The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation. At no time … were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not publicly known … I was in the room, it didn’t happen.
This is one of those carefully worded non-denial denials, where phrases like “as reported” are left as little cracks through which the administration can criticize the report on details without denying wholesale the heart of the story. Same with “is false” and “it didn’t happen.” Not only are they meant to discredit the report, they’re denials of claims that the Post story never made.
But what’s really striking is that McMaster essentially laid his credibility on the line for Trump to crucify, as though Trump is some sort of elder god of lore to whom all Republicans must sacrifice some portion of their soul. Remember, this is a guy who is actually well-respected and thought to be intelligent:
But as Josh Marshall predicted, Trump woke up this morning and shot these gems out, essentially confirming the Washington Post story:
And now, just moments ago, McMaster had a press briefing in place of Sean Spicer’s (who I believe has now fully transformed into a shrub and has become a permanent fixture of the rose garden), and McMaster degraded himself:
The key take away is that McMaster is essentially conceding the accuracy of last night’s reporting (first from the Post and later confirmed by other outlets) but saying that in the context it was okay. It was appropriate. Notably, when it comes to specifics, he is hiding behind classification to refuse to give further answers.
To come out and perform the rhetorical trick of making it look as though you’re denying the story in a very vocal way (“I was in the room, it didn’t happen”) but using weasel wording in order to evade culpability destroys whatever credibility McMaster had. Honestly, anyone who decides to take a job from Trump ought to know what he or she is getting into, and anyone who somehow doesn’t know what they’re getting into shouldn’t take the job. What’s perplexing is that McMaster staked his reputation on this, for a chump like Trump, only to have it blow up in his face in less than 24 hours.
Although I agree with Josh Marshall (and the rest of the sane world) that Trump is an idiot, I’m not sure about this point (“Trump and the Problem of Militant Ignorance,” Talking Points Memo, 4/14/2017):
So far the Trump Presidency has been a sort of Mr Magoo performance art in which the comically ignorant Trump learns elemental or basic things that virtually everyone in the world of politics or government already knew – things that the majority of adults probably know. Health Care: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” North Korea: “I felt pretty strongly that they had tremendous power. But it’s not what you think.” There are perhaps half a dozen examples equally stark.
In other words, President Trump is open about his discoveries and even eager to share them but universally projects his previous state of comical ignorance onto the general public or whomever he is talking to.
There’s no doubt that Trump is fully ignorant about the laws surrounding health care or the complexity of the relationship between China and North Korea. But I don’t believe he’s ignorant to the extent that he doesn’t know that health care reform isn’t simple or that China can’t solve the North Korea situation by snapping its proverbial fingers. Again, he’s ignorant in the sense that he’s unaware of the complex nature of these and a million other examples, but (probably) not ignorant in the sense that he really believed they could be solved overnight by an alpha male.
When Trump tells The Wall Street Journal that he learned a lot about China and North Korea from Xi in ten minutes over chocolate cake, I don’t think he’s telling them that he genuinely learned something. (Maybe he did, but I seriously doubt it was some sort of revelation.) Instead, Trump is making up an excuse for whatever future action he takes (or doesn’t take) with regards to North Korea. He’s trying to make the impression that he gleaned information from the Chinese president that us normal peons are unaware of and perhaps can’t appreciate.
So I don’t believe these are genuine “discoveries” of Trump’s. I’m not yet willing to go down that rabbit hole because I don’t want another repeat of George W. Bush in the sense that liberals believed he was a complete idiot. Bush was incompetent and unqualified, but I don’t believe, and didn’t believe then, that he’s a genuinely stupid person. Trump, on the other hand, is a stupid person—I merely object to the notion that he’s so ignorant of the world that he’s constantly discovering things as a child would in the manner Marshall describes. Trump knows that drafting a health care bill isn’t easy, though once he found out just how complicated it would be he didn’t bother to try.
Trump is an ignorant person in virtually every way imaginable, but Marshall is confusing the extent of Trump’s supposed ignorance with straight-up lies. No serious person believed Trump when he said he knew more about ISIS “than the generals,” so we wouldn’t say that Trump stating the ISIS situation is more complicated than people know as complete ignorance of the situation—yes, Trump is ignorant of the nuances of operations surrounding ISIS, but it’s doubtful that he actually thought for a second that he knew more about it than the top military brass.
Regardless of this very fine point, the problem remains the same: Trump is an idiot and is the most powerful person in the world.
The New York Times published letters from readers to the editors in response to Nicholas Kristof’s dual set of columns about Trump voters, “In Trump Country, Shock at Trump Budget Cuts, but Still Loyalty,” and “How I Angered My Readers, Again.” (You can read my take on that first column here.) Here’s one from Rebecca Sweeden out of Bloomington, Indiana (“Seeking Insight Into Trump Voters,” The New York Times, 4/8/2017):
I have many liberal friends who believe all Trump voters to be deplorable and some have even cut off family members for it… By reducing Trump supporters to “ignorant deplorables,” we only enhance our image as liberal elitists who couldn’t care less about the working class.
I agree with many readers that we shouldn’t categorize all Trump voters as “deplorable”—though I have no qualms about saying that about the openly fascist white nationalists who, until his Syria strike, were among the more raucous of the passengers aboard the Trump Train. But a few readers make a few points about Trump voters that are worth considering. A few examples:
What makes Nicholas Kristof think that Trump supporters can be recruited by the Democratic Party? Can you recruit people who continue to support a president whose legislation if passed would threaten their very existence? Can you recruit people who still believe that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States? Can you recruit people who cannot be persuaded by rational argument and scientific evidence? Can you recruit people who take the most preposterous lies of the right-wing news media as gospel truth?
Mr. Kristof’s interviews make clear that these voters continue to favor cutting social programs that benefit other Americans. Keep programs that help me; cut programs that help others. This is a pretty miserable and ungenerous attitude, which seems based on these voters’ belief that they are hardworking but unlucky and thus deserving of a helping hand, whereas other benefits recipients are lazy and unworthy. What underlies that perspective, I fear, is racial resentment.
As a black man, I find it hard to see the difference between being a racist and misogynist and voting for a racist and misogynist. I don’t want to talk to either.
What’s interesting about Trump supporters is that there isn’t any other group of voters the media has probed so extensively. No one in 2009 was running around trying to figure out what was going on in the minds of Obama supporters. What’s different is that everyone in the real world has acknowledged, explicitly or not, that Trump is uniquely unqualified for the office of president for myriad reasons, and the reasons are so blatant that it’s hard to imagine how anyone rational could cast a ballot for him. Trump supporters are often treated as though they simply got conned, but Josh Marshall made a point here I want to build on (“Inside the Emerging Alt-Right Snuff Novel,” Talking Points Memo, 4/7/2017):
Before [Steve Bannon joined the campaign], Trump had run a thoroughly jingoistic and xenophobic campaign, with protestor (sic) beatings and various shades of crypto- and non-crypto racism. All on his own he drew around himself that coterie of “alt-right” white nationalists and neo-Nazis who will likely be his greatest and most lethal contribution to the American political scene.
Bannon didn’t join the campaign until August 17, 2016, well after Trump had already gained the Republican nomination. Until that point, Trump had managed to garner the support of outspoken racists far and wide all on his own. So my question to those on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum who constantly repeat that many of these voters felt they had no other choice is this: Hypothetically, would Donald Trump have been able to gain the Republican nomination without his “crypto- and non-crypto racism”?
There’s a feeling among many who identify as liberal that the onus is on us to demonstrate that not all Trump supporters are racists or sexists or bigots in general the same way we refuse to condemn all Muslims when an Islamic terrorist attacks. (Though, funnily enough, it seems many Trump supporters are willing to make those sweeping generalizations.) But the difference is that the vast majority of Muslims are willing to condemn terrorist attacks committed by other Muslims, and they don’t need to be prodded to do so. I haven’t seen the vast majority of Trump supporters—or Republicans in general—do much to condemn Trump’s open racism or any of his other many, many faults. Rather, there is the insistence to move on and forget about it.
So yes, I understand that not all Trump supporters are bigots—I’d wager most of them aren’t, at least not consciously so. But I also don’t feel obligated to constantly go out of my way to remind everyone that they’re not racist if they’re not willing to do so themselves. In all these pieces on Trump supporters where they feel alienated because of a perception that they or at least the man they support are racist, I haven’t seen one where the supporter attempts to understand why people feel that way about them—at least not in a way that’s any more sophisticated than “They’re liberals who listen to fake news.” Instead, it’s often a retreat into stubbornness; “I know I’m not racist, and that’s good enough for me.”
Rebecca Sweeden finishes her letter with this:
By reducing Trump supporters to “ignorant deplorables,” we only enhance our image as liberal elitists who couldn’t care less about the working class. Fixing the problem of divisiveness doesn’t rest solely upon the shoulders of Republicans in this country.
Well, yeah, it rests solely on the shoulders of Democrats, because if it hasn’t been obvious enough, Republicans are willing to do nothing to fix the problem of divisiveness. They have no problem describing half the population as useless moochers who just want “free stuff.” They endorsed and continue to prop up the most divisive president in modern history, one who has explicitly expressed contempt for large swaths of the population he’s supposed to serve. And if his supporters aren’t willing to untangle themselves from the web of lies that Trump and his acolytes, congressional Republicans, and right-wing media have ensnared them in, there’s really nothing Democrats or any of the rest of us can do for them.
The editorial board of USA Today asks a simple question about Republicans’ desire to repeal and replace Obamacare before this session ends, but overlooks a few major points (“What’s the rush on health care?” USA Today, 3/7/2017):
The Senate Finance Committee did not pass Obamacare until that October. This slow progress was dictated by the complexity of the subject and the bipartisan negotiations behind the scenes. In the end, Obamacare passed on a straight party vote, but not until March of President Obama’s second year, after lengthy debate and analysis.
Republicans, on the other hand, have visions of getting a repeal measure to President Trump’s desk by late April or May.
The key difference between the Obama administration and Democratic-controlled congress’s first 100 days in ’09 and the Trump administration and Republican-controlled congress of ’17 is that the latter has moved no major legislation through congress in their first 50 days, and it looks increasingly likely that they’ll finish Trump’s first 100 days without having done anything of major consequence—with the exception, of course, of repealing Obamacare, but even then there’s no solidarity on it, and they don’t have a replacement plan. A reason for that is because, as Josh Marshall points out, Republicans have escalated their rhetoric about their opposition to Obamacare since its inception with no viable way to undo it and/or replace it without a major disaster (“Why Repeal and Replace Is Going So Badly,” Talking Points Memo, 3/8/2017):
Going back seven years the Republican party has not only been committed to opposing and repealing Obamacare. It has grown to the level of almost being a core element of party ideology – not any policy on health care but opposing “Obamacare”. It was the core of the 2014 election, the core of the 2012 election and a major point in the 2016 election…
Coming up with a plan means squaring an impossible circle to bring together those who want a more palatable/’market based’ approach to ensure coverage for roughly the same amount of people and those who want to cut the taxes Obamacare was based on and let everyone fend for themselves.
It’s not just that the hastily-scribbled replacement plan is terrible and can’t possibly satisfy the polar opposite goals they want to achieve—keeping everyone covered by Obamacare covered and reducing costs by cutting the taxes that fund it—it’s that Republicans have been howling about Obamacare forever, and in all the time that it’s been in place they have not come up with anything to replace it.
And that’s why it makes no sense to compare the preparation of and for Obamacare with the non-plan the Republicans are proposing. The planning and development of Obamacare hit the ground running in Obama’s first 100 days (and beyond). Republicans haven’t come up with an idea in seven years. To think that they’ll come out with a real, detailed, comprehensive plan that actually attempts to figure out a way to keep everyone who’s covered now covered in the future, lower costs, and lower the taxes that have helped support Obamacare, and that they’ll be able to develop it and pass it before the midterm elections of 2018 is asinine. That’s why they’re rushing.
In a post on the Editor’s Blog of Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall wrote a piece entitled “The Case for Not Being Crybabies,” which begins with the Trump/Acosta confrontation and flowers from there:
There’s nothing more undignified and enervating than fretting about whether the President-Elect will brand real news ‘fake news’ or worrying whether his more authoritarian supporters can be convinced to believe – pleaded with, instructed to, prevailed upon – actual factual information. The answer to attacks on journalism is always more journalism. And the truth is that Trump’s threats are cheap stunts and bluffs, threatening to take away things journalists don’t need.
That’t the final paragraph, and the “things journalists don’t need” is a reference to Trump’s threat of expel the White House press corps from the White House. About that Marshall says:
We know Trump’s MO. He will bully people until they’re cowed and humiliated and obedient. He’ll threaten to kick the reporters out of the White House and then either cut a ‘deal’ or make some big to-do about ‘allowing’ the reporters to stay. These are all threats and mind games meant not so much to cow the press as make them think Trump is continually taking things away from them and that they need to make him stop.
They don’t need to. That access isn’t necessary to do their jobs. And bargaining over baubles of access which are of little consequence is not compatible with doing their job. Access can provide insight and understanding. But it’s almost never where the good stuff comes from. Journalists unearth factual information and report it. If Trump wants to turn America into strong man state, journalists should cover that story rather than begging Trump not to be who he is.
I’m not in the media and never will be, so though I’m not afraid to criticize blatant displays of bullshit both-siderism, language manipulation, historical distortions, and straight-up lies, I’m less keen to offer any sort of solution for honest journalists who see Trump as a threat to the free press or their access to information, so I more or less trust Marshall’s assessment and relative cool-headedness in his post.
My only comment, then, is about two points Marshall didn’t make (or hardly anyone, far as I know). At the press conference in which Trump refused to take CNN’s Jim Acosta’s question, two things happened.
1. It seems none of the other professional journalists in that room seemed to know what to do when Trump went after Acosta the way he did. Everything that happened happened in response. Again, I don’t know what kind of strategy journalists need to develop, but it’s bad for all of us if journalists from competing newspapers and broadcasters don’t bother to stand up for each other in the heat of the moment.
2. Trump went directly on to answer a question from Breitbart. I have to imagine it annoys the hell out of everyone else there that creeps from Breitbart—or Infowars, or wherever—are given press credentials. We can all sit around and cluck at each other about how we think major news outlets (like The New York Times or ABC) are in themselves more subtle propaganda arms, but they are far and away the best we have, whereas outlets like Breitbart and Infowars have filtered reality through a very specific ideological scope which works backwards from a preconceived conclusion to mold whatever happens to fit into the narrative of their worldview. It’s pathetic that they get to enter the room in the first place.
Marshall’s right in this case. The extent to which people in the media glom onto any trivial hint that Trump might not be the authoritarian monster his words and behavior otherwise suggest is ridiculous. Any threat to the media is an issue the media has to deal with first. Rallies and protests are nice, but my own opinion on those is that they might be good at generating passion and attracting attention, but unless that energy gets funneled into channels of power their continuance has increasingly diminished returns. Media figures have to save themselves. If there’s reticence about calling out Trump’s lies as lies, that’s a problem within the media.
Regular schmoes like me don’t have any access to real power. I can’t interview the president, or a senator, or a House member, or even one of their surrogates. I can write a letter or make a phone call, to which I get the response that my concern has been duly noted. So those in the media who do have access to power have to ask themselves whether they’ve been squandering it.