The New York Times gives prominent placement on its home page to list all of President Trump’s juvenile nicknames for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including the racist Native American slur directed at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). This serves no purpose other than to highlight his name-calling and reinforce his abusive conduct.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders goes on “Meet the Press” to repeatedly accuse former FBI director James B. Comey of treason. She insists everyone knows about corruption at the top levels of the Justice Department. (“We already know that there was an outrageous amount of corruption that took place at the FBI.”) She claims “they” leaked information and lied. (Who? What information? When?) In an apparent reference to two investigators who were removed from the case (Peter Strzok and Lisa Page) after communicating about their private views, she insists “They were specifically working trying to take down the president, trying to hurt the president.” Sanders falsely insists the FBI was guilty of “unprecedented obstruction and corruption.”
Trump’s press secretary is not challenged on her exaggerations, distortions and outright lies, although she in essence concedes Trump has already made up his mind, issued his verdict and is expecting the attorney general to come back with evidence.
Former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance White tells me, “I think what is crucially important to remember here is that two FBI agents can’t launch a coup against a president, even if they want to.” She explains, “Our system is set up so that independent judges must sign off on warrants and wiretaps. And given all the contact between the campaign and Russia, it would have been irresponsible for the FBI not to investigate.” She adds, “I have never heard a response from Trump to that point.”
The same Trump talking points were used by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) without challenge on “This Week.” “I think what is crucially important to remember here is that you had Strzok and Page, who were in charge of launching this investigation, and they were saying things like we must stop this president. We need an insurance policy against this president,” Cheney declared. “That, in my view, when you have people that are in the highest echelons of the law enforcement of this nation saying things like that, that sounds an awful lot like a coup. And it could well be treason.” This is balderdash. In no sense were either of them “in charge of launching the investigation,” and in any case, private gossip doesn’t amount to “treason.” Cheney is not challenged on her assertions. Were Trump appointees former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray also guilty of treason?
Aside from repeating the same factual distortions, White suggests that Cheney “needs to read the Constitution, because this can’t possible be treason.” She says, “It’s irresponsible for an elected official to engage in talk of coups and treason, knowing it’s untrue but also that there is a possibility it could incite additional attempts at violence.”
Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe concurs. Cheney “is too smart to believe even a bit of what she’s saying. That makes her prattling away about a ‘coup’ and particularly about ‘treason’ especially pernicious and dangerous,” he says. “Only dictators threaten those who dare to question and investigate their use of power with prosecution for treason.”
The mainstream media must pick up its game. Its role is not to act as Trump’s megaphone for childish insults, which directly aids his efforts to defame presidential opponents. It’s one thing to explain that Trump uses insults and to debunk them; it’s another to reinforce and popularize them.
More important, Republicans who repeat blatantly untrue talking points should not go unchallenged. To do so merely assists Trump in his war on the truth and his efforts to smear national security officials. Republicans would like to bury an already-completed inspector general’s report that found Strzok and Page did not influence the investigation. The Lawfare blog recounted last year:
... the inspector general was rightly disturbed by the highly political text-message exchanges between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok. Even here, though, the investigation “did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed.” Those steps, the investigation finds, were made by a larger team and “were not unreasonable.” More broadly, although the report is unsparing toward Comey, it finds explicitly that his actions were not influenced by political preferences.
The courts are doing their part. House Democrats are doing their part. Now, the media need to exercise the same diligence in calling out Trump’s lies. Instead of learning from the mistakes of 2016 — when Trump was allowed to spew his racism and falsehoods at length on live TV coverage of rallies — the media risk a repeat by simply recycling his slurs and lies. Do better, please.