Consequences of Donald Trump’s Disastrous Press Relations

Updated:
Posted in: Constitutional Law

Donald Trump has been dealing with the news media most of his adult life, which is much more than the average person who has become President of the United States. As The New York Times recently explained, with time Trump learned how to control and manipulate the tabloid press of New York. Sometimes he used off-the-record sessions with reporters, a carrot and stick approach, and other times he actually became his own press spokesman, calling himself John Baron or John Miller, to spread rumors he wanted out, often relating to his sexual prowess. These guises, however, were an open secret in New York, but worked for everyone involved.

The political press corps is much different from the tabloids, for they are interested in issues like a politician’s character and policies, not merely gossip and antics of a celebrity. Trump has not adjusted well to dealing with the political press. Indeed, his rocky relationship during his presidential primary campaign, and then the general election, were openly hostile, where he placed the news media in a small pen at the back of his rallies and often encouraged his supporters to boo them. But this relationship has become even worse now that he is president.

For example, Trump’s 77-minute press conference at the White House on February 17, 2017, hit a historic low for the decorum at these events with President Trump exhibiting a mix of aggression and faux humor unlike anything previously witnessed. It became clear at this event, if was not already, that President Trump has literally declared war on the mainstream news media, not merely calling them liars and purveyors of “fake news,” but declaring them to be “enemies of the American people.”

As president, Donald Trump is seeking to discredit and undercut the credibility of America’s mainstream news media. He is not only calling them names, but he is denying them access at the White House, while favoring a few conservative partisan media like the website Breitbart News, media that writes only nice things about him, his staff, and his policies. This effort to manipulate media coverage is going to fail—and ultimately at the expense of the Trump presidency. Allow me to explain the three reasons: the existence of endless leaks, the First Amendment does work, and the ill will Trump is creating for himself.

Endless Leaks

Before Donald Trump was inaugurated I tweeted that as president he would be confronted with unprecedented leaks. This was obvious for several reasons. First, he treated the men and women who have made careers working for the federal government as fools and stupid during his anti-Washington presidential campaign, and during his transition he did absolutely nothing to repair the damage he had done. Running against Washington was popular with his low-information voter base, but offending hundreds of thousands of federal employees has created an extremely hostile atmosphere in Washington for the Trump administration.

In particular, Trump’s attacks on the credibility of the United States intelligence departments and agencies who had determined that the Russian government had hacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign, specifically Democratic National Committee and her manager John Podesta, and then leaked that information to WikiLeaks and others. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge their findings had to be difficult for these professionals, some who literally risk their lives to get such information. Trump made political hacks of men and women who have sacrificed high-paying private sector work for public service. For months, Trump refused to accept the conclusion of the American intelligence community regarding Russia’s attack on our democracy, and the efforts of one of our long-understood foreign adversaries to hurt Hillary and help him. Add into the equation Trump’s over-the-top embrace of Vladimir Putin, and pro-Russia polices like dismantling NATO, surely these realities made the intelligence community appropriately suspicious of Trump and his team. Not only did Trump create a powerful adversary in his attacks on the intelligence community, these are institutions that are essential to any president effectively dealing with national security matters once in the Oval Office. Now these institutions are leaking because they remain leery of Trump, who has done nothing to dispel suspicion.

In short, the federal bureaucracy in general, and the intelligence community in particular, is clearly hostile to Trump & Company personally, as well as their policies. They will continue to leak. It is also reported they are withholding information from Trump and his aides because they do not feel they can trust him with the information. Members of Congress, like senior Democrat Elijah Cummings, report that career federal employees are privately coming to Congress to provide information about Trump & Company, for they fear he may destroy our democratic institutions. Trump has pushed his fight with the bureaucracy so far, most recently threatening to jail leakers, that it is difficult to see how he can repair the breach. Given the fact that he has been extraordinarily slow in filling the political appointees at the top of the executive branch of government, some 4,000 jobs, the bureaucracy only knows what it reads in the news, which has not been good.

Mr. Trump may want to drain the swamp, but he has created an information sieve of the executive branch. The leaks will be ongoing, and more difficult to deal with as time passes.

The First Amendment

There is no provision of our Constitution that is more important and fundamental to our democracy than the freedom of press and speech as embodied in the First Amendment. Nor is there any element of our democracy that can cause Americans to turn on a politician more harshly than secrecy and the realization he is deceiving or manipulating them. Consistently, polls of Americans show they overwhelmingly embrace the First Amendment, and view the news media as a “watchdog” and check on government. Typical polls show about three-quarters of Americans consistently support the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and the press.

Trump’s efforts to turn Americans against the mainstream media appear to be based on the fact that collectively the major news media is viewed less favorably than him. Trump is starting his presidency with a remarkably low approval rating ranging from 36 to 44 percent. The media is currently lower with an approval rating in the 32 to 40 percent range. Newspapers and television news organizations are also in a transition phase seeking a business model that works in the internet age, where only slowly is the public adjusting to the fact that they need to pay to get quality information.

It seems that Trump feels that his attacks on news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News, CNN News, NBC and MSNBC News, which have been aggressive in calling out his conspicuous lying as president, and keeping the story about the influence of Russia on the 2016 election very alive, that he can bully them into submission. Hopefully, he is wrong. It is not clear that he realizes that, in fact, he may be strengthening these news organizations.

While I only have anecdotal evidence at this time, based on conversations with friends including some in the news business—and my own behavior—Trump’s actions have caused many to deepen and broaden their news consumption, and become willing to pay for it. While I dropped my subscription to The Wall Street Journal when their editor said they would not call out Trump’s lies for what they are, I have added several additional subscriptions. And when I encouraged others to do likewise I learned they are way ahead of me and have already done so. In short, rather than turning people away from the solid journalism of our best news organizations, Trump may be reviving them. Friends in the news business tell me subscriptions are up, as are TV audiences, for good journalism.

I would bet that Americans will overwhelmingly opt for their First Amendment freedoms which promotes an independent press, rather that journalism that is little more than a propaganda outlet for Donald Trump, becoming the norm. Thus, as the leaks continue an even stronger news media will broadcast or publish them after verifying them as well-based factual information.

Creating Ill Will

Beating up on the American news media played well with Trump core supporters, as did his campaign against “political correctness,” which is better understood as civility, and his ugly campaign got him elected. But his escalated war with the reporting of stories he does not like by major news organizations will not help him govern. To the contrary, in the end it will hurt his presidency.

Trump lost the popular vote by some three million votes. His win was far more narrow than he likes to portray it. Members of Congress from seemingly safe Republican districts, not to mention Republicans from districts that Hillary Clinton won or lost by only a few percentage points, are finding themselves confronted by constituents who have never before spoken out about, or protested, their representation in Congress. Trump’s presidency has provoked widespread local activism against him and his policies. This activism is largely unorganized. But Democrats and progressives are getting their act together, and organizing at the local, statewide, and national levels to protest against Trump’s presidency. This fact has not escaped the attention of Republicans in Congress.

Donald Trump is not a creature of Republican politics, and he did more for the GOP than they did for him in winning the presidency. He and the congressional leaders are going to have differences, given the “economic nationalists” he has gathered on his White House staff, and the few core beliefs that he had before becoming president. These differences are most likely to develop later this year, and there are a number of 2017 elections, like Virginia. If the anti-Trump activism translates into Democratic victories in these coming elections this year, members of Congress will start to distance themselves from Trump. If any of the investigations that are just commencing into the role of Russia in the 2016 presidential election show collusion with the Trump campaign, or Trump’s bromance with Putin is based on more than ignorance, or Trump’s financial interests prove to be deeply entangled in Russian money—well, his presidency may quickly unravel.

Just like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump is actively creating a deep reservoir of ill will with the political media. If he thinks they are being hard on him now, he has no idea how it will be if he finds himself in trouble. They will end his presidency for him. He will find the supposed “enemies of the American people” are actually their friend, not his.

  • Good column, but I’m not sure I buy the bit about the good media outlets finding better business models. Seems to me that there are basically three models in play right now, and none of them are working well in First Amendment terms.

    First is the eyeballs-for-advertisers model that CNN is following. The problem is that most of the time there is no interesting news, but they still need to fill 24/7. The result is a natural focus on disaster porn and clickbait news stories. Not inspiring, and even if their hearts are in the right place the model seems to be failing.

    Second is the paid propaganda of FAUX ‘news’ and websites like Breitbart. They are trying to make it look like they are funded by normal advertising, but they actually rely on their secret sugar daddies who have stories, dare I say truly fake news, that they want to push out there. Seems to be working quite well, actually, but NOT what the First Amendment was designed for.

    Last is the last-man-standing approach that the NY Times and a few others are taking. Better than nothing, but we need a broad base of journalism throughout the nation, not just a few survivors. In particular, the voting processes for gerrymandering and voter registration are controlled below the national level, and that’s where relatively small amounts of money invested in politicians can really pay off.

    What I’d like to see would be a new SOLUTIONS-oriented funding model. Enough with all the problems. How about if the newspapers and websites let us help with some of the solutions? They could have 3 to 5 links for solution project proposals after the stories or videos, and if enough people want to support the project, then it would get funded.

    The usual joke is “Details available upon request”, though even better if you have a stronger and more interesting idea.

  • Paul E. Merrell, J.D.

    @ “Trum’s “law-information base:” Insulting those who voted for Trump is not a path to winning their votes the next time. Indeed, many in the Progressive Community were badly torn between voting for the bellicose Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who made several campaign promises of a less-interventionist foreign policy. There were many intellectuals who voted for Trump.

    @ Trump painting mainstream media as the “enemy of the people:” When discussing the polls, you forgot to mention those polls on attitudes toward mainstream media. For example, three weeks before the election, a Gallup poll showed that “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx

    The incredibly pro-Hillary biased mainstream coverage of the election campaign undoubtedly had a great deal to do with that, and that bias only worsened in the last three weeks of campaigning and since. I say that as someone who is not fond of Mr. Trump (I voted for Jill Stein).

    In my 70 years on this planet, I have never encountered a period in which mainstream media published so many false and seriously misleading articles on such important topics. Among those are the many “the Russians hacked the election” articles that fail to note that the intelligence agencies, while proclaiming that the Russians did so, have yet to produce any evidence other than arguments that Russia had motive and opportunity to do so, not a shred of evidence that Russia did so. To illustrate what is wrong with making such a serious charge without such proof, I have during my entire adult life had the motive and opportunity to rob a bank. But I have never done so. Nor do I have intelligence officials running around accusing me of having done so.

    And of course these are the same intelligence agencies whose officials have previously perjured themselves in Congressional testimony regarding NSA digital surveillance of the American public. A large portion of the public knows that.

    In short, Mr. Trump may not be so dumb when he attacks mainstream media and is open about his distrust of the intelligence agencies that are so clearly plotting the removal of all of his top advisors who oppose a new Cold War with Russia. (After all, the profits of the military–industrial complex come first.) The numbers suggest that it’s a meme that the American public largely accepts.

    • CH

      Good comments, I agree. What happened to good news reporting, that was new worthy stories, unbiased, facts. I used to believe they checked the facts prior to stating them. The news Media has become STAR news, the magazine that used to be a GOSSIP post for ratings and to sell cheap magazines. The other day STAR magazine, said they caught HILLARIES lies, It is as thought the News outlets changed places. The TV newscasters to me appear as Gossipy spoiled brats who want to show their opinions and think we think they are “the bomb” where its at.
      We dont, they are making up boring news to sensationalize information, not based on verified facts, like STAR news was before. (the cheap magazine that always says the stars are getting divorced one month, next month remarried, or having a baby, then its not true…)
      I think Donald Trump is being NICE to the Media, calling them FAKE, rather than Aiding and abetting, and fraudulent with malicious intent, and suing them. Had he not won the presidency, he may have a case against them. If they keep talking about impeaching him, if anything bad happens, he will have a case against them. Many U.S. citizens will support him in the case.
      I would call them egotistical, uneducated, not following news protocol? Are the schools teaching them to report differently? or the news owners? I used to not be able to tell if a news castor was a democrat or republican, and what their political beliefs were, and now, they make it known, and try to influence others, Its constantly trying to use their voice and their vote on TV as a newscaster to sway peoples opinions to their own opinion. Perhaps they are in the wrong business. My sister was a journalist major, my daughter has a masters in English, my son is a performer, my grandfather was a judge, my father was an economist who ran for congress, and he was an excellent public speaker, as was my grandfather, and they did not present their political biased towards politicians in their dealings. Unless they were at a Democratic, or republican picnic, party or event. If they want to continually give their opinion, do it with their friends, or hold an event and get involved in events. We want real news, I go to the white house site itself now to get the news on what Mr. Trump and the White house is doing, very informative and true.

  • Victor Grunden

    Donald Trump’s personna is well known. The ill will that people who support Trump feel toward the press began in the Vietnam War era. It was re-invigorated with this whole Black Lives Matter movement that advanced the “truth” that white cops were seeking black people to shoot. Now we have this “Putin put Trump in office” ghost of which no one can find definitive proof. So the Democrats engage in a snipe hunt to hopefully stall any progress from the Trump Administration on Making America Great Again by allowing people to put food on the table with a paycheck rather than a welfare check. As for the American intelligence community, there are numerous foreign entities that have no desire to work with them because of their bungling. Foreign powers meddling in American politics has happened since it’s founding. Benjamin Franklin’s aide at peace talks after the Revolutionary War was a British spy placed there to prevent us from aligning with France. J.Edgar Hoover wrote reams about Communist Front groups affecting America’s political life down to dog catcher. But if the Democrats don’t have this totally fabricated story about Trump winning because of Russian interference then they have to admit that the voter’s rejected their agenda and Trump excited enough people about change to win. Therefore that change must be stopped at all costs. The press is totally complicit in stopping this change in the same way they denied all progress during the Vietnam War. When America was on the march in Vietnam the press would beat the drums for a cease-fire and peace talks. Whereupon the Communist would rebuild, then start all over again. Same strategy today. Just different time. Different issues. As for bureaucrats, I went through three federal cost cuttings. Each time the people that actually did the work at the local level and provided services to people were cut while the pencil pushers at State, Regional and National level retained their high level jobs. After Vietnam the now much vaunted Special Ops were cut in half and combat hardened officers and NCOs were let go while the administrative types kept their jobs. Congress has the right and duty to overturn many administrative rules but they don’t. That way policies Congress agrees with get implemented without political risks. So Congress isn’t too happy about ending this cozy relationship that requires a complicit Executive Branch. And the press isn’t very likely to explain this to low information voters. Americans and the Democrats in particular have rejected JFK’s plea and vilify Trump for even attempting to reverse course. Using Virginia where there are a large number of government workers as a political test is just another example of skewing the message.

    • CH

      Yes, and the democratic congress are major hypocrits who continue to turn a blind eye to all the facts of their weak administration and destruction of the country under the demise that they care about the people in the world, as though we are the saviours, and hide that it is through tax payers money, that increases, and costs increases, so that all women have to work to support other cultures, why they get benefits, because they care so much about the people. They dont care about the American women working 2 jobs, while they have fat salaries, and benefits and are probably stealing funds, and are infrastructures are crumbling, the streets are terrible, looks like they were Made in China, or Mexico. A woman could have done a better job paving the streets, than I have seen in California recently. They dont care, people dont really care, have you driven down a freeway in California? Who ever is on the roads, make sure they dont even let you over in a freeway lane, they risk accidents to get in your way, not let you get ahead or get to your destination happily. Who are these people on the freeway? Are they illegals who are jealous and mad and trying to make people miserable? Are they Americans who go to work and say “have a good day”, and act like they are so caring, yet are sooo rude on the freeways? There is big hypocracy, and miserable people here. Are these the American citizens, or illegals?
      Obviously the people arent that caring, as they walk by homeless, are rude on freeways, dont volunteer much per capita, and could care less if American women and put kids in day care, and give their kids violent video games to watch instead of a mother. they keep increasing the housing costs, food costs, car costs, clothing costs, insurance costs, making regulations to get more income, ect… so kids suffer, women suffer, the family suffers.
      We have major people in swedned dyeing and being beaten, and no one is feeling sorry for the swedish people who were so kind to let them in. The news media doesnt say how awful for these lovely skandinavian people to have their cities destroyed, instead they say bring in on here and can only criticize the president. They have the audacity to act like they know what they are talking about and are better than the president. I would not vote for any of those news persons for any political office, so they need to take a reality test and put theirselves back into reality. They think they are the movie stars of the day.

  • In the end they work for him, when a corporation is taken over and new people step in workers may not like it but if they disrupt the company what should they expect? I have been in that situation but instead of putting my agenda over the owners I resigned. Was it hard, yes but if a person has any honor that is what they do. Sorry to say we have a Great lack of that these days with all the PC socialist trained personnel within our country.
    Creating ill will was started with Obama authorizing all his people to try to disrupt one the three offices that work to make the united states of America function as a nation, I think there is a work for that in law but I will not go there.

  • CH

    I Totally disagree with you. The News Media are not the quality of the news as they were in the past, they have become similar to talk show hosts, who talk about their personal opinions and hit on anything they can and show their bias. They did prior to election, they still do. I find them boring, uneducated, biased, VAIN, yes vanity seems to be the big thread. Most think they are an expert on the person, the results, the subjects, and they aren’t. Even those that want to say they are experts. I can see the level of education has gone way down in this country, as well as the ability to think.
    Perhaps you were also contaminated with the Nixon Administration and its illegalities to win the White House through “Watergate.” Obvioulsy your administration harmed the world at the time, through countless years in Vietnam and the destruction of many lives, and inflation, increasing the U.S. debt, and aiding to the current problems in the U.S.A.