The prospect of a Trump administration frightens many Americans and bemuses many others who think such fears are vastly exaggerated. We will all get to live in this natural experiment for a spell, and the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is not even close to wrestling with this question. But it might be worth considering the role that the news media is going to play in the incoming administration. It might be more complicated than commentators realize.
Consider, for example, the somewhat rocky nature of President-elect Donald Trump’s first week of transition. It hasn’t been going well, and the national security side of things has been going particularly badly. We can summarize it in a single tweet:
The lead story in Wednesday’s New York Times can therefore be characterized as “unsurprising.” It opens as follows:
President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition was in disarray on Tuesday, marked by firings, infighting and revelations that American allies were blindly dialing in to Trump Tower to try to reach the soon-to-be-leader of the free world.
One week after Mr. Trump scored an upset victory that took him by surprise, his team was improvising the most basic traditions of assuming power. That included working without official State Department briefing materials in his first conversations with foreign leaders.
Two officials who had been handling national security for the transition, former congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan and Matthew Freedman, a lobbyist who consults with corporations and foreign governments, were fired. Both were part of what officials described as a purge orchestrated by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser.
One can try to explain this away as not that unusual. In 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama embraced a “team of rivals” approach to his incoming administration. But I don’t remember quite this much churn after the first week of transition, nor do I remember “team of bitter rivals” headlines. Trump supporters might chalk this up to a biased media. I would chalk it up to Trump staffers leaking like sieves.
And here we get into the unusual role that the media is likely to play in this administration. If there is one thing we are sure about with Trump, it is that he reads the stories about himself. On Wednesday morning, he unleashed tweets about the Times story:
Trump is trying to push back hard on this story, which implies that he actually read the story. At least the part of the story on the physical front page of the New York Times. At least the lead paragraphs. I know, I’m setting the bar very low. The point is, it’s possible that Trump might actually respond to such stories with more than denials. He might actually force his team to address the bad news coming out — like the lack of transition policy teams.
Trump will read and stew over any negative press he will receive, and I think we can bank on him receiving a lot of negative coverage. Furthermore, Trump’s own management style guarantees that his acolytes will use the media as a guerrilla warfare tactic if they are losing battles inside the administration. As CNN’s Stephen Collinson notes:
He hires people, he fires people, he sets them against one another, he says things and takes them back, with the chaos often unfolding in real time on cable TV. It happened in the campaign and there’s no reason to think his presidency won’t be the same.
Trump has only been President-elect for a week. But he’s already dismembered the team that under Chris Christie spent months preparing the transition and put his future vice president Mike Pence in charge. He’s set up future competing power centers in his White House, including son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner, who is at the center of the effort against Christie, sources say.
It’s a very simple equation: Competing power centers + a president who is obsessed with media coverage + a poorly organized and behind-the-curve transition = guaranteed leaks galore. If you are a staffer in the Trump White House and you feel that you are losing a political battle, leaking to the press might be the most effective way to bypass normal channels and communicate directly to the president.
It has been a while since we’ve seen this style of administration. Obama’s White House was obsessed with the “no drama” mantra, and the second term of the George W. Bush administration was pretty tight-lipped as well. But it’s not unprecedented. Bush’s first term was like this. So was the Reagan administration.
In his first week as president-elect, Trump already has violated a few norms regarding media coverage. Many will fret that this is just the beginning of an administration that will test the constraints of the First Amendment upon assuming office. But if the past week suggests anything, it is that the Trump team will need the press just as much as it claims to loathe it.