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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.”
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Following a press conference featuring many questions about ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and whether President Donald Trump’s campaign was in frequent communication with Russia, front page newspaper headlines the next day hyped “ringmaster Don” and his assertion that he “inherited a mess” while de-emphasizing unanswered questions and new reporting about the Flynn and Russia controversies.
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Right-wing media figures are hyping claims from the Washington Free Beacon suggesting former White House aide Ben Rhodes may be part of a “secret, months-long campaign by former Obama administration confidantes to handicap President Donald Trump's national security apparatus,” beginning with recently resigned White House national security adviser Michael Flynn. The claims, which resemble similar allegations from The New York Post’s Paul Sperry, are largely based on anonymous sources.
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Pro-Trump propaganda outlets are rushing to paint President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, as the victim in his February 13 resignation, claiming that he was “the subject of a concerted attack” and that “the fake news media had been going after Flynn for months.” But Flynn’s resignation came after reports indicated that he may have violated the Logan Act during his communications with Russia.
For his second straight press conference, President Donald Trump called on only conservative reporters, this time during a joint presser with the Canadian prime minister. By responding solely to friendly press, Trump avoided answering any questions about reports that national security adviser Michael Flynn may have violated federal law.
Reporters have been questioning whether Flynn can retain his job after multiple current and former American officials told The New York Times that he discussed lifting Russian sanctions with the country’s ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration -- a potential violation of the Logan Act, “which prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes involving the American government.” Vice President Mike Pence previously denied that Flynn had discussed this topic, but his assurance relied solely on Flynn’s recollection of the conversation.
During Trump’s February 13 press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reporters had a chance to ask the president about this pressing issue, but Trump skirted that possibility by calling on only reporters for conservative outlets friendly to Trump -- Scott Thuman of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s WJLA, the Washington, D.C., affiliate of ABC, and Kaitlan Collins of The Daily Caller, a pro-Trump outlet founded by Trump shill Tucker Carlson.
During the election, Sinclair reportedly struck a deal with the Trump campaign to “secure better media coverage” in exchange for “more access to Trump and the campaign.” Thuman, who is also a political correspondent for conspiracy theorist Sharyl Attkisson’s Full Measure, asked Trump about how his philosophical differences with Trudeau would affect cooperation on trade and terrorism:
The next question came from Collins, who also failed to ask about Flynn but did question Canada’s security measures surrounding refugees. Her previous work on refugees includes an article about Syrian refugees who she dubbed “Syria-sly hot,” suggesting governors opposed to allowing refugees into the country would change their minds if they saw these women:
No questions about Flynn's status even though it is leading every newscast?? Are these planted questions on the Washington side?
— Jennifer Griffin (@JenGriffinFNC) February 13, 2017
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer immediately followed the end of the presser by highlighting the lack of questions about Flynn’s future, explaining, “Presumably that’s what the White House wanted.” CNN’s Gloria Borger also questioned whether “they arranged that in advance.”
The press conference with Trudeau followed a similar one from February 10 featuring Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where Trump also took questions from only two reporters representing a couple of conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets, the New York Post and Fox Business Network. Those reporters likewise avoided asking about Flynn, even though the reporting on his possible violation of the Logan Act had come out the previous day.
In an interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder said the threat posed by President Donald Trump means “we have at most a year to defend the Republic” and highlighted the role chief strategist Stephen Bannon is playing in that threat, including the administration’s interaction with the media.
The Trump presidency has created no shortage of concerns about the stability of the republic. Trump has waged an unrelenting war on the press for more than a year, personally attacking dozens of journalists, falsely decrying entire news organizations as “fake news,” and even going so far as to shout down CNN’s Jim Acosta for asking a question at a press conference. It’s not just Trump, either -- Bannon, formerly of Breitbart.com, attacked the mainstream media as “the opposition party,” demanding that media “keep its mouth shut” and listen to Trump. Bannon is also known for formerly running a website that pushes pro-white nationalist viewpoints, dog-whistling to neo-Nazis, and infecting the current administration with anti-immigrant policies.
In the February 7 interview, Snyder commented on Bannon’s interaction with the media specifically, noting that he “says in essence that he misleads the public and the media deliberately” and that Bannon’s goal is “the extinction of the whole political system.” Snyder also says the media is “worse” in America now than it was during Nazi Germany, because it is “very polarized and very concentrated.” In addition, Snyder explains that Bannon’s use of the term “opposition” when describing the media is an indicator of talk about an “authoritarian state” because it suggests some type of regime change:
How similar is the situation between Germany of the 1930s and today’s United States?
Of course, not everything is similar. Some things are better now than they were in the 1930s but some things are worse. The media is worse, I would say. It is very polarized and it is very concentrated. In Germany before the state shut down German newspapers, there was authentic variety that we don’t have now. People in the 1930s generally had longer attention spans than we do. On the other side, the United States is a larger country, with pockets of wealth distributed widely, and it is more connected to the world. The main advantage that we have is that we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.
President Trump’s political strategist, Steve Bannon, has said that he wants to „make life as exciting as it was in the 1930s“. The first two weeks have shown how big his influence is, it seems much bigger than Reince Priebus’s or Jared Kushner’s.
I can’t speak to intra-White House conflicts. I can only say that Mr. Trump’s inaugural address was extremely ideological. During the campaign he used the slogan “America First” and then was informed that this was the name of a movement that tried to prevent the United States from fighting Nazi Germany and was associated with nativists and white supremacists. He claimed then not to have known that. But in the inaugural address he made “America First” his central theme, and now he can’t say that he doesn’t know what it means. And of course Bannon knows what it means. America First is precisely the conjuration of this alternative America of the 1930s where Charles Lindbergh is the hero. This inaugural address reeked of the 1930s.
When Bannon calls himself a „Leninist“, do Americans know what is he talking about?
No, they usually have no idea. It is a good question. Americans have this idea that comes from Jefferson and the American Revolution that you have to rebel every so often. And they sometimes don’t make the distinction between a rebellion against injustice and the extinction of the whole political system, which is what Bannon says that he is after. The American Revolution actually preserved ideas from Britain: the rule of law being the most important. The whole justification of the American Revolution was that the British were not living up to their own principles, were not including Americans in their own system. In a broad way that that was also the argument of the civil rights movement: the system fails itself when it does not extend equal rights to all citizens. So there can be resistance and even revolution which is about meeting standards rather than about simple destruction. What Bannon says correctly about the Bolsheviks was that they aimed to completely destroy an old regime. We can slip from one to the other very easily, from rebelliousness to a complete negation of the system. Most Americans had a rule of law state for most of their lives, African Americans are an exception, and so most Americans think this will be there forever. They don’t get that a “disruption” can actually destroy much of what they take for granted. They have no notion what it means to destroy the state and how their lives would look like if the rule of law would no longer exist. I find it frightening that people who talk about the destruction of the American state are now in charge of the American state.
The White House statement for the Holocaust Day on January 27 didn’t mention Jews. At first it looked like a mistake but now it is official that it was intentional.
The Holocaust reference is very important on our side of the Atlantic. If Americans have a reference point in world history, it is precisely the Holocaust, the Holocaust and let’s say Normandy, the Second World War, are the one aperture into a broader history, one where republics fall and extremes triumph. So if Steve Bannon turns the Holocaust into talk about “A lot of people have suffered” what is happening is that he is closing that aperture. The next step is to say that mainly Americans are the victims. History then dies completely and we are trapped in myth.
When Bannon calls the press the main „opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.
When you say that the press is the opposition, than you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.
Last week Trump called those who take part in demonstrations “thugs” and “paid protestors”. This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment right, it sounds more like Putin.
That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: „We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“ When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent internet lying and [away] from their own experiences with other people. Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: “yes, they are thugs” instead of “it is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head. That is the psychology of regime change.
Today’s media environment is very different from the 1930s, everything happens so fast.
This is part of what contemporary authoritarians do: They overwhelm you with bad news and try to make you depressed and say with resignation: “Well, what can i do?”. I think it is better to limit yourself. Read the news for half an hour a day, but don’t spend the whole day obsessing about it. Americans have to pick one thing to be confident about, and then act on it. If you care about and know about refugees, the press, global warming – choose one and talk with people around you about it. Nobody can do everything but everyone can do a little bit. And people doing their little bit will meet others doing the same, and the depression lifts.
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Sean Spicer: “This Is More Fake News. It Is About Time CNN Focused On The Success The President Has Had”
A CNN report that multiple US intelligence and law enforcement officials had independently corroborated “some” of the details in the dossier on President Trump’s connections to Russia was dismissed by White House press secretary Sean Spicer as “fake news” who then insisted CNN instead cover good news for the administration.
The White House has repeatedly used fake news to support their political agenda, in addition to his family and campaign surrogates’ documented consumption of fake news. The Trump White House has repeatedly attacked unfavorable news coverage and news outlets, especially CNN, as “fake news;” the president even insisted that “any negative polls are fake news.” Trump’s team has also threatened CNN reporters for doing their jobs and previously banned members of the administration from appearing on the network. The administration’s response to unfavorable coverage seems to be to attack it as “fake news,” echoing misuse of the term in conservative media.
On February 10, CNN reported that US investigators had “corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier” about Trump’s Russian ties, specifically details relating “to conversations between foreign nationals.” CNN reported that “the corroboration ... has given US intelligence and law enforcement ‘greater confidence’ in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier.” When reached for comment, Spicer lashed out at the network and replied that the White House was “disgusted by CNN's fake news reporting.” Spicer later called back to again assail CNN’s report, which cited “multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials,” as “more fake news.”:
For the first time, US investigators say they have corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent, multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials tell CNN. As CNN first reported, then-President-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama were briefed on the existence of the dossier prior to Trump's inauguration.
None of the newly learned information relates to the salacious allegations in the dossier. Rather it relates to conversations between foreign nationals. The dossier details about a dozen conversations between senior Russian officials and other Russian individuals. Sources would not confirm which specific conversations were intercepted or the content of those discussions due to the classified nature of US intelligence collection programs.
The corroboration, based on intercepted communications, has given US intelligence and law enforcement "greater confidence" in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier as they continue to actively investigate its contents, these sources say.
Reached for comment this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, "We continue to be disgusted by CNN's fake news reporting."
Spicer later called back and said, "This is more fake news. It is about time CNN focused on the success the President has had bringing back jobs, protecting the nation, and strengthening relationships with Japan and other nations. The President won the election because of his vision and message for the nation."
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