at multiple points — Trump will make some kind of incendiary charge about the Democratic nominee, with no evidence to support it. He will count on the media doing what they almost always do: treating the charge itself as the primary news, and determining the truth of the charge as a secondary task, thereby amplifying and spreading the allegation.
He will do this because he is utterly unconstrained by any sense of propriety or desire to hold to a standard of honesty. He knows he can do it because he does it all the time, and it always works. The headlines (“Trump Says Opioid Epidemic is Warren’s Fault,” or “Trump Charges Biden With Taking Payoffs from Mafia,” or “Trump Claims Harris Is Member of Violent Sex Cult”) will do their work before voters have time to read the fact-check, if they ever bother at all.
We also know that when he makes those scurrilous charges, every Republican in sight will rush to the cameras to repeat them, and Fox News will quickly devote hours of time to conservatives saying how deeply troubling “it” is.
So, unless the media are going to become Trump’s dupes again, they’re going to have to slow down just a little. They will have to regularly pause to examine their daily coverage from 30,000 feet. Are we devoting enough time to important policy issues? Are we being distracted by trivia? Are we allowing ourselves to be manipulated?
And remember, when a candidate tries to capture the news agenda, you don’t have to let him. There are always lots of things going on in the campaign on any given day, and you can make wise decisions about what’s worth covering. You can say about a story, “How important is this, really?,” and let the answer guide your decision-making. Does it reveal something we didn’t fully understand before? Does it actually bear on what sort of president each of these candidates would be over the next four years? Is the story in question about something that affects people’s lives in some meaningful way?
Unfortunately, media outlets are drawn to novelty, to conflict and to whatever is the most inflammatory. Nobody understands this better than Trump, which is why he’s so good at capturing the news agenda. But every time he does so, it’s possible only because we in the media let him do it. We can decide not to.