The New York Times building in New York in September 2018. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
Media critic

President Trump enjoys nothing so much as contradicting himself. During a news conference at his June 2018 summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore, he fielded a question from New York Times reporter David E. Sanger. After addressing the particulars, Trump said, “I still love my first interview with you, David. I still have that interview, actually."

The glorious interview in question appears to be this one, a chat between Trump, Sanger and New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. The exchange touched on the cyber war between the United States and hostile foreign countries. “We don’t know who’s got the power, who’s got that capability, some people say it’s China, some people say it’s Russia. But certainly cyber has to be a, you know, certainly cyber has to be in our thought process, very strongly in our thought process,” said Trump.

In light of that cyber toughness and his insistence that he has been “far tougher” on Russia than other presidents, one would expect the president to have cheered a featured story in the New York Times this weekend. The scoop came from Sanger and reporter Nicole Perlroth: “U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid.” The lede: “The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.”

Now, for the actual Trump response, expressed in a pair of shameful tweets:

That is an escalation, however slight. After disparaging the media for four years since becoming a presidential candidate, Trump has painted himself into a rhetorician’s corner; how do you outdo “enemy of the people”? The New York Times responded appropriately to the slam: “Accusing the press of treason is dangerous,” the Times said in a statement. During an interview, Sanger echoed the statement of his employer regarding the gravity of a treason accusation.

Then again: Just how treasonous could the story be if, as Trump alleges, it’s not true?

During an interview, Perlroth cited the mitigation in Trump’s attack. “It’s not every day that you get accused of virtual treason,” she told the Erik Wemple Blog. “I don’t know what that means — do we get the virtual death penalty? . . . The fact that officials don’t feel comfortable briefing the president on these programs says a lot about what they fear the president’s reaction would be and how seriously he takes Russian interference into the 2016 election and into our own power grid."

Critics of Trump have cited his light touch on Russia matters though, in this case, his administration is tightening the screws on its adversary, which staged widespread interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Given the story’s particulars, however, Trump might have trouble claiming credit for the move:

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.

Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

The actions against the Russian electric grid, notes the Times, appear to be authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 — which allows certain cyberoffensives without presidential approval.

A veteran Washington correspondent, Sanger has been writing about global cyber issues for a decade, a beat that included news-breaking accounts of how President Barack Obama struggled with U.S. cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear program. Sanger’s 2012 book “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power,” showed how “under Mr. Obama, the United States government has been engaged in what one presidential adviser calls ‘a state of low-grade, daily conflict,’" according to one reviewer.

Which is to say, Sanger has pushed through a touchy story or two in his journalism career. This one? “They did not seem particularly sensitive about this,” he told the Erik Wemple Blog. The story conveys the same sentiment: “Officials at the National Security Council also declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting about the targeting of the Russian grid, perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians.” A New York Times statement said, in part, "All stories dealing with national security issues deserve to be considered very seriously, and we have always exercised caution in reporting them. In these instances, we always engage with government officials and in some cases, we agree to hold stories over concerns, and in others, we disagree with objections and publish, but we always listen. All to say that asking the question of officials about objections to reporting about national security is routine and, as we reported, we did so in this case and were told that there were no national security concerns, either from NSC, the NSA or Cyber Command.”

That sets up quite a clash: Trump claiming a “virtual act of Treason” vs. the National Security Council claiming no concerns.

But the Times need only publish a more favorable story for Trump to ditch his heinous talk of "treason" in favor of plaudits. For example: After the paper in April published a story dissing the famous “dossier” of allegations about Trump and Russia, the president told Fox News host Sean Hannity: “I was very impressed that The New York Times did that because that was the first good glimpse that maybe mainstream is going to pick up the greatest political scandal in the history of our country, again, bigger than Watergate, because it means so much."

In early May, the New York Times revealed that the FBI had sent a woman to meet with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in 2016, a revelation that advanced Trumpworld’s grievances about government “spying.” Though the story was based on unnamed sources and exposed the inner workings of the government, it was a virtual act of patriotism.

In between those two favorable reviews of the New York Times, Trump had occasion to tweet this:

“We’ve all had it in both directions from this president,” said Sanger. “He has been at various moments complimentary of my reporting and then you saw what he wrote over the weekend so you kind of shrug and move on.”

There’s a symmetry between the hot-and-cold pronouncements of Trump himself, and those of Hannity, his TV spokesman. Introducing a segment about the Papadopoulos-informant story, Hannity on May 2 riffed, “We start tonight, a breaking report from the New York Times, which might have actually gotten something straight for a change.” And, last Wednesday, Hannity delighted in aggregating a New York Times report that the Justice Department’s own review of the Russia investigation would seek interviews with CIA officials. “Breaking only moments ago from the New York Times, major new development in John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe — this is huge,” said Hannity. “By the way, if your name is Brennan, Clapper, or Comey, you may want to lawyer up because Durham is now seeking interviews especially with top CIA officers.”

Just a week earlier, Hannity had this to say about the newspaper: “And ironically today, we also had simultaneously a top editor for the fake news New York Times saying that his paper is no way anti-Trump. Oh, yes, everyone just raises from the dead articles of impeachment over nothing," he said. “I told you in 2007, journalism in America, it is dead. It is buried.”

There’s a tremendous luxury in this rhetorical grift: One moment, these fellows exploit the reputation of the New York Times. The next, they seek to destroy it. Such an obvious sham, you might suppose, would have a limited shelf life given its transparent dishonesty; people would catch on and tune out. That doesn’t happen, however. Trump is president, and Hannity is cable news’s No. 1 talent.

In other words, there is little incentive for honesty.

Read more from Erik Wemple:

George Stephanopoulos is filleting President Trump, clip by clip

Bye-bye, Sarah Sanders

Sean Hannity is a ‘Fifth Avenue’ flunky for Trump

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