Press Play

It was not a good day for the press in America, and since CNN took a lot of the heat, CNN can tell the tale:

Donald Trump on Tuesday went on a sustained frontal assault against the media during a contentious news conference.

The billionaire had called the news conference to announce an accounting of his at least $5.6 million in fundraising for veterans groups, but spent most of the 40 minutes criticizing and insulting reporters – collectively and at times individually – as “dishonest,” “not good people,” sleazy, and among the worst human beings he has ever met.

And he vowed the White House briefing room would be just as combative as the Trump Tower lobby, where the developer addressed reporters Tuesday, should he ascend to the Oval Office.

“Yeah, it is going to be like this,” Trump said when asked if this is how he would behave with the press as president. “You think I’m gonna change? I’m not gonna change.”

He had gripe:

At one point, Trump fumed: “I’m the only one in the world who can raise almost $6 million for the veterans, have uniform applause by the veterans groups, and end up being criticized by press.”

“I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I have ever met, I have to tell you. I see the stories, and I see the way they’re couched,” he added.

He was angry, but CNN notes there was nothing new here: 

Over the last year, Trump has repeatedly called out individual reporters on Twitter and in interviews for everything from what he viewed as insufficient crowd camera shots to biased reporting. And attacking the press is a regular part of the presumptive Republican nominee’s stump speech, during which he typically rips reporters as “scum,” “slime,” “dishonest” and “disgusting” – often prompting jeers from the crowd.

The news conference came four months after Trump claimed to have raised $6 million for veterans groups, but then dodged reporters’ questions about which groups had received the donations.

Slate’s Jim Newell provides the specifics here:

The argument was over donations to veterans’ charities that Trump promised in late January. Trump, you may recall, opted to skip the final debate before the Iowa caucuses over what he believed was a disrespectful statement from that debate’s host, Fox News. He counterprogrammed the debate with a fundraiser for veterans’ charities. At the time, Trump made a great show of how he had successfully raised more than $6 million for vets. Later some news organizations, led by the Washington Post, tried to track the money and could see that only about half the amount Trump purported to raise had been disbursed. The Trump campaign responded to inquiries about the gap largely by stonewalling reporters requesting a full accounting, or offering lower estimates than what it had claimed to have raised at the time. Only last week did Trump cut the $1 million check he had said he personally would donate – and it appears that wasn’t the only check that went out just last week.

In short, he got caught stiffing the vets, wrote a whole lot of quick checks the day after the Post did its reporting, and now was whining that he really did do the right thing, and now the press was not just picking on him but out to get him – and when someone’s out to get him he hits back hard. That’s what CNN saw:

Trump kicked off his litany of media attacks Tuesday by accusing reporters of cynically turning what should have been a positive story about his charitable work into a negative one. … Trump said Tuesday he didn’t “want the credit” for his fundraising, “but I shouldn’t be lambasted.”

It was too late for that:

Hillary Clinton later told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” that Trump did not deserve any credit for following through on his promise, arguing that he had only done so because of increased scrutiny of the donations from the media.

“Look, I’m glad he finally did it, but I don’t know that he should get much credit,” she told Tapper. “It took a reporter to shame him into actually making his contribution.”

That must have hurt, but when he’s hurt, Trump attacks:

The subject of the news conference quickly turned away from the veterans-donations as Trump accused reporters of writing stories they “know” to be false, and of spinning the truth.

He lashed out at individual reporters, calling ABC’s Tom Llamas a “sleaze,” referring sarcastically to CNN’s Jim Acosta’s live reports as a “beauty,” and refusing at one point to call on CBS’s Major Garrett.

Trump repeatedly blasted the media for the way it has covered his fundraising for vets.

“All of the money has been paid out,” Trump said. “The press should be ashamed of themselves, and on behalf of the veterans, the press should be ashamed of themselves.”

“There are so many people who are so thankful for what we did,” Trump said, adding that the final figure could top $6 million once all the donations are in.

Trump listed the vets groups – there were more than 40 – that he said had received money and the amounts given to each. He said there were no administrative costs deducted from the donations.

Trump himself gave $1 million last week to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, a charity that helps support the families of fallen Marines and law enforcement officers to which Trump’s foundation has previously donated.

He was saying that there was no story here, but Hillary didn’t let up:

Clinton’s campaign on Tuesday morning fired off a statement tweaking Trump over his accounting of the donations amid a multi-pronged push to counter Trump’s news conference.

And Clinton herself clashed with Trump’s description on Tuesday that she had done “nothing” on veterans’ behalf, pointing to money she raised for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund alongside Arizona Sen. John McCain and work done to re-acclimate veterans returning from combat.

She said “of course” she had contributed personally as well.

But she hadn’t made a big deal of it. She hadn’t been a jerk about it, and Newell finds the whole thing absurd:

The press performed admirably and forced a presidential candidate to bend to public pressure by asking good questions. If a candidate claims to have raised $6 million for veterans’ charities but there’s no clear indication that $6 million has been disbursed to veterans’ charities, it’s the press’ job to determine what the hell is going on. One option for the candidate in question is simply to offer the reporters asking the questions what they’re looking for. Another is to complain about how the press keeps asking and eventually, after the missing money has become a narrative of some concern to the candidate who consistently pledges to “take care of the vets,” to turn over that (mostly) full accounting while calling the press a bunch of scumbags for ensuring that veterans’ groups received the money pledged to them. “Stop using veterans as political pawns,” Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and former Marine who spoke on Trump’s behalf at the press conference, instructed both the media and the Clinton campaign. The entire purpose of the inquiry, though, was to ensure that Trump wasn’t using veterans as political props.

So, that means this wasn’t a bad day for the press, and Newell says they actually knew that:

This was accountability journalism done properly. So no wonder, then, that the reporters in attendance were so willing to push back against the insults directed their way. “You seem to be resistant to this kind of scrutiny, the kind of scrutiny that comes with running for president of the United States,” said CNN’s Jim Acosta, whom Trump then mocked as a “real beauty” on TV. Llamas was branded a “sleaze” for asking about the gap between the $5.6 million and the $6 million in donations. His question: “You said you had raised $6 million. Clearly you had not. Your critics say you tend to exaggerate and have a problem with the truth. Is this a prime example?” Fox News’ Carl Cameron asked why Trump was treating questions as attacks, while another reporter asked him if he would need thicker skin as president.

That was new, and Newell says that no one needs to worry about the insulted reporters:

They – well, most of them – can suffer being called mean names, even if the candidate himself cannot. Belligerence in reporters’ faces is a sign that the reporters in question have done something worthwhile and, by applying pressure, forced an insecure public figure to bend. “I’m going to continue to attack the press,” Trump said when asked whether this is what every day would be like in his White House. And that sounds great. The less Trump gets along with the press corps, and the more the press corps doesn’t care, because they have the facts behind them, the better.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza agrees with that:

Trump has to be held accountable for the things he has done and the things he has said – both in this campaign and in the past.

If he said he raised/donated $6 million to charity for veterans group – the support of which he has put at the center of his campaign – then the media’s job, LITERALLY OUR JOB, is to find out who he gave to and how much. Simply taking Trump at his word – “I’m accountable,” he insisted Monday – isn’t good enough.

Ask yourself this: Would you be okay with Hillary Clinton being allowed to skate with her “trust me I did the right thing” explanation (I am paraphrasing) on her email server? Would you be okay with the media simply taking her word for it that all of the emails she deleted and didn’t turn over to the State Department were totally personal in nature? Or that the sole reason she set up the server was for “convenience” sake?

No, you wouldn’t.

Donald Trump – or you – don’t have to like the media. That’s fine. But I would caution you that casting aspersions on the media for asking questions of one of the two people who will be the leader of the free world is a dangerous game.

And then there was the press release:

The National Press Club president expressed alarm on Tuesday about Donald Trump’s dangerous attitude toward the First Amendment.

But it wasn’t just this one news conference:

Two days before, Trump had told a crowd on the National Mall that reporters are “liars” and “lowlifes.”

Trump had previously called for making it easier for public figures to sue news organizations for libel, a change that would practically suffocate a free press and potentially disable some news companies.

What’s more, Trump’s campaign organization has blocked from his events news outlets whose coverage has not suited the candidate. And reporters who are allowed to attend must stay in “pens” rather than move about freely.

“Donald Trump misunderstands – or, more likely, simply opposes – the role a free press plays in a democratic society,” said Thomas Burr, the National Press Club president. “Reporters are supposed to hold public figures accountable. Any American political candidate who attacks the press for doing its job is campaigning in the wrong country. In the United States, under our Constitution, a free press is a check on politicians of all parties.”

“If we are to demand that other countries respect the tradition of a free press we must also practice that here at home,” Burr added.

Trump was having a bad day and Paul Waldman piles on:

In this press conference, Trump was as ridiculous as ever – he must have claimed “I didn’t want the credit” for raising money for veterans at least a dozen times, which is sort of like Kim Kardashian saying “I really don’t want to be famous.”

But the real issue is this:

We should understand that Trump is hardly alone among politicians in disliking the media or thinking that his coverage isn’t what it should be. Where he differs is in the other things he believes. Trump thinks he literally deserves a constant stream of praise and kudos from reporters. He thinks that any challenging question from a reporter is not just inappropriate and unfair but evidence that the reporter is a terrible person. He thinks that it’s reasonable for a presidential nominee to look a reporter in the face, point at him, and say “You’re a sleaze,” for no reason other than that the reporter asked a question premised on something other than the idea that Donald Trump is a spectacular human being everyone should constantly be applauding.

That’s a personality disorder, and it’s time to stop pretending it’s not:

I’m trying not to get tired of saying this, but just try to imagine what the reaction would be if Hillary Clinton came out to defend herself against some perfectly reasonable questions, and said “The press should be ashamed of themselves” or pointed to a reporter and said, “You’re a sleaze.” She wouldn’t be criticized or questioned, she’d be crucified. Reporters would ask if she had lost her mind and was having a nervous breakdown. There would be demands for her to pull out of the race immediately, since she had shown herself to be so unstable.

Still, Waldman argues, the press may continue to give Trump a pass:

It’s going to be a real challenge for reporters covering Trump to continue to ask the questions they ask of every candidate, to demand answers and to point out falsehoods – which is already a herculean task when it comes to Trump, since he delivers so many of them. That’s not easy to do when you know your subject is going to assault you over it. And it’s not likely to change.

Aggressive reporters, just doing their job, also know what comes next, sooner or later. Given what Trump has been saying, and how he says it, some Trump followers will take him a bit too literally and beat one or two of those reporters to death – because those reporters are “awful” people. How can that not happen?

This is serious stuff, and Josh Marshall covers the secondary issue here:

Some events are important to take note of. One of them happened on Friday when the Republican nominee for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, again used a campaign rally to launch into a racist tirade against the federal judge presiding over two of the three fraud lawsuits against Trump’s now defunct “Trump University.” Federal Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel was born in 1953 in East Chicago, Indiana. He was a federal prosecutor from 1989 to 2006, primarily working in narcotics enforcement. He was a state judge from 2006 until 2012 when President Obama nominated him to serve as a Federal District Court Judge in the Southern District of California. While serving as US Attorney in 1997, Curiel was reportedly the targeted for assassination by members of the Arellano Felix drug cartel during his ultimately successful prosecution of the cartel.

Nor is this the first time Trump has gone after Curiel as a “Mexican” who is attacking Trump because of his ethnic heritage.

Trump’s first attack on Curiel came in late February just after Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and others started calling attention to claims of fraud against “Trump University,” what I called at the time a “clownishly crooked scam that exploited people who didn’t have a lot of money but bet it all on Trump’s razzmatazz.” In that now notorious February 25th debate where Rubio went all in with often antic attacks on Trump, the one that really hit home was the one on what Rubio called Trump’s ‘fake school’.

Marshall gives a full history of what happened next, that finally ended with Trump, on Friday, saying this:

“I’m telling you, this court system, judges in this court system, federal court, they ought to look into Judge Curiel. Because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace, okay?”

And that led to an exchange at Trump Tower:

It is unprecedented for a presidential candidate to personally attack and even threaten a federal judge. (To be fair, I’m not sure there’s been a nominee being sued for fraud during the presidential campaign.) But here we have Trump making an openly racist argument against a federal judge, arguing that Curiel is pursuing a vendetta against him because Trump is, he says, “I’m very, very strong on the border.”

Today while taking questions after announcing belated donations to veterans groups, CNN’s Jim Acosta pressed Trump on his criticisms of Judge Curiel. Toward the end of the exchange, in which Trump repeated his claims about bias and unfairness, Acosta asked Trump: “Why mention that the judge is Mexican?” Trump answered: “Because I’m a man of principle. Most of the people who took those courses have letters saying they thought it was great, essentially.”

In other words, Trump didn’t answer the question and Acosta seemed not to have a chance to follow up or chose not to.

That is what really bothered Marshall at the checks-for-vets news conference:

Quite apart from the policies he’s embraced, Trump has shown himself over the course of the campaign to be an emotionally needy, pathological liar. Here we see that he also not only happily launches defamatory racist attacks on a federal judge but impugns the patriotism of an entire ethnic community in the United States.

As I write, the issue is being discussed on the cable nets in terms of why Trump thinks it’s a good idea to attack a judge hearing his case, whether there’s any evidence that Curiel is “biased” or “unfair.” (It’s worth noting that Curiel did Trump the inestimably valuable favor of acceding to his lawyers’ request to push the trial back until after the November election – this despite the fact that ‘elder abuse’ infractions put a premium on conducting an expeditious trial.) But handicapping the wisdom of Trump’s attack or analyzing them in substantive terms is an immense dereliction of journalistic duty.

That isn’t the point at all:

The press routinely goes into paroxysms – often rightly so – about innuendos or phrasings that might in some way be racist or suggest racial animus. Here we have it in the open, repeated and showing itself as basically Trump’s first line of attack when he is in anyway threatened. That’s infinitely more dangerous than most things that routinely focus all the media’s attention. Any reporter who gets a chance to ask Trump to justify his actions and doesn’t is not doing his or her job. Few cases show more vividly how dangerous a person Trump is.

Emotionally needy pathological liars really should be asked to justify impugning the patriotism of an entire ethnic community in the United States. Why mention that the judge is Mexican? What’s up with that? Jim Acosta gave it a go, and then let it slide. Someone else should ask. Many others should ask.

Perhaps they will, but the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin sees an even bigger issue here:

In one respect, Donald Trump has been unusually explicit about his judicial preferences. Last month, Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, announced a list of judges whom he might nominate for the Supreme Court, if he’s elected President. All were conservative, all were sitting judges, and many would surely appear on the lists of other prominent Republicans who might lead their Party. Trump did not, however, discuss the merits of any of the individuals on his list, which was reportedly compiled with the help of conservative think tanks. To hear what Trump really thinks about the function of the judiciary, it’s more illuminating to pay attention to what he says in his customary ad-lib style.

Earlier in this season’s campaign, for example, he was asked about judges he might want to nominate to the Supreme Court. “Well, I’d probably appoint people that would look very seriously at her e-mail disaster, because it’s a criminal activity, and I would appoint people that would look very seriously at that to start off with,” Trump said in a phone interview with ABC News, referring to Hillary Clinton. “What she’s getting away with is absolutely murder. You talk about a case – now that’s a real case.”

The National Press Club says that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment at all, but Toobin worries about what else he doesn’t understand:

For starters, Trump’s statement reveals substantial ignorance about how the Supreme Court works. The justices don’t initiate cases or investigations; they hear appeals of cases decided in the lower courts. More important, the statement reveals Trump’s mindset when it comes to judges. As in most other areas, Trump is transactional about the judiciary. He appears to have no interest in legal philosophy per se; rather, he divides judges, as he divides most others, into the categories of friend and foe. What matters is not how judges think, but where they come out – on Trump’s side, or not.

That’s the problem now:

Of course, as a private citizen, Trump has the right to criticize any judge or court decision, including one where the candidate himself is one of the parties. But Trump’s complaints are more revealing even than the decisions that irk him. Trump has no apparent philosophy of how judges make decisions; he doesn’t even attempt something as simple, and revealing, as George W. Bush’s antipathy for judges who “legislate from the bench.” For Trump, rather, judging is all personal, at least as far as he is concerned. He has no discernible views on judges except about whether they agree with him, case by case. As illustrated by his attacks on Judge Curiel, Trump’s style is bigoted name-calling, not reasoned critique. That’s his pattern – and not just about judges.

It’s not just about judges. It’s also not about the First Amendment. It’s about an emotionally needy man with a mean streak a mile wide, who equates success with sweet revenge – humiliating others for entirely imaginary slights, and then bragging about it.

That’s us, or some of us. Insofar as that defines the American character, he wins in November. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t. The election could be close. And reporters need to watch their backs.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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