Fox News’ Roger Ailes is out of a job at the moment. The sexual harassment charges piled up. All of them were slowly substantiated. A few of them turned into lawsuits. His boss, Rupert Murdoch, tossed a lot of money at Ailes and told him to go away. Ailes went away. He hooked up with Donald Trump, a close friend for many years, as an informal advisor in the summer before the election, but nothing much came of that. Ailes was an old man with a lot of amazing war stories from long ago, but no one wanted to hear them. That was then. This was now.
Still, Ailes had been central to American politics. He was in at the beginning of today’s modern conservatism, and that began with Tricky Dick. In 1967, Ailes, who was producing the Mike Douglas Show, had a long side-discussion about television in politics with one of the guests, Richard Nixon, who thought television was a gimmick. Nixon, however, listened carefully and then asked Ailes to serve as his Executive Producer for Television. Maybe there was something to this television thing. Nixon’s 1968 election might have been Ailes’ doing – he worked hard to make the very odd Nixon more likable and “accessible” and maybe even cool in his own way. Later, Ailes worked with Lee Atwater on the Willie Horton ad that sunk Michael Dukakis. Somehow, the bland and uninspiring George H. W. Bush was the good guy.
That was impressive. This guy knew how to use the media, so in February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch. The job was the same – make the angry conservative stiffs the good guys again. Ailes could do that, he’d done it twice before, and Fox News launched on October 7, 1996, and they’ve been working on that ever since. They were pretty good at that – and then it all went south. Donald Trump was the problem. He skipped one of their debates because he was mad at Megyn Kelly – she had trapped him with embarrassing questions about all the nasty things he had said about women over the years. He couldn’t forgive that, and really, he didn’t need Fox News or any other news channel. He didn’t need reporters asking questions. He had Twitter.
That’s why Roger Ailes’ brief time as an advisor to Trump was no more than a courtesy to an old friend – let the old guy, the dinosaur from another age, reminisce about the good old days. It was a gesture of respect. He earned his nostalgia. Let him tell those war stories – then get back to the business at hand. Tell the story of Trump in the new way. The press lies. Even Fox News lies. Reporters are disgusting liars – they’re awful people. The truth lies elsewhere. The truth is on Twitter. Maybe it’s not entirely on Twitter, but no one should turn to the “news” for the truth.
Fox News is having a bit of a problem with that:
Fox News’ Shepard Smith said Tuesday that he would not play a YouTube video of President-elect Donald Trump laying out his agenda on air, saying Fox News had a policy against showing such statements where journalists hadn’t been allowed to ask questions.
That seems a quaint notion now. The guy won the presidency by convincing half of America that all journalists are crooked liars in a rigged system. There’s a way around that. He simply bypassed them – no news conference – just a YouTube video, perhaps because Twitter only allows 140 characters at a time. And of course that allows no questions. That’s the whole point. One doesn’t answer questions from crooked liars in a rigged system. When they write things up they’ll just twist the truth.
Smith seems bitter about that:
In his discussion of the video, which Trump released Monday afternoon to outline several plans for his first 100 days in office, Smith put it in the context of several other statements from the President-elect and his team that have come out since it was released, all of which offered news consumers varying interpretations of what actions Trump actually plans to take as President.
Smith first focused on a “Morning Joe” report that Trump would not seek to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. That was a reversal from his pledge during the presidential campaign to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton. Then, Smith continued, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted that Trump said in a meeting with the paper that he would not take the possibility of an investigation “off the table.”
“Anything you want to happen to Secretary Clinton on any of those matters is now available to you, almost officially, almost from the now President-elect’s mouth. But we have all of them. So whichever one you like, you may have it,” he said.
And there was this:
The same applies to climate change, he continued: Trump had previously said that it was a hoax. But Haberman tweeted that Trump told Times brass “there is some connectivity” between human beings and climate change.
“Which could make it not a hoax, so if that’s what you prefer, that is also now available to you,” he said.
Then, Smith turned to the so-called “alt-right,” which has become a euphemism for white nationalism. Trump’s former CEO and now chief strategist, Steve Bannon, ran a website that he bragged was “the platform for the alt-right,” but Trump told the assembled Times reporters that he did not “want to energize the group.”
“All of those positions are now available,” Smith said.
Perhaps someone should ask a few questions, and ask why, this time, Trump never mentioned building a wall on the Mexican border or repealing Obamacare – but there will be no questions. Trump has not held a news conference since July. No one really expects one ever again. He sees no point in those, as they involve reporters, those crooked liars in a rigged system. Perhaps there will be no daily press briefings when he takes office, for the same reason. He’ll tweet. He’ll release a YouTube video now and then. That way no one can twist the truth.
This has nothing to do with freedom of the press of course. Folks can say what they want in print or on air, but he doesn’t have to cooperate in messing up the truth – at least that seems to be the thinking here. America doesn’t need the press, but if what is published or broadcast amuses people, let them have their fun. He’ll be president. They’ll do their thing. He’ll do his. We’ve moved beyond the Age of Ailes.
The press is still trying to figure out how to deal with this, and so is Donald Trump. It would be nice to have the press on his side – they could still destroy him. The obsessive investigative reporting of Bernstein and Woodward did take down Nixon. The release of that tape where Mitt Romney talked about the forty-seven percent of Americans who were useless leaches may have destroyed Romney – David Corn, one of those crooked liars in a rigged system, was given that tape and ran with it. That sort of thing is always a worry.
It might be wise to talk to the press now and then, to answer a few questions that they might have, to keep them from nosing about on their own, out of your control – but that too has to be controlled. An open free-wheeling press conference is too dangerous. Trump understands this, and that’s why he agreed to sit down with the New York Times to answer a few questions – sort of off the record – no tape, no video. He’d be open. He’d answer their questions. But there’d be no audiovisual record. There’d be nothing that could come back and bite him in the ass. They could say he said something. He could say no, he never said that. Their transcript was wrong.
That was the deal. He agreed, and then he didn’t, and then he did:
Three people with knowledge of Mr. Trump’s initial decision to cancel the meeting said that Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, had been among those urging the president-elect to cancel it, because he would face questions he might not be prepared to answer. It was Mr. Priebus who relayed to Mr. Trump, erroneously, that The Times had changed the conditions of the meeting, believing it would result in a cancellation, these people said.
David Kurtz was amused:
So Priebus feeds bad info to Trump knowing he’ll react in the way Priebus wants him to? Am I reading that right?
Let’s not gloss over the fact that Priebus undertook this apparent sleight of hand because he wasn’t confident the President-elect could withstand a round with New York Times reporters.
That is a worry, but not unreasonable:
President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday tempered some of his most extreme campaign promises, dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton, expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and pledging to have an open mind about climate change.
But in a wide-ranging hour-long interview with reporters and editors at The New York Times – which was scheduled, canceled and then reinstated after a dispute over the ground rules – Mr. Trump was unapologetic about flouting some of the traditional ethical and political conventions that have long shaped the American presidency.
He said he had no legal obligation to establish boundaries between his business empire and his White House, conceding that the Trump brand “is certainly a hotter brand than it was before.” Still, he said he would try to figure out a way to insulate himself from his businesses, which would be run by his children.
He defended Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, against charges of racism, calling him a “decent guy.” And he mocked Republicans who had failed to support him in his unorthodox presidential campaign.
That’s the executive summary. He was all over the place:
He displayed a jumble of impulses, many of them conflicting. He was magnanimous toward Mrs. Clinton, but boastful about his victory. He was open-minded about some of his positions, uncompromising about others.
The interview demonstrated the volatility in Mr. Trump’s positions.
He said he had no interest in pressing for Mrs. Clinton’s prosecution over her use of a private email server or for financial acts committed by the Clinton Foundation. “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” he said.
But he could. The president can order the arrest and trial of anyone the president wants. He can also decide that perhaps they shouldn’t be arrested. It’s like being a Roman emperor – thumbs up, thumbs down – life or death. Someone will one day explain to him that’s not how our system works. The folks at the New York Times let that one pass. Everyone on the right was outraged that Trump would give Clinton a pass – that’s his problem, not theirs. This was not the time for a civics lesson about the enumerated powers of the president.
There were other surprises to deal with:
On the issue of torture, Mr. Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding after talking with James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, who headed the United States Central Command.
“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,'” Mr. Trump said. He added that Mr. Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terrorism suspects: “‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.'”
“I was very impressed by that answer,” Mr. Trump said.
Torture, he said, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”
Reince Priebus was probably tearing his hair out at that point. That’s a total reversal, but of course, in a week, Trump can say he never said that, but there was this:
On climate change, Mr. Trump refused to repeat his promise to abandon the international climate accord reached last year in Paris, saying, “I’m looking at it very closely.” Despite the recent appointment to his transition team of a fierce critic of the Paris accords, Mr. Trump said that “I have an open mind to it” and that clean air and “crystal clear water” were vitally important.
What? He was just kidding all along? Who can now believe anything he says? And there was this:
Despite his frequent attacks against what he has dubbed the “failing New York Times,” Mr. Trump seemed to go out of his way to praise the institution, which he called “a great, great American jewel, world jewel.” He did, however, say he believed The Times had been too tough on him during the campaign.
Pressed to respond to criticism in other areas, he was defiant. He declared that “the law’s totally on my side” when it comes to questions about conflict of interest and ethics laws. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said.
Okay, the New York Times is actually wonderful, and on that conflict of interest thing, when a president does it, it’s legal, because the president does it. Yes, Richard Nixon said the same thing, and look what good that did him. Reince Priebus wept. And there was this:
Mr. Trump rejected the idea that he was bound by federal anti-nepotism laws from installing his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a White House job. But he said he would want to avoid the appearance of a conflict and might instead seek to make Mr. Kushner a special envoy charged with brokering peace in the Middle East.
“The president of the United States is allowed to have whatever conflicts he or she wants, but I don’t want to do that,” Mr. Trump said. But he said that Mr. Kushner, who is an observant Jew, “could be very helpful” in reconciling the longstanding dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Mr. Trump said, adding that Mr. Kushner “would be very good at it” and that “he knows the region.”
Okay, his son-in-law, with no diplomatic experience, and no government experience at all, will be the one who will finally arrange total and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, where all others since 1947 have failed – and Donald Trump will be a hero for making it so. Reince Priebus was right. This never should have happened. Twitter and YouTube – that’s what works for this guy.
But why did this odd bunch of reversals happen? Frank Bruni was there, and he explains why:
I had just shaken the president-elect’s normal-size hand and he was moving on to the next person when he wheeled around, took a half step back, touched my arm and looked me in the eye anew.
“I’m going to get you to write some good stuff about me,” Donald Trump said.
It’s entirely possible. I keep an open mind. But I’m decided on this much: Winning the most powerful office in the world did nothing to diminish his epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it.
It’s that almost pathological insecurity again, and pathological insecurity makes for strange interactions with the press:
He sat down for more than an hour with about two dozen of us at The Times on Tuesday afternoon, and what subject do you suppose he spent his first eight minutes on? When the floor was his, to use as he pleased?
The incredibleness of his win two weeks ago.
“A great victory,” he said as he went back, unbidden, through all the Trump-affirming highlights: the size of his crowds; the screens and loudspeakers for the overflow; the enthusiasm gap between his rallies and poor Hillary Clinton’s. It’s a song I’ve heard so often I could sing it in my sleep.
He volunteered that, until he came along, Republican presidential candidates had been foiled in both Michigan and Pennsylvania for “38 years or something.” The “something” apparently covered the actual figure, 28.
He said that he got close to 15 percent of African-Americans’ votes, though exit polls suggest it was just 8 percent, and he asserted that their modest turnout was in fact a huge compliment to him, demonstrating that “they liked what I was saying” and thus didn’t bother to show up for Clinton.
He mentioned the popular vote before any of us could – to let us know that he would have won it if it had mattered and his strategy had been devised accordingly.
“The popular vote would have been a lot easier,” he said, making clear that his Electoral College triumph was the truly remarkable one.
For Trump, bragging is like breathing: continuous, spontaneous. He wants nothing more than for his audience to be impressed. And when his audience is a group of people, like us, who haven’t clapped the way he’d like? He sands down his edges. Modulates his voice. Bends.
But that raises obvious issues:
Will he tilt in whatever direction, and toward whichever constituency, is the surest source of applause? Is our best hope for the best Trump to be so fantastically adulatory when he’s reasonable that he’s motivated to stay on that course, lest the adulation wane?
That might be so:
The Trump who visited The Times was purged of any zeal to investigate Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation, willing to hear out the scientists on global warming, skeptical of waterboarding and unhesitant to disavow white nationalists. He never mentioned the border wall.
He more or less told us to disregard all the huffing and puffing he’d done about curtailing press freedoms, and he looked forward to another meeting – a year from now – when we’d all reunite in a spirit of newfound amity to celebrate his administration’s uncontroversial accomplishments. I could see the big group hug. I could hear “Kumbaya.”
This is not good:
There was a lesson here about his desire to be approved of and his hunger to be loved. There was another about the shockingly unformed, pliable nature of the clay that is our 70-year-old president-elect.
His reservations about waterboarding, he said, arose from a conversation he’d just had with James Mattis, a retired Marine general under consideration for secretary of defense. During that talk Mattis had bluntly questioned waterboarding’s effectiveness – and so, now, did Trump.
It was as if he’d never really thought through the issue during that endless campaign, and it suggested that the most influential voice in Trumplandia is the last one he happened to listen to. That’s worrying, because some of the voices he has thus far put closest to him – those of Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions – aren’t the most constructive, restrained, unifying ones.
Okay – keep this guy away from press conferences. Ask no questions. He never really thought through any of the issues that were central to his campaign. Do we really need to know that? It’s too late now to do anything about that anyway. He’s what we’ve got. Sometimes it’s best not to ask questions. The answers are too painful. Our mistake cannot be corrected.