Joe Strupp

Author ››› Joe Strupp
  • Presidential Historians And Journalists: Trump’s “Chaotic” And “Bizarre” First Month Is Unprecedented

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Presidential historians and veteran Washington correspondents say President Donald Trump’s first month in office -- which has been marred by numerous scandals and vicious attacks on the press -- is more “chaotic” and “bizarre” than any administration's first month in history.

    Trump put his anti-press venom on display again last Thursday in a wild press conference, during which he doubled down on claims that the press is out to get him and traffics in “fake news.”

    “This is a new level of bashing the press,” Yale University history professor David Blight said shortly after the press conference ended. “It’s a complete disaster. All he is doing is daring the press to keep hunting.”

    Blight is among several historians and veteran D.C. correspondents who spoke to Media Matters about how Trump’s first month in office compares to those of his predecessors. They painted a picture of Trump’s first weeks as an unprecedented mix of chaos and mounting scandals.

    “In all the administrations I've observed, and all the ones I've studied, I've never seen such confusion and internal tension so early as in this one,” H.W. Brands, a presidential historian who has written books on Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, said via email. Referencing the recent resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, Brands added, “I can't recall a top adviser being forced out so soon. The knives are out; more casualties seem likely.”

    According to Brands, “This administration, with very little experience of Washington -- and with often expressed contempt for Washington's ways -- has had a rougher start than any in living memory.”

    William H. Chafe, a Duke University history professor and former president of the Organization of American Historians, called Trump’s early weeks “totally unprecedented.”

    “There’s been so much instability, so many scandals, and no legislation,” Chafe said. “By this time, Obama had already passed his stimulus package in Congress. You are talking about a completely unprecedented situation.” 

    Patrick Maney, a Boston College presidential historian, said many presidents have started out with troubles, but not at this level.

    “This is sort of like warp speed. What is amazing to me is that this has happened in such a short time,” he said, later pointing to Trump’s anti-press approach as “rawer than any I have ever seen. Even Nixon and Clinton at their angriest with the press, it wasn’t at the same level as Trump.”

    Longtime Washington, D.C., journalists and former White House correspondents also say Trump's first month is unprecedented.

    “Everything about Trump is a whole higher level of confusion because of the way he operates,” said Ron Hutcheson, a former Knight Ridder White House correspondent and past president of the White House Correspondents Association. “The media part is truly unprecedented.”

    He added, “There appears to be no effort at message discipline. I am sure the comms team has one, but the president keeps stepping on it. That’s a huge change. He has experienced comms people who get the concept of, ‘let’s figure out what we want to deliver our message.’ But inevitably it gets fouled up, and usually because of something the president does.”

    Marilyn Thompson, a former three-year Reuters Washington bureau chief during the Obama Administration and 27-year D.C. journalist called the administration “a rudderless ship.”

    “He feels like he has stumbled in a very short time into any number of serious national security and ethical breaches that are just uncustomary,” she said. “They are hostile to the press in a way that I have never seen before and it is not a good recipe for running the country.”

    Andy Alexander, a former Cox Newspapers Washington bureau chief, echoed that view: “It’s nothing new for White House officials to spin stories, shade the truth, conceal information or intentionally mislead. But what we are seeing today is routine prevarication on a large scale, with frequent assertions that are demonstrably false.”

    Marvin Kalb, a D.C.-based reporter from 1963 to 1987 and former Meet the Press host, pointed to the ongoing questions about the Trump administration's alleged ties to Russia.

    He called it a “thoroughly remarkable inability of Congress to launch a top to bottom investigation of the Trump-Russia connection. It’s one of the most important stories at the beginning of any administration that I have ever seen.”

    Clark Hoyt, a former longtime Washington reporter for Knight Ridder who covered the Nixon White House and resignation, also ran its D.C. bureau from 1987-1993 and 1999-2006. He also found no past equal to Trump’s first weeks in office.

    “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hoyt said. “From the moment that you come in, I have never seen an inaugural address that failed to reach out. Then declaring you are at a running war with the media, then the disorganization from within, the chaotic nature of activity within the White House.”

    Asked how the press should approach such an unusual administration that attacks them, lies constantly, and seeks to divert attention, presidential historians said journalists should dig in even deeper.

    “You have to ask the toughest questions you possibly can,” said Duke University’s Blight. “The press should be asking for evidence, evidence, evidence, examples, examples, examples” when claims are made.

    Maney of Boston College said reporters should not let every little item or tweet distract them from focusing on bigger, in-depth stories such as Russia or large-scale policy plans.

    “One error the media has made is this across-the-board criticism and ignoring some more serious issues,” he said. “Some of this is just bizarre, some if it I don’t know how the press can handle it.” 

    Meg Jacobs, a presidential historian at Princeton and Columbia universities, also urged journalists not to back off, even when they are attacked.

    “They have to continue to call him out where they see him fabricating and straying from the truth,” she said. “They have to cover his efforts to transform the relationship with the press as a story as well as the substance of what the administration is doing.”

  • Wall Street Journal Reporters Concerned About Paper's Softer Trump Coverage

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Wall Street Journal staffers are increasingly concerned that the paper’s coverage of President Donald Trump is not critical enough and too willing to defend his actions rather than serve a watchdog role. In interviews with Media Matters, Journal reporters say that there has been pressure “to reflect pro-Trump viewpoints” in articles and that “everyone in the newsroom is concerned about it.”

    Earlier this week, BuzzFeed reported on a memo sent by Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker that “instructed editors to stop referring to the countries targeted in President Trump’s travel and refugee executive order as ‘seven majority Muslim countries’ in news coverage, a move that has irked some reporters in the paper’s Washington bureau.”

    Journal reporters who spoke to Media Matters said the memo is just one of many coverage concerns they have related to the new president.

    “The issue that is more subtle is the pressure to reflect pro-Trump viewpoints in the story, that’s growing,” said one veteran reporter who requested anonymity to avoid retribution. He added that it began during the campaign. “The Journal abdicated its responsibility to punch hard. They should have trained the D.C. bureau on Trump and hit hard.”

    Another reporter said the directives from above are unclear, prompting concern about how critical to be of Trump.

    “Everyone in the newsroom is concerned about it,” the reporter said. “The concern is that they are over-correcting a little bit, that is the worry, that we are not being as tough on the administration as we could.”

    The journalist also raised the issue of normalizing Trump’s behavior when his actions are treated like those of any president.

    “That’s the real issue, whether you’re a liberal or conservative outlet, that is the question you have to answer,” the reporter said. “What is the objective term to use to describe what is a lunatic policy? That is a really big worry, as the water drips and erodes this thing.”

    A third Journal reporter who requested anonymity told Media Matters: “We’d like to see more of a message that we are going to be really tough on this administration.”*

    Complaints from inside the Journal newsroom about its coverage of Trump aren’t new. In October, Politico quoted sources at the Journal lamenting that there had been “flattering access stories" on the front page, and that the coverage of then-candidate Trump had become “neutral to the point of being absurd.”

    The Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. 

    Tim Martell, executive director of Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees (IAPE) Local 1096, which represents 400 Journal newsroom staffers, said he is hearing even more anger now that Trump has taken office about a softer tone on some stories.

    “Members have expressed concern about the possibility of editorial interference regarding coverage of the president and the new administration,” said Martell. “We are watching. We are paying very close attention, and if we find that any sort of editorial interference does exist or if any of our members are subject to any type of disciplinary action, we will be sure to defend our members to the best of our ability.”

    Martell said the worries are greater than some past complaints related to Journal coverage of previous Republican administrations.

    “I think this seems like this is new ground,” he said. “Every news organization has the occasional clash between editor and reporter and that’s fine. If the company wants to set editorial policy, it’s their paper. But we’re concerned, there seems to be a greater level of concern these days than there has been. This has been percolating for a while.”

    *Additional reporting added after posting.  

  • Voter Fraud Experts: Trump’s “Bizarre” Claim Of Illegal Votes Could Lead To Severe Voter Restrictions

    Journalists Urged To Call Out “Bogus” Assertion

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    President Donald Trump’s continued bogus claims that between three and five million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election have drawn concern and criticism from voter fraud experts who say the allegation hurts the new administration’s credibility and paves the way for severe voter restrictions.

    Trump, who first tossed out the baseless allegation following a victory where he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, reportedly doubled down on the claim during a meeting Monday with congressional leaders. Asked about the issue at Tuesday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to back down from the assertion, saying, “the president does believe that.”

    Trump went a step further on Twitter this morning, tweeting: “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and.... even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”

    Trump’s lie that millions voted illegally came from conspiracy theorists like radio host Alex Jones, whose Infowars website began propagating the false claims shortly after the November 8 election. Right-wing media have been claiming for years that there’s widespread voter fraud despite evidence to the contrary.

    But election experts who have studied voter fraud repeated the long-held view that such widespread activity did not occur in this election and would be “impossible” to undertake. Several also urged reporters to continue asking for proof and evidence and make clear there is no basis for such a charge.

    “Neither the president nor his press secretary has produced any evidence to back up their fraud claim,” said Bill Schneider, a visiting professor at the UCLA department of communication studies and former senior political analyst for CNN. “The press has to insist that they produce evidence of such a sensational claim. Unless they do, it should be reported as a bogus argument with no proven validity.”

    Schneider went on to explain why such fraud claims are inaccurate, calling them “absurd.”

    “Every state controls its own voting laws (and in some states, it's done by local communities),” he said via email. “It would be impossible to perpetrate voter fraud on that scale without attracting attention from the authorities.”

    Other experts agreed.

    Philip B. Stark, a professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “Every investigation of voter fraud that has taken place has found this is in the ones and twos, not hundreds, thousands and certainly not millions. There’s evidence that it’s not true and there is no evidence that it is true. There is research that can be done.”

    Rick Hasen, a law professor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said, “I don’t think there is any proof whatsoever of illegal voting in the thousands, much less in the millions, much less that affected the outcome in any state. There are safeguards in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen, both before the fact and after the fact. The rates of non-citizen voting are extremely low, despite people looking for it.”

    Hasen also urged reporters to continue correcting the record, saying, “It’s important to point out that the claims are false and that they are not backed by any credible evidence.”

    He added that Trump and Spicer’s choice to perpetuate the myth “undermines people’s confidence in the electoral process and I think it can provide the justification for restrictive voting rules. Many more legitimate voters are going to be disenfranchised by these rules than illegitimate voters being barred from voting.”

    Lorraine Minnite, author of the 2010 book The Myth of Voter Fraud and a Rutgers University professor of political science, said Trump’s claim is “bizarre.” She also offered concern that it could lead to unfair voter restrictions.

    “In the past, the use of these false allegations has been to create public opinion for laws that restrict voting, I assume that’s still the strategy,” she said in an interview. “I don’t think they care about evidence.”

    Michael McDonald, director of the U.S. Election Project at the University of Florida, called voter fraud a “relatively rare event,” and agreed this may be a first step toward tighter voter I.D. laws and other restrictions.

    “When Republicans take control of government they look to consolidate their power and one way to do this is enact voter identification,” McDonald said in an interview. “My impression here is not so much that this is a falsehood, the goal here is to provide a pretext to pass a federal law to amend the national requirement for voting.”

    Joshua A. Douglas, a University of Kentucky College of Law professor who specializes in voting rights and election law, also co-edited a 2016 book, Election Law Stories.

    He said Spicer’s comments to the media about Trump's voter fraud conspiracy “undermine” the press secretary’s legitimacy: “The American public can’t know if he can be trusted. It also lays the groundwork for voter suppression laws.”

    “When the next voter bill gets proposed, they can point to this as evidence for why,” Douglas added. “If you tell the public something enough times they can believe it.”

    He also said, “the press should be willing to call them out when they make falsehoods and call on them to provide evidence.”

  • “We Can’t Be Intimidated”: Journalists Speak Out On How The Press Should Cover Trump

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Facing the reality of President-elect Donald Trump’s impending inauguration, traditional media outlets can either band together in the face of Trump’s bullying anti-press tactics or risk being steamrolled by the incoming administration.

    In interviews with Media Matters, journalists and other media experts argue that reporters need to be ready to recommit to solid, rigorous reporting to hold Trump accountable and to stand together in the face of the Trump administration’s inevitable anti-press crusade.

    Since being elected, Trump has continued to lash out at critical media outlets through his Twitter account. At his long-delayed first press conference as president-elect last week, Trump berated CNN reporter Jim Acosta, refused to let him ask a question, and dubbed his network “fake news.” Other journalists who were gathered for the press conference essentially just watched.

    Several experts told Media Matters that the Acosta incident highlights the need for journalists to stand up to Trump.

    “Part of the problem here is the press is walking into a buzzsaw,” said Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker. “There is a large percentage of the population that don’t believe us. Anytime a Jim Acosta raises his hand and tries to get the attention of the president-elect, there is a sizeable part of the population that says, ‘There they go again.’”

    “You don’t get the public to pay attention by caving. We can’t be intimidated,” he said. “The fourth estate has a role to play. That role is we are representatives of the public -- we are supposed to ask the question to better inform the public.” 

    In an open letter to Trump, Columbia Journalism Review Editor-in-Chief Kyle Pope argued that the days of Trump trying to pit journalists against one another “are ending. We now recognize that the challenge of covering you requires that we cooperate and help one another whenever possible.” He added, “So, when you shout down or ignore a reporter at a press conference who has said something you don’t like, you’re going to face a unified front.” 

    Pope elaborated on his proposal in comments to Media Matters, writing, “Working together at press conferences could mean not asking a question until a shunned organization has had a chance to be answered; it could mean actually jointly working on stories that are beyond the capabilities of a single news organization, much like ProPublica and the NY Times do now; it definitely means calling attention to good work from our competitors that may not otherwise get adequate notice.”

    Adam Clymer, a former longtime New York Times political reporter, said press organizations need to unify and keep tabs on Trump’s anti-press treatment, recalling when the National Press Club once issued a report on President Nixon’s lack of press conferences.

    “In a public setting, a little solidarity is probably called for,” he said. “In public, they should not tolerate his picking on one person. That is intolerable.”

    Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call correspondent whose experience also includes stints at The Washington Post and Time, predicts, “It is going to be more anti-press. … It is really important for the press to stand together.”

    Media Matters president Angelo Carusone recently launched a petition on MoveOn.org calling on news organizations to stand up to Trump’s attempts to blacklist or ban critical news outlets. (As of January 19, the petition has more than 285,000 signatures.)

    Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), told Media Matters that her group has heard from journalists who “feel threatened” by Trump’s behavior, and they are “talking internally about how we respond.”

    She also said reporters must support each other, citing Shepard Smith of Fox News' quick defense of Acosta last week. SPJ is one of several journalism groups expected to co-sign a joint letter to Trump that raises concerns about his treatment of the press and his moves and plans to limit access, including possibly evicting journalists from the briefing room in the White House.

    The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) issued a joint statement of concern last week about Trump’s press treatment following a meeting of 50 such groups last week.

    It said, in part, “In discussing top priorities as the Trump administration takes shape, the group agreed that countering legal threats to reporters – such as leaks investigations, libel suits, and a disregard for the Freedom of Information Act – and promoting a public policy in support of the public’s right to know are crucial areas that require a unified response.”

    The journalists Media Matters spoke to also highlighted Trump’s regular disregard for the truth and his complex conflict-of-interest entanglements as challenges media outlets need to overcome in order to properly cover a Trump administration.

    “I think it is going to be very challenging. We have to develop new ways of getting around” attempts to limit access, said George Condon of National Journal, who has covered the White House since 1982 and served as WHCA president in 1993 and 1994. “We will see how much access we have, how the press conferences are and the daily press briefing. If something becomes a pattern, we’ll react. You have to do your job -- find out what the president is proposing, what it will cost, who it will affect.”

    During the campaign, several veteran political reporters and journalists told Media Matters that one of the main deficiencies of media coverage of then-candidate Trump was a routine failure to follow up on important investigative reporting on Trump in favor of latching onto his outrageous comment du jour.

    Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer and political editor and a former WHCA president, urged reporters to pick and choose what is important to cover and not get drawn into the outlandish story: “Don’t necessarily go for the shiny object; cover the substance. Is it harder? It is harder because he is very adept at trying to redirect the news cycle. We’ve never had somebody quite like Donald Trump in the White House. It is a whole set of new standards.”

    As Media Matters and others have noted, during the transition, outlets have routinely dropped the ball -- especially in headlines -- by parroting Trump’s spin on current events without providing necessary context.

    Lynn Walsh argued that media outlets need to be aggressive about highlighting falsehoods from the administration.

    “If he is saying something that is incorrect, we have to say that is not true,” she said. “If it is incorrect or false, we absolutely have to say that is not true. We have to be better than we’ve ever been. We have to be accurate in our reporting and don’t put information out there that is false or misleading.”

    “This is, I’m sure, going to be the most difficult administration ever to cover because of Trump, because of the internet, because of his apologists,” said Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press political reporter from 1956 to 2001. “I don’t think there is any question.” 

    “All you can do is listen, write down what he says, and be as aggressive as possible in finding out what’s behind it," Mears added. "He’s already demonstrated that he can misrepresent anything by simply saying his version of truth and he’s got a lot of people who will believe it.”

    Several major news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico, have already announced plans to increase White House staffing, doubling it in some cases.

    David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, said it's going to be “very important to follow his business entanglements and legislation. The important thing is not to let the Trump administration off the hook and keep your eye on the ball. We have not heard a full picture of Trump’s relationship with the Russians.”

    He added, “News organizations are going to have to scrutinize and disentangle some of the business relationships, his foreign entanglements, and policy decisions." Given the "combination of the lack of previous scrutiny of Trump and many of his most important figures and the skepticism to contempt he has for the roles the press plays in accountability and transparency," media will "have to be willing to forgo access in order to serve the larger job.”

  • Government Ethics And Legal Experts Pan Trump's "Prohibited" And Conflict-Ridden Plan For The Trump Organization

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Government ethics and legal experts say President-elect Donald Trump's plan to transfer oversight of his company to his sons does not go far enough to avoid serious conflicts of interest as president, and they urged journalists not to let him off the hook.

    Trump announced today at a press conference that he would transfer control of The Trump Organization to a trust controlled by his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, but would still retain an ownership interest in the business and receive reports on the business' finances.

    His attorney, Sheri Dillon of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, told reporters the company would also appoint an in-house ethics consultant to review future actions and cancel pending foreign deals. Still, ethics experts say the plan falls short of a clear separation from the business side.

    “It doesn’t do what everybody wanted it to do,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project On Government Oversight. “In essence, keeping an ownership interest in the business is a wrong decision. He can’t just set up firewalls between himself and his sons who are running the business and think there isn’t a conflict of interest.”

    He later added, “As the chief executive of the United States government, there will still be decisions made that can affect his business and the public needs to know that the decisions he is making are in the best interests of the public and not of his business.”

    Amey said reporters “are going to have to stay on top of what the ethics agreement is going to look like and what enforcement mechanisms are in there to prevent conflicts of interest and what monitoring is being done on the government side and with this ethics official at The Trump Organization.”

    Matthew Sanderson, a government ethics lawyer with law firm Caplin & Drysdale, called it a “mixed bag” at best.

    “There are a few laudable measures,” he said. “The cancellation of any pending deals along with the appointment of an ethics advisor, freeze on foreign deals. Those are good things.”

    “The problem is he remains conflicted,” Sanderson stressed. “He still holds an ownership interest in The Trump Organization, which means his net worth will increase with any favorable government decisions. The fact that he is now letting someone else do the work, the management, does not change the fact that he will still benefit. … He’s still in the position of being a conflicted president and open to the accusation that he is monetizing the presidency.”

    Kathleen Clark, a Washington University School of Law professor and government ethics expert, said Trump needs to “remove not just his management activities, but remove himself from having a financial interest in the firm. He’s retaining a financial interest in the company -- that hasn’t changed.

    “He’ll still be financially benefiting from them. I didn’t see any indication that he is giving up an ownership interest at all.”

    She added: “There is the conflict of interest concern, an ethical concern even though the Congress has exempted the president from the conflict. But he will be in a position where he can use government office to enrich The Trump Organization and enrich himself.”

    She also cited the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars federal officeholders from profiting from foreign governments or their agents: “The problem is that The Trump Organization and Donald Trump will receive and he will receive money from foreign governments, that is what’s prohibited. He says he will donate the profits, the Emoluments Clause is concerned with payments, not just profits. Who gets to define what the profits are?”

    Violating the Emoluments Clause is an impeachable offense. And according to legal experts, barring a full divestment from his business dealings with foreign governments, Trump will be in violation of this clause the moment he is inaugurated as president.

    On Twitter, Laurence Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, argued that “Trump's workaround is a totally fraudulent runaround.” He added that the plan is “cleverly designed to dazzle and deceive, but it solves none of the serious ethical or legal issues.”

  • Experts: Reporters Should Demand Proof That Trump And His Family Have Severed Ties With Their Business

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Government ethics experts say President-elect Donald Trump needs to divest himself completely of his business holdings to avoid any conflict of interest, and that he should give reporters legal documentation of his plan when he unveils it in two weeks.

    The president-elect has recently faced heavy criticism over a vast array of potential conflicts of interest between his business empire and his upcoming administration.

    On Wednesday, Trump issued a series of tweets announcing a “major news conference” with his children in which he will “discuss the fact that [he] will be leaving” his business “in total.” Trump claimed that while he was not legally “mandated” to make this move, he felt it “is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”

    Many major media outlets responded to Trump’s announcement with headlines parroting Trump’s suggestion that he will be completely cutting ties to focus on the presidency and avoid conflicts.

    But legal experts tell Media Matters that Trump’s vague announcement does little to address the potential conflicts, and any plan short of Trump completely selling his interests will leave the window open for an ethical mess. They also point out that Trump simply claiming to be separate from the business but leaving his children in charge is another major ethical red flag.

    Geoffrey Hazard, professor of law and a government ethics expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco, said the president-elect should sell all of his business holdings: “Get it as far away from your personal control as you can. Legally, it is not too complicated.”

    Hazard said the Trump children should "clearly not" be given control of the organization "because they are still his children. They can communicate with each other by nods and winks and they will.”

    “He ought to be able to point to a set of legal documents and say about them, ‘Here’s what we’ve done,'” Hazard added. “He ought to turn over a stack of papers that [journalists] could give to their legal people to look at.”

    Stephen Gillers, New York University Law School professor of legal ethics, also said complete divestiture is needed.

    “To really cut the concerns he has to sell all of his interests in all of the Trump properties,” Gillers said. “The conflict concern is those might influence his decisions as president. He has to have no financial interest in the profit or loss of any of the Trump enterprises. Give no reason to question whether he made a decision because it’s good for the business.”

    Gillers suggested reporters should directly ask Trump on December 15, “Will you divest yourself of any financial interest of any properties of Trump Enterprises? And if you don’t, how will we know that the decisions as president have not been influenced by business considerations?”

    “To divest himself will require a lot of lawyering,” Gillers said. “It will not be easy but it can be done and proof of that should be made available to the public.”

    (An illustration of one of the many potential conflicts of interest looming for the Trump administration, via The New York Times.)

    Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, MO, said his tweets do not detail how far he will remove himself from the businesses. She said that needs to be asked by the press.

    “That addresses whether he will focus on the presidency, but that does not address in any way the initial conflicts he has through his ownership interests,” she said of his tweets. “He needs to divest from his business interest. It means to sell it -- that’s the only way that he can move forward in the government without people reasonably being concerned that his government decisions are motivated by his personal financial interests.”

    As for reporters seeking answers, she said they “need to see the documents, we all need to see the documents because Mr. Trump has a habit of saying two things that are mutually exclusive and he does them at the same time. The focus has to be on whether he has actually divested or not.”

    Richard Painter, a former ethics attorney for the George W. Bush White House, said via email that any separation from The Trump Organization “is not enough unless he is going to sell the businesses.”

    Painter followed that with a long list of potential conflicts that could arise otherwise. Those include:

    “Payments from foreign governments that violate the Emoluments Clause (foreign diplomats staying in hotels, parties thrown by foreign governments in hotels, loans from the Bank of China, rent paid by foreign governments and companies controlled by foreign governments in office buildings, etc.); appearances of quid pro quo (bribery, solicitation of a bribe or offering a bribe) every time ANYBODY working for either the government or the Trump business organization talks about both government business and Trump organization business in the same conversations or even with the same people; and litigation risk.”

    “Under the Jones v. Clinton case the President can be sued in his personal capacity and presumably also can be required to testify in other lawsuits,” Painter explained. “If Trump owns the businesses it will be a lot easier for plaintiffs lawyers to sue him personally and even if they do not to require his testimony, than it would be if he sell the businesses.”

    He said reporters need to ask, “Is he going to divest and if not how is he going to deal with these problems that I mention?”

  • Former Members Of Senate Credentialing Committee Alarmed At Bannon's "Shady" Relationship With Breitbart

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Breitbart.com’s request for permanent Capitol Hill press credentials is sparking concern from former members of the committee that approves those passes, who say Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon’s new White House advisory role could pose a "shady" conflict.

    Politico recently reported that Breitbart, the far-right conservative website headed by Bannon for years, had applied for permanent credentials with the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery, which decides who may receive the coveted credentials.

    The request comes as Bannon, the recent chair/CEO of Breitbart, was named chief strategist and senior counselor for President-elect Donald Trump. (Bannon has been "on leave" from the site since he left to help head Trump's campaign in August.)                 

    The Standing Committee’s policy expressly forbids any news organization with a conflict of interest to receive a credential. This week, Media Matters issued an open letter calling on the committee to reject the credential request "based on Breitbart’s disqualifying inability to demonstrate editorial independence as required" by the committee rules. 

    Given Bannon’s ties to Breitbart, former members of the committee -- which is comprised of Congressional correspondents -- fear it could pose a problem. They requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.

    “You would be terribly concerned about conflict of interest and how to guard against this,” said one former committee member. “On the face of it, the question people have is, ‘are we comfortable with the fact that someone in the White House now seems to have potentially this role influencing what appears in a publication?’ You can’t know that until you look at the structure. My first question would be can he reach over any type of firewall in terms of what stories are covered?

    “You have to be editorially independent from anything that’s not a news organization and by virtue of having someone in the White House and having editorial influence over Breitbart, if he did, he would violate the standard.”

     Another former committee member echoed that view.

    “That would be something to be raised by the committee, it won’t be just rubber-stamped for it I assume,” the former member said. “You need to know if there is a clear separation from the ownership. The concern they normally have is if there is a potential for conflict of interest between what the ownership is doing and the reporting.”

    The person added, “If he took a leave of absence, you would have to take his word for it that he would not be interfering, they would have to look at it carefully. I don’t think they would take his word for it. It seems likely they would take a hard look and make sure it is correct.”

    A third former committee member said a Breitbert credential “sounds a little shady.”

    “It sounds like something that if we were on the standing committee, we would have to look at closely,” the correspondent said. “That is the biggest role of the committee, making sure there is that firewall. … The White House and Congress are obviously very closely related, if you are someone who might benefit from what happens on one of those sides and can benefit financially from one of those things it can get really mixed up.”

    Another former committee member said this was the first such conflict to arise in their time in the congressional press corps.

    “I’ve never seen a situation where somebody in the administration had a connection to a news organization that is seeking a credential,” the former member said. “The concern is that if it’s not an independent news organization, the person would be acting as an agent for the administration on the hill. You don’t want someone acting as a lobbyist.”

  • Veteran White House Correspondents Speak Out On The “Danger” Of Trump’s Press Treatment

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team's behavior toward the press in the nine days since he was elected -- including Trump ditching the press to have dinner Tuesday night in New York City -- is renewing concerns from veteran White House reporters about how a Trump administration will deal with the media.

    Trump and his allies have waged an unprecedented war on the press since the start of his presidential campaign. The president-elect has repeatedly verbally attacked reporters, canceled media credentials for critical outlets, and suggested as a candidate that he would “open up our libel laws” as president to making suing media easier. 

    Since he won the presidential election on November 8, Trump has continued to lash out at the media through his Twitter account, sending numerous tweets targeting The New York Times for its reporting.  

    Trump and his team have also drawn criticism for not keeping the media updated on his schedule and whereabouts. Tuesday night, he left Trump Tower unannounced for a surprise dinner at a Manhattan restaurant after reporters covering him were originally told he was in for the night. (There was also confusion among media figures on Wednesday over which city the president-elect was in.)

    His actions sparked official criticism from White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) President Jeff Mason, who issued a statement saying that “it is unacceptable for the next president of the United States to travel without a regular pool to record his movements and inform the public about his whereabouts. The White House Correspondents' Association is pleased to hear reassurances by the Trump transition team that it will respect long-held traditions of press access at the White House and support a pool structure. But the time to act on that promise is now.”

    Leaders of 18 journalism organizations, including the National Press Club and the American Society of News Editors, offered their own joint letter to Trump urging that press access be improved going forward.

    “Being president is an enormous responsibility and working with the White House Correspondents’ Association to ensure journalists' access is one small but important part of that,” the letter said, in part. “We call on you to commit to a protective press pool from now until the final day of your presidency. We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration in many ways but first and foremost via the press pool."

    Media Matters reached out to several current and former White House correspondents and WHCA presidents who said the dinner stunt is a worrisome sign that Trump may seek to bypass the press once he is in office. They said pool coverage of his activities is vital in case of a crisis or news making events.

    They also said Trump’s behavior both this past week and during the campaign -- including attacking critical media outlets and withholding important information -– is a troubling sign for how his administration will approach the media. 

    “The thing with the dinner is troubling,” said Steve Thomma, politics and government editor at McClatchy and a former White House Correspondents Association president. “It costs the president-elect nothing to have the press follow him in the motorcade. They will not sit at the next table, he will never see them. We are there in case something happens. Even 30 cars back in the motorcade. That is just being vindictive then.”

    He also questioned the way some appointments are being revealed.

    “As he rolls out the senior officers, [hopefully] he will do it in person and take questions from the press about it, that is what we did with the last two transitions,” Thomma said. “He did not do that with the chief of staff announcement. I remain hopeful, but we have not seen or heard from him in a long time.”

    He later added, “It is an understandable fear that he will cut off people and exclude people from Air Force One, those are fears, but there is reason to be optimistic that he will still talk to the broader media.” 

    George Condon, a National Journal White House correspondent who has covered the White House since 1982 and also served as WHCA president in 1993, said the press access is vital.

    “There is a long recognition by multiple White Houses that the public has the right to know what is going on with the president and where he is,” said Condon, noting that if that does not occur, “the public is short-changed and doesn’t know what the president is doing and when he’s doing it. We’re giving him a lot of power and in return you are going to sacrifice a lot of your privacy.”

    Another White House correspondent, who requested anonymity, said Trump’s actions so far raise multiple issues.

    “There are two levels of concern,” he said. “The first is the rhetoric on the campaign trail, libel laws and banning reporters from campaign events, invective against reporters. The second level is just logistic in setting up White House coverage in the Trump era.”

    He said of the dinner escapade: “We are not interested in telling the public whether he uses A1 Steak Sauce, the great concern is the press pool’s ability to relay the president’s location and possibly his message in the event of a national crisis.”

    Ed Chen, a former WHCA president in 2009-2010, covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg for 11 years.

    According to Chen, “It is really incumbent upon the president-elect and his people, however they feel about the press, to consider starting today having a protective travel pool with him at all times.”

    For Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer and political editor and a former WHCA president in 2006-2007, “the same concerns we had on the campaign trail have been magnified as a president-elect.”  

    “It goes with the territory, it’s part of the job and what he signed up for,” Scully said about keeping reporters in the loop on Trump’s actions. “He was very anti-press during the campaign. He taunted his supporters to go after the media, the media has always been an easy target and we can handle that. But the standard protocol that has been in place stays in place with President Trump.”

    Andy Alexander, a former Washington bureau chief for Cox Media, said the press can fight back.

    “What should reporters do?” he asked via email “They need to constantly push back and persistently make their compelling case for why access is critical to informing citizens. Beyond that, the best way to respond is to redouble efforts to produce journalism that is accurate, fair, incisive, independent, ambitious, courageous and in the public interest.”

    James Gerstenzang, who covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press from 1977 through 2008, said those who brush off the dinner incident do not understand the need for constant press access.

    “It’s not simply thumbing his nose at the press, its thumbing his nose at the public’s right to know,” he said. “This is not the matter of him being entitled to certain personal privacy, it is the public’s right to know about the activities of the person they elected. Everything he does is a reflection of the office and has a potential impact on the people of the country. How do we know that at any moment it isn’t relevant or it is relevant? You need to be there.”

    He later added, “The danger goes to the heart of an informed electorate. How can voters be informed if they don’t have access to unbiased accurate information?”

  • Conservative Israel Advocacy Groups Pass On Bannon Criticism As J Street And Other Jewish Groups Condemn "Horrifying" Hiring

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Conservative-leaning Israel advocacy groups are defending or refusing to condemn President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon for a senior White House role despite his history of promoting anti-Semitism. Their behavior is in stark contrast to leaders of other Jewish and civil rights groups, who are criticizing the move as “deeply troubling” and “horrifying.”

    Bannon’s hiring has sparked widespread criticism, due to his reported anti-Semitism (his ex-wife swore in court that Bannon had said “he doesn’t like Jews”), and his years of making Breitbart News home base for the white nationalist “alt-right.” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned the move in a statement Sunday, saying, "It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the 'alt-right' — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the 'people's house.’” Progressive Israel advocacy group J Street also condemned Bannon, saying that he "has an extensive history of championing the views of the extreme right in the United States and around the world."

    But the conservative-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has avoided weighing in, saying in a statement that it “has a long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments.” And Republican Jewish Coalition board member Bernie Marcus has defended Bannon.

    Meanwhile, in interviews with Media Matters, several other Jewish leaders are joining the chorus speaking out against Bannon. 

    “The President is entitled to choose advisors who he believes will help him implement his agenda. However, both in his roles as editor of the Breitbart website and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation,” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “Including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. There should be no place for such views in the White House.”

    Bend the Arc Jewish Action CEO Stosh Cotler called the choice “horrifying.”

    “President-elect Trump’s selection of Stephen Bannon, a professional purveyor of white nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, as his top adviser is as horrifying as it is unsurprising,” Cotler said in a statement. “Those of us who were alarmed by Trump's campaign when it began over a year ago are starting to see the things we feared come to pass, and this is one of them - the elevation of an avowed bigot to a position of incredible official power. 

    “On Election Day, a majority of voters rejected the hatred central to the Trump campaign. We know many of them would join us in condemning this attempt by the President-elect to normalize and legitimize white supremacy, and we call on leaders across the political spectrum to denounce it as well.”

    National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy K. Kaufman said in a statement she was “utterly appalled.”

    “As former chairman of the ‘alt-right’ web outlet Breitbart News, Bannon has made his white-supremacist, racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim views widely known,” the statement said, in part. “Upon joining the Trump campaign, Bannon roused a large portion of Trump’s base with a hateful mix of conspiracy theories, bigotry, misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

    “If President-elect Trump truly wants to bring together his supporters with the majority of the country that voted against him — by a margin that is nearing two million people, Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his administration. This appointment requires no Senate confirmation. It is up to the president-elect to show leadership for all Americans by reversing this dreadful decision immediately.”

    Leaders of other civil rights groups are also strongly criticizing Bannon's hiring. 

    “It sends the exact wrong message,” said National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial, who added that Bannon is a “racist, homophobic, misogynistic defender of the alt-right white nationalist interest in this country. His selection in such an important position certainly isn’t consistent with what the president-elect said on election night, that he would work to unify the nation.”

    Morial said Bannon “has been right at the center of the angry white nationalist movement in this country. For him to hold a position as chief strategist on par with the chief of staff does not send a message of unity, but a message of division.”

    Farhana Khera, President and Executive Director of Muslim Advocates, said, "for Americans who care about our commitment to pluralism, tolerance and equality for all, the choice of Steve Bannon to be the President-elect's chief strategist is deeply troubling. If your hair wasn't already on fire with the election of Trump, it should be now."

    In contrast to appalled civil rights and Jewish leaders, white nationalist media figures and leaders are thrilled

  • Clinton Post-Presidency Biographer Rips “Obsessed” And "Unbalanced" Coverage Of The Clintons

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    The author of a new book on Bill Clinton’s post-presidency says the media has dropped the ball in its coverage of the Clinton Foundation, downplaying the positive work it has done in favor of pushing inaccurate supposed “scandals” about the organization.

    Joe Conason, a veteran author of several political books and editor of The National Memo, recently released Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton.

    The book lays out many of Clinton’s efforts since he left office in 2001, largely focused on the Clinton Foundation and the former president’s philanthropic work. 

    In a recent interview with Media Matters, Conason highlighted how Clinton’s work since leaving the White House is often under-reported and wrongly portrayed. He said much of this is due to conservative media either misrepresenting the facts or spreading untruths.

    “I think given the scale of what he has done, very few people understand how important it was,” Conason said. “I lay that on the news media in general, which has been friendly to him at different times and at times less-friendly.

    “Certainly, very few people understand the importance and the scale of what he did in the AIDS fight alone, the fight to stop the AIDS pandemic. He was one of the first major public figures along with Nelson Mandela to say that we needed to do something to help the millions of people who were going to die from AIDS in the developing world.”

    In addition, Conason said alleged scandals by Hillary Clinton get a major boost from many on the right, usually without a basis in fact.

    “Meanwhile, they’re obsessed with every moment of anything political about Hillary Clinton or about him or a scandal or any of that stuff and it’s unfortunate and it is unbalanced,” Conason said. “The problem is that the level of skepticism that ought to be applied by our colleagues to a report in a place like Drudge is just absent.”

    As an example, Conason cited the popular conservative lie – which was repeated by Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in a debate – that the Clinton Foundation does not actually devote much money to charity.

    “There was one sort of amazing myth that was put out, it was put out by Carly Fiorina and by various right wing authors and websites and news outlets that the Clinton Foundation wasn’t really a foundation at all because they were only spending nine percent of their assets on charity and the rest of it was going to somewhere else,” Conason explained. “The truth was they were reading the tax returns wrong. It was true that the Clinton Foundation was only giving about nine percent of its assets in grants annually. But it is an operating foundation. The main thing they do isn’t making grants like the Gates Foundation or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation.

    “They are using their money to pay for programs that the Clinton Foundation is doing through its various initiatives. So they misinterpreted that and they willfully did it. And Reince Priebus talked about it and Mike Pence has talked about it and they’ve been fact-checked over and over again and it’s a complete lie.”

    He also cited the growing use of false equivalency among many in the press: the view that both sides are equally problematic and should be treated with a similar disdain or scrutiny despite the more egregious behavior of one of the parties.

    “There’s always a tendency towards false equivalency, it’s not just with the Clintons,” he said. “This becomes more intense in campaign season because news organizations I think understandably want to feel they’ve been fair in an election and not tilted towards one side or the other. 

    “The problem was that for such a long time in this campaign, because the campaigns go on forever -- so for the first, let’s say year of the 2016 presidential campaign, so much of the focus was on Hillary Clinton and her problems and her faults and her mistakes. Very little discussion of the Trump Foundation or Trump’s business or Trump’s connections to organized crime or Trump’s connections to Russia and other unsavory regimes. All of that has been left sort of to the end. 

    “We‘ve had some very good coverage of those stories in the last few months. But the problem is the cake was kind of baked before that by all of the coverage of her and the emails, excessive coverage of the emails in my view compared with the failure to adequately explore Trump beginning when it was clear he was going to be a dominant figure in the Republican primaries.”

    Conason also slammed the recent coverage of the FBI letter that indicated it had found new emails that “appear to be pertinent to the” investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, but failed to provide specifics, thus sparking wild speculation by many in the media that turned out to be incorrect. (Comey announced Sunday -- after my conversation with Conason -- that the FBI had again cleared Clinton.)

    “The press’ job is to make sure that this is presented in a context that voters and all citizens can understand,” he said of the email letter reporting. “And I think many of them failed to do that in the first instance.”

    Then there is coverage of Conason’s book itself, which has not gotten as much attention as the sensationalist and error-filled Clinton Cash by conservative activist Peter Schweizer. 

    “It received about one percent of the coverage of Clinton Cash I would estimate,” he said. “My understanding and I think I said this in my book, dark money from the Republican side put about $1 million into promoting Clinton Cash aside from whatever the publisher was going to do and that makes a big difference. So I don’t know what they spent that money on but they said ‘we’re going to promote this book,’ and Steve Bannon, who was the head of the think tank that produced that book, the Breitbart-type think tank and is now running the Trump campaign, they put together a million dollars from their dark money donors. That think tank, which is also a tax-exempt foundation, doesn’t have to report who the donors are, unlike the Clinton Foundation which has disclosed 99% of its donors, they don’t have to disclose anything. 

    “So I don’t know who did this, they put a lot of money behind it and the result was that Clinton Cash was all over CNN, all over the networks, all over the radio. I’ve gotten some good coverage, I don’t want to whine, but nothing like -- I went on CNN one time, that doesn’t make any sense.”