Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • The NY Times missed an opportunity to press Trump on health care specifics

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The New York Times is drawing well-earned plaudits for yesterday’s news-making interview with President Donald Trump. In their wide-ranging conversation, reporters Peter Baker, Michael Schmidt, and Maggie Haberman repeatedly used to great effect a strategy of asking open-ended questions and gently prodding the president along, breaking lots of new ground with regard to the ongoing Russia investigation.

    But in contrast to its other successes, the Times missed out on an opportunity to get Trump to answer questions about health care policy.

    There was certainly a need for such an interrogation. The interview came just days after the Senate health care bill collapsed because conservative and more moderate Republicans were unable to reach agreement on the legislation’s contours. Trump has been generally vague about which side’s policy views he favors, but he supported the Senate legislation even though it violates many of the promises he has made to the American people. In tweets and other public statements since it became clear the bill lacked the votes to pass, Trump has taken a variety of positions on what to do next.

    Based on the voluminous excerpts from the interview the paper has published, which “omit several off-the-record comments and asides,” the Times reporters appeared to make no real effort to get at any of the contradictions surrounding Trump’s health care position, or to elucidate for their audience the type of policies he favors. Millions of people will be impacted by the results of this debate; the Times reporters, though, seem primarily concerned with the senators who will vote on it.

    Here are all the questions The New York Times reporters asked Trump about health care, as well as one comment that inspired a response:

    • PETER BAKER: Good. Good. How was your lunch [with Republican senators]?

    • MAGGIE HABERMAN: That’s been the thing for four years. When you win an entitlement, you can’t take it back.

    • HABERMAN: Am I wrong in thinking — I’ve talked to you a bunch of times about this over the last couple years, but you are generally of the view that people should have health care, right? I mean, I think that you come at it from the view of …

    • BAKER: Did the senators want to try again?

    • HABERMAN: How about the last [meeting with Republican senators about health care] in June? Do you guys remember how many came?

    • BAKER: Who is the key guy?

    • HABERMAN: Where does it go from here, do you think?

    • MICHAEL SCHMIDT: How’s [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to work with?

    As you can see, their questions about health care were almost entirely driven by the process and politics of the bill. The closest they came to asking about policy was Haberman’s vague question about whether Trump is “generally of the view that people should have health care”; Trump responded, “Yes, yes,” and the conversation moved on.

    There were some tantalizing openings for the reporters to quiz Trump on his health care policy views that were not taken. At one point, Trump said of Obamacare, “Once you get something for pre-existing conditions, etc., etc. Once you get something, it’s awfully tough to take it away.” A reporter could have followed up and asked why, in spite of the political challenge, Trump believes there is a policy imperative to remove that guarantee and limit the ability of people with pre-existing conditions to gain coverage.

    Trump also said:

    Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.

    I don't really understand what the president is saying here. He appears to be claiming that the model for health insurance is people pay a very low amount of money beginning when they are young and hope to garner benefits when they are old. If true, that’s a staggering display of ignorance; that’s how term life insurance works, not health insurance. Unfortunately, it’s hard to really nail this down because there were no follow-up questions.

    Trump also said of passing health care legislation, “If we don’t get it done, we are going to watch Obamacare go down the tubes, and we’ll blame the Democrats.” This would have been a good opportunity to point out that experts say Obamacare is not failing, ask the president why his administration is taking steps to ensure the system’s decline, or discuss the impact that Obamacare failing might have on Americans who depend on the legislation. Instead, Baker asked, “Did the senators want to try again?”

    The failure of the Times to ask the president tough questions about his health care position is all the more important because there have been vanishingly few opportunities for reporters to do so. The president has largely retreated from press scrutiny in recent months. Trump has not held a full press conference since February; he broke with tradition and did not hold one following the G20 meeting earlier this month. His only on-camera interviews in the last two months have been with the pro-Trump propagandists at Fox and, most recently, with The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, who has said the president’s critics serve Satan.

    When mainstream journalists have had the opportunity to ask Trump to discuss the legislation, they’ve largely dropped the ball. Health care is not mentioned in the excerpts Reuters released of reporter Steve Holland’s July 12 interview with the president. The only reference to the issue in the excerpts the White House released of a conversation Trump had with the press corps during their trip to Paris that night involves the president saying that passing a bill is “tough” but the result will be “really good.” (It’s possible that health care had been discussed in more detail and the White House refused to release those portions, but Haberman would have been aware of this since she participated in that conversation, and that should have provided all the more reason for the Times reporters to ask him about the issue.)

    This is unfortunately typical of a media that has largely focused on politics and process, not policy or the personal stories of those who will be impacted by the passage of the Republican legislation.

    The Times lost out on its opportunity to put the president on the record on his top priority. Given how rare these chances have become, that’s a big miss.

  • The Senate bill on health care imploded, and pro-Trump media is a mess. Sad!

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Senate health care bill is dead again after two conservative Republican senators said last night they would not vote to advance the legislation because it does not repeal enough of former President Barack Obama’s signature health law. As GOP leaders scramble to find a new tactic that will allow them to strip health insurance from millions while slashing taxes for the wealthy, President Donald Trump’s media supporters have been left grasping for a message.

    The original bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assembled through a secretive process and tried to rush through with little public debate, would lead to 22 million more Americans being uninsured at the end of the decade, largely due to cuts to Medicaid; many of those who retain insurance under the bill would pay more for fewer benefits. The bill was amended after the Congressional Budget Office offered that verdict, but the GOP decided not to wait for a new score before moving forward. Democratic senators are universally opposed to the legislation, while the most moderate and conservative Republicans have also refused to sign on, either because it does too much or too little to move away from Obamacare’s improvements to the health care system.

    Trump’s propagandists look to him to set the tone for how to respond to bad news. But the message out of the White House has always been incoherent on health care, largely because the president seems to have no real interest in the various, serious policy debates surrounding the future of health insurance for the American people -- he just wants a win. In May, the president held a Rose Garden event to celebrate the passage of the House bill, which he described as a “great plan.” Weeks later, he turned around and privately called that legislation “mean.”

    That sort of policy incoherence gets in the way of formulating messaging around legislative setbacks. Last night, for instance, Trump tweeted that “Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!” But that tactical messaging completely ignores the question of what a good health care plan would look like, and whether the Senate bill that just went down in flames met that criteria. Without clearly defined heroes and villains or a clear policy vision, his media allies have been left to their own devices. The noise machine is grinding to a halt.

    Absent messaging from the top, here are a few ways the pro-Trump media are responding:

    The GOP leadership failed Trump

    Most of Trump’s propagandists are of the opinion that Trump cannot fail; he can only be failed. As such, they’ve quickly turned their fire on McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI).

    “I know the president is frustrated with the situation. A lot has been promised to him and not much delivered,” Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle said last night. “I think this is a failure on the part of the leadership, to be quite honest. Because they needed to get this to stick and to coalesce and get it done.”

    “Second failure for Mitch McConnell,” Steve Doocy added on Fox & Friends this morning, pointing to the bill’s previous collapse last month.

    Even Matt Drudge is getting in on the act:

    If the Senate bill continues to struggle, and Trump doesn’t publicly support McConnell, we could see calls for his replacement in the near future.

    “It was a lousy bill”

    Trump’s lack of interest in policy leaves his supporters plenty of room to say that they didn’t like the bill, without creating any dissonance about the fact that the president supported the legislation.

    Doocy went after the bill from the start this morning, saying, “Ultimately, what undid this bill is -- the one that they are not going to vote on now --  is it was a lousy bill. I mean, it still had big taxes. It still had a lot of regulations. It had that insurance company subsidy slush fund that Rand Paul was talking about. It was not what the American people” wanted. Notably, since Doocy also has little knowledge of or interest in policy, he can’t really say what a good replacement would look like either, simply saying Congress should “get rid of all that stuff and come up with something new.”

    “Maybe it’s time to nuclear option things”

    One of the problems Senate Republicans faced in trying to push through health care legislation is that because they knew no bill would attract enough Democratic support to overcome a filibuster, they were trying to pass the bill with a 50-vote threshold through the budget reconciliation process. But that process limits what can actually go into the bill, making full repeal of Obamacare extremely difficult.

    In order to sidestep that process, the hosts of Fox & Friends are calling for Senate Republicans to deploy the “nuclear option” and eliminate the filibuster altogether, making all votes subject only to a majority vote. It’s unclear how this would help pass a health care bill since Republicans just demonstrated they don’t have 50 votes in the Senate, but this morning Doocy, co-host Brian Kilmeade, and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer all seemed eager to push through that proposal.

    A few hours later, Trump, who regularly watches Fox & Friends, chimed in, tweeting, “The Senate must go to a 51 vote majority instead of current 60 votes. Even parts of full Repeal need 60. 8 Dems control Senate. Crazy!”

    Hey look over here!

    For some, the best way to get through a crushing defeat for the president is to downplay that it happened.

    Time to move on to tax reform

    Another option is to give up altogether. That’s the current recommendation of Fox News host Eric Bolling, at least until the president makes clear that he’s sticking with health care.

    “Let's just say this thing fails. They put it off to the side,” he said on this morning’s Fox & Friends. “They screwed up. They failed. You shore up the individual insurance markets. You put it off to the side. Then you take up something that I think every single American, whether you are Democrat, independent, or Republican, can wrap their brain around, tax reform.”

    The good news for the pro-Trump media is that tax reform is a very simple issue with few stakeholders and broad agreement in Congress on a way forward. It also helps that the president has learned important lessons from the health care fight about overconfidence in the face of policy fights.

  • No, colluding with a hostile foreign power is not normal "opposition research"

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump and members of his administration have spent months describing as fake news reports on his ties to Russia and the allegations that the Russian government acted to aid his presidential campaign. They have remained steadfast amid a drumbeat of stories and even U.S. intelligence community findings about Russia, the election, and Trump’s staff. His right-wing media allies have been a key force in this endeavor, consistently finding ways to minimize or explain away damning new revelations and blaming them not on Trump, but on a shadowy nexus of Democrats, the “deep state,” and the press. This aid is essential to maintaining the president’s political position: The vast majority of Republicans have continued to support Trump in part because of the efforts of his loyal propagandists.

    Over the last week, new information has emerged that should change the trajectory of the Russia story. As The New York Times reported, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., as well as top Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, met during the 2016 presidential campaign with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer. Emails that Trump Jr. released reveal that the meeting came about after Trump Jr. was told the lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was provided by a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign. Trump Jr. has effectively admitted to trying to collude with a hostile government. The debate should now move to how deep that collusion went, and who was involved.

    But this damning new information has moved few minds among the president’s core media supporters. Instead, faced with the devastating revelation that the president’s campaign was trying to collude with the Russian government, they have followed the president’s lead by offering the risible argument that anyone would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. Faced with evidence that the president’s team serves no morality but that which benefits itself, they have declared that everyone else shares this twisted worldview.

    As Newt Gingrich put it to The Atlantic, “If somebody in the middle of the campaign walks in the door and says ‘I have information that will harm your opponent,’ virtually every campaign in the world will say show me, what do you have.” “Let me tell you, if my father was running for president of the United States,” Kimberly Guilfoyle said on Fox, “I would sit down and take a meeting and find out if there was information against an opponent.” Yesterday, the president himself adopted this argument, telling Reuters, "Many people, and many political pros, said everybody would do” what his son did; he reiterated the point this afternoon.

    It is obviously, flagrantly false that Trump Jr.’s actions were typical and proper. The media has said so: As The New York Times put it, “while opposition research is part of modern presidential campaigns, it normally does not come from representatives of a hostile foreign power.” Top Republican campaign operatives have said so, claiming that the incident was extremely unusual, that they wouldn’t have taken the meeting, and that the Trump team should have reported it to law enforcement. Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to become FBI director, has said so, stating that politicians in that situation should call the bureau. And history says so: When a top aide to Al Gore’s presidential campaign received George W. Bush’s debate preparation materials in the mail, he turned them over to the FBI. (And Trump ally claims that Clinton’s campaign similarly colluded with Ukraine are specious nonsense.)

    At this point, it seems foolish to imagine that Trump’s media allies will change their opinion of the story, regardless of what new information comes forward. They are in too deep at this point, having sacrificed their credibility and independence too many times to turn back now. He expressed unchecked bigotry and they were fine with it; audio bragging about sexual assault was explained away as “locker room talk”; his campaign viciously attacked and even physically battered reporters and was cheered. At a certain point, they went too far, and now have little choice but to tell one another that colluding with a hostile foreign power is not just acceptable, but necessary.

    The president’s media allies have decided to believe the president instead of their own lying eyes. The result is a series of arguments that have the country not only unmoored from a common view of reality, but of anything approaching a common morality. The propagandists have moved the goalposts from a question of whether a presidential campaign colluded with a hostile foreign government, to whether such collusion is actually a good thing. The nagging remaining question is whether their audience will ever decide that they’ve seen enough of this farce.

  • Trump’s next interviewer thinks his critics are serving Satan

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    After two months of cozy Fox News interviews, President Donald Trump finally plans to sit down with another network’s host tomorrow. But don’t expect the interview to shed much light on the numerous scandals currently drowning the Trump administration. The president will be questioned by the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Pat Robertson, who has said that Trump’s critics are defying God’s will and serving Satan.

    Trump has stopped granting televised interviews to media figures who aren't sycophants. According to a Media Matters review, he has done 17 television interviews since being sworn in, 12 of which were with the pro-Trump hosts of Fox News and Fox Business. He has done more interviews (four) with Fox & Friends than with ABC, CBS, and NBC combined. He has not been interviewed by a non-Fox host since his disastrous May appearance with NBC’s Lester Holt, during which he admitted that he had fired FBI Director James Comey because of his handling of the Russia investigation. Trump also has not done a full press conference since February, and his White House’s press briefings have become short, sporadic, and off-camera.

    Robertson makes Sean Hannity look like Rachel Maddow. He believes that God is working on Trump’s behalf and that the president’s opponents are “not only revolting against Trump, they’re revolting against what God’s plan is for America” due to a “satanic” desire to “destroy America.”

    The 700 Club host also has ties to Trump's personal attorney. Jay Sekulow has been chief counsel at the Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice since 1993.

    Robertson has a long history of making bizarre and offensive commentary, including:

    • Days after the 9/11 terror attacks, Robertson said he “totally concur[red]” with Rev. Jerry Falwell's statement blaming the attacks on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way.” He later called Falwell's comments "totally inappropriate."
    • Robertson claimed that a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti happened because Haitians "swore a pact to the devil" to get "free from the French" and "ever since, they have been cursed."
    • Robertson blamed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion.
    • Robertson has called Islam a “political system” that is “bent on world domination” and urged that American Muslims be treated like communists or fascists. He has said that Osama bin Laden “may be one of the true disciples of the teaching of the Quran ... because he's following through literally word-for-word what it says,” and he has predicted “a holy war between Islam and Christianity.”
    • Robertson has labeled a wide range of things as demonic, including: feng shui, yoga, karate, horoscopes, Twilight, paintings of Buddha, television shows about ghosts, Halloween, psychics, young girls levitating their friends at sleepovers, and (sometimes) adopted children from other countries. He once urged a caller to burn a painting of Buddha to eliminate its “demonic power.”

    Shelby Jamerson and Rob Savillo provided additional research

  • Trump Jr., Russian collusion, and the pro-Trump media’s bad-faith attack on the press

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Pro-Trump media outlets are attacking the mainstream press in response to the devastating news that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., met during the 2016 presidential campaign with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer after he was promised she would provide information that would damage Hillary Clinton as part of a pro-Trump effort by the Russian government. More than any other incident in recent memory, this eagerness to hide from reality within the comfort of anti-media rhetoric shows that the right-wing’s media critique is not offered in good faith, but instead is an effort to undermine journalists in the public eye in order to maintain political power.

    Over a four-day period, The New York Times’ journalists painstakingly reported out the story. While their initial stories piecing together the meeting and how it came about were based on anonymous sources, yesterday the reporters produced the actual email chain between Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-linked associate. The messages confirmed the accuracy of their previous reports, as well as Trump Jr.’s eagerness to collude with the Russian government in order to influence the election.

    Meanwhile, Trump Jr. repeatedly changed his story, coming up with new rationales and explanations for the meeting every time the Times reporters came back to him with more evidence that his previous stories were false. Yesterday, he even released the email chain on Twitter, which he claimed was an effort to be “totally transparent.” That, too, was a lie -- he released the emails after being informed that the Times had obtained them and was about to publish a story about them. At this point, it should be impossible for an impartial observer to believe anything Trump Jr. says.

    But President Donald Trump’s media allies love his son and hate journalists, so it didn’t take them long to find a way to turn Trump Jr. literally confessing to an attempt to collude with the Russian government into an attack on the press. Trump’s “alt-right” supporters immediately claimed that Trump Jr.’s email release was a brilliant tactic showing that the “lying NY Times fabricated another fake story!” This argument requires either a startling level of stupidity or a willingness to say literally anything in order to achieve a political end. I’d say no one could be that stupid, but Jim Hoft is involved.

    When they aren’t attacking media outlets for the content of their reporting, the president’s friends are lashing out at them for spending too much time on the Russian collusion story. On Fox News last night, before his predictably sycophantic interview with Trump Jr., chief Fox News propagandist Sean Hannity was declaring that the “mainstream media are right now hysterical over the story” and attacking journalists as “overpaid, lazy, rigid left-wing ideologues.” “Russia, Russia, Russia,” Steve Doocy said this morning on Fox & Friends. “The mainstream media's obsession continues.”

    Breitbart.com’s face plant was perhaps the most embarrasing. On Monday, after the Times reported that three sources had told its reporters that Trump Jr. “was informed in an email that the [anti-Clinton] material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy,” Senior Editor-at-Large Joel Pollak criticized the paper for reporting on emails it had not seen, calling it “the latest effort by the Times to bring down President Donald Trump that relies on documents it has not seen and verified.” That was a bad hill to decide to die on, as the emails ended up backing up the story to the hilt. After the emails were released, Pollak reported that they did not “refer to any cooperation, coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” which is an egregious and obvious misreading of the plain language of the emails.

    This morning, after being noticeably silent on the story over the past several days, President Trump praised his son on Twitter for being “transparent” in the face of “the greatest Witch Hunt in political history.” He added, “Remember, when you hear the words ‘sources say’ from the Fake Media, often times those sources are made up and do not exist.” (Trump frequently makes this claim, but, as with many of his lies, he has never provided any examples of such an event occurring. Journalists who are found to have fabricated stories lose their jobs and become cautionary tales for future generations of reporters.)

    The willingness of Trump’s media allies to attack journalists even when those journalists are obviously right demonstrates that there is no piece of information that will shake the pro-Trump media from their mainstream media attacks. The criticisms are not made in good faith -- they are part of a deliberate effort to delegitimize the press in order to undermine its credibility with the public. The pro-Trump critics cannot be satisfied by any action journalists take short of becoming Hannity-style propagandists, and they should thus be ignored.

    The next phase of this assault on the free press, according to The Washington Post, is “an extensive campaign” by pro-Trump Republican operatives to “try to discredit some of the journalists who have been reporting on” the Trump Jr. story. They are combing through reporters’ past work for “mistakes or perceived biases” and routing that information to pro-Trump outlets like Fox News, which will be eager to use the information to bolster its anti-media attacks.

    Reporters make mistakes, and they should be called out when they fail. But it seems significant that the campaign is being rolled out to attack reporters who covered Trump Jr.’s attempt at Russian collusion, given that White House aides, in anonymous comments to reporters, have been frantic about the public relations disaster and unanswered questions surrounding that story (“This is sum of all fears stuff. It’s what we’ve all been dreading,” one White House official told The Daily Beast). They know this is a real problem involving the actions of the president’s son, his former campaign manager, a top White House aide, and God knows who else. But they’re going to blame the media anyway because they want to retain power.

    It’s an incredibly cynical strategy. Which doesn’t mean it won’t work.

  • Donald Trump Jr. is ready for his close-up (with lickspittle Sean Hannity)

    President Trump and his family members have made more than 100 appearances on Hannity's show

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko/Media Matters

    Donald Trump Jr. is retreating to the safe confines of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in the wake of a devastating series of reports which prove that the president’s son met with a Russian national after being told she would provide damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of the “government’s support” for Donald Trump. Members of the Trump family have made more than 100 appearances on Hannity’s program since the start of the campaign for pillow-soft treatment.

    Over the past three days, the Trump administration has been rocked by a series of stories detailing a June 9, 2016, meeting between Trump Jr., then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, the entertainment publicist Rob Goldstone, and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with ties to Vladimir Putin. In emails setting up the meeting that were made public today, Goldstone told Trump Jr. that his client’s father, a Russian businessman, had been contacted by a senior Russian government official and could provide Trump Jr. with documents that would “incriminate” Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

    Veselnitskaya, described by Goldstone as a “Russian government attorney,” was supposed to convey the information at the meeting. According to Trump Jr., he was eager to accept damaging information about Clinton from a foreign government, but the information Veselnitskaya provided was no good. Trump Jr. has repeatedly dissembled about the meeting over the past few days, with his story changing drastically as reporters uncovered new details about it. And the Russian government’s subsequent “support” for Trump involved a campaign orchestrated by Russian president Vladimir Putin in which emails from Democratic Party officials and organizations were stolen and distributed, according to the U.S. intelligence community.

    Having openly admitted that he knowingly sought information from a U.S. government adversary in order to influence an election -- that he was trying to collude with the Russians -- Trump Jr. is in a lot of trouble. But he has an ally in his corner. Tonight he will make his case under the friendly questioning of Hannity, who is virtually without peer in his loyalty to President Trump and whose softball rescues of Republican politicians are so legendary they have spawned the neologism “to Hannitize,” which means “to clean up a messy situation with a softball interview, typically one conducted by Sean Hannity.”

    According to a Nexis review, since Trump launched his campaign in June 2015, he has made 68 appearances on Hannity's show; his sons Don Jr. and Eric, who run the Trump Organization, have made 14 and 12, respectively; daughters Ivanka, a White House aide, and Tiffany have made one and two appearances, respectively; Eric’s wife, Lara, a Trump campaign aide, has appeared four times; and Trump’s wife Melania has appeared once.

    It is difficult to overstate just how obsequious Hannity’s interview style is during these encounters:

    In recent weeks, Hannity has moved the goal posts, declaring that there’s nothing wrong if the Trump campaign did collude with Russia. In a pre-taped segment last night, he suggested that the Veselnitskaya meeting had been a setup by Democrats (this makes no sense). Based on his Twitter feed, he’s planning on attacking the media for reporting on the story and trying to find a way to attack Clinton. Other pro-Trump sycophants have responded to the story by foolishly praising Trump Jr. for his “transparency” in publicly releasing the emails after learning that The New York Times was about to report on them, or falsely claimed the emails disproved the Times story altogether.

    A better lawyer might counsel Trump Jr. that he should shut the hell up and stop speaking publicly. But if he’s unwilling to take that step, the friendly confines of Hannity are the next best thing.

    Rob Savillo contributed research to this post.

  • New member of White House “election integrity” committee has written that Trump is an ignorant, authoritarian con man

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump is so obsessed with nonexistent voter fraud that, in a virtually unprecedented step, he’s appointed to his “election integrity” commission someone who harshly criticized him during the 2016 presidential primary. And J. Christian Adams, a PJ Media columnist and Republican election lawyer who has portrayed the president as an authoritarian business failure who duped his voters, is so eager to strip voters of their access to the ballot that he took the job.

    Adams is in many ways a classic Trump nominee, with a record of vicious, racially tinged attacks on progressives and high-profile conservative media appearances. But Adams stands out in a key way -- during the Republican primary, he repeatedly criticized then-candidate Trump, highlighting his “authoritarian nature,” savaging him for “fleec[ing]” veterans charities and average Americans, and comparing his “issues-free” presidential campaign to the film Idiocracy.

    In May, the White House announced the creation of the Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a “rogue’s gallery of the country’s worst voter suppressors” with a mandate to find proof of virtually nonexistent voter fraud and issue proposals to make it harder to vote. The commission’s formation followed months of fact-free claims from Trump that he had lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal votes. Adams, who was announced last night as the newest member of the commission, will fit right in -- his selection was criticized by journalists and experts who focus on voting rights.

    Trump has famously refused to appoint otherwise qualified individuals who criticized him during the presidential campaign. But during the Republican presidential primary, Adams, a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), repeatedly lashed out at Trump, portraying him as a con man and a buffoon who appealed to cultural animosity but had no solutions. Adams’ appointment suggests that either the White House is so eager to add another opponent of voting rights to the panel that officials ignored Adams’ past commentary, or there was a breakdown in the vetting process that allowed him to slip through.

    Adams largely ignored Trump in his writings until late January 2016, when a narrowing Republican field left Trump as the front-runner. In a column endorsing Cruz, Adams highlighted Trump’s “bombast and authoritarian nature” and claimed that his understanding of a key issue “is a mile wide and an inch deep.” He also accused Trump of “looking through the world through the lens of race” because he said that he would have support from the African-Americans, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities.

    A few weeks later, Adams issued a blistering column on “Donald Trump's Record of Business Failures and Bluster.” “Trump's business history,” Adams wrote, “reveals someone skilled at making money at the expense of other Americans while his businesses fail, and a man who will say almost anything about these failures.” Running through the litany of failed Trump businesses, he pointed out, “When [Trump] outsources jobs to China or rips off those who attended Trump University, it is American workers who bear the cost of his dealings, not Donald Trump.” He also took a shot at Trump’s propensity for relying on Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric Trump, writing, “Instead of hiring top talent, the record shows Trump seems to prefer hiring his children.”

    “Unfortunately, the real culture of Donald Trump is a culture of bombast, bluster, and serial business failure,” Adams concluded. “Perhaps this is the sort of person Americans want in the White House. Or perhaps they don’t know the sort of person Trump is.”

    In a third piece in late February peppered with references to the movie Idiocracy, Adams wrote that the “Trump campaign is an issues-free zone” and that the candidate’s “policy depth reaches its limits when he says ‘things will be wonderful, great, wonderful. Wonderful and great.’” After listing a series of issues where Trump had not taken firm positions, Adams concluded, “It's almost as if Trump running for president is one big bit. He's putting us on, showing what suckers Americans have become” and “playing the country with a campaign built around insult and the hollowest of slogans and promises.”

    But as the primary campaign came to a close, Adams became just another Trump-supporting sucker. This shift came in light of Trump’s fact-free attacks on elections and the possibility that he would support harsh new restrictions on voting rights. The day after the election, Adams claimed that voter fraud was a key factor preventing Trump from winning the popular vote, and he urged the Justice Department to “prioritize voter fraud prosecutions of the crimes that occurred yesterday and in early voting.” He has since been a staunch supporter of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in large part due to his believe that Sessions will “fight voter fraud.”

    His apparent contempt for the president notwithstanding, Adams’ appointment makes sense given that the White House is trying to assemble voter fraud fabulists to offer proposals that restrict voting. Adams, who was hired during the Bush administration’s illegal politicization of the Justice Department, became famous in the right-wing media for his role in initiating and promoting the myth that the Obama Justice Department engaged in racially charged corruption in a 2008 voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panthers Party. After a storm of manufactured controversy, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility reviewed the handling of the case and found no evidence to support Adams’ claims.

    Adams nonetheless parlayed the attention he garnered in conservative circles for accusing the administration of the first black president of anti-white racism into a columnist gig at PJ Media, a book deal, and numerous appearances on Fox News. Along the way, he’s made a series of racially charged comments, comparing campus diversity committees to “South Africa's apartheid regime,” claiming that black majorities in some U.S. counties exhibit the same “sense of racial animus” as seen amid the “legally sanctioned terror against the white minority” in Zimbabwe during “the transition from white rule to black rule,” and accusing critics of his New Black Panthers fable of using “the same excuse” that Southern segregationists used to write off the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County in 1964.

    Perhaps this is the sort of person White House officials want on their commission. Or perhaps they don’t know the sort of person Adams is.

  • The White House and Trump’s propagandists teamed up to attack CNN at today’s press briefing

    The purpose of WH press briefings is now to undermine the press. At least one reporter has had enough.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used a rare on-camera press briefing to lash out at CNN, claiming that in light of the network’s retraction of a story, “we have gone to a place where ... the media can't be trusted to report the news.” Aided by the pro-Trump media outlets in the room, Sanders sought to further the administration's effort to delegitimize the mainstream press.

    Since late last week, CNN has published, investigated, and retracted a story on ties between Russia and an adviser to President Donald Trump; three journalists involved in the story have resigned. Trump and the pro-Trump media used the incident to buttress their claims that CNN deliberately produces “FAKE NEWS to undermine the president.” That effort is now being echoed from the podium of the briefing room.

    The White House press office teamed up with reporters from two of the president’s staunch media allies to stage an attack on a major press outlet that has provided critical coverage of Trump. Briefers have all but openly discarded the notion that they are supposed to be providing information to reporters and, through them, the American people. Instead, the purpose of the White House press briefings is to aid in the effort to undermine the media’s credibility, shut critical reporters up and make an example of them.

    This was a deliberate, well-choreographed hit by the administration -- Sanders went into the room knowing she wanted to go after CNN, and she had a strategy to get there. After a week of the White House very deliberately refusing to allow the briefings to be videotaped, the cameras were allowed back in the room today. Sanders called on Trump propaganda outlet Breitbart.com’s reporter, presumably knowing that the website has been pushing the CNN story and could be counted on for a softball question. Breitbart’s correspondent basically asked, “Will you please attack CNN,” and Sanders obliged with a well-rehearsed screed against CNN and the rest of the press.

    During her response, Sanders said there is a “constant barrage of fake news directed at this president,” and she urged “everybody across the country to take a look” at stunt videographer James O’Keefe’s hit on CNN, adding the caveat that she doesn’t know “whether it’s accurate or not.” She went on to scold outlets for using anonymous sources about what she termed the “Russia-Trump hoax.”

    Sanders was rebuked from the floor by White House reporter Brian Karem, who interrupted the proceedings to criticize her for being “inflammatory” toward reporters who are “just trying to do their job.”

    Later in the briefing, Sanders called on a reporter from Trump advocate Laura Ingraham’s LifeZette, who asked if the media “should go back and look at anonymously sourced stories on Russia and Trump and, you know, maybe start a review process and retract where necessary.” Sanders replied, “I think that would be a great idea.”

    Roughly a third of the 17 minutes of question time provided by Sanders was devoted to hammering CNN.

    I warned in January of the danger of the White House’s plan to flood the briefings with sycophants and propagandists and its effort to single out individual reporters and crush them. Brian Karem has had enough. Will the rest of the press corps respond, or will they let the administration pick them off one by one?

  • The right-wing attacks on CNN's Russia story are not actually about ethics in media journalism

    The president and his trolls are not fighting CNN. They're fighting the practice of journalism itself.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Over the weekend, CNN published, investigated, and retracted a story which reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking into a Russian investment fund whose head met with a close aide to President Donald Trump earlier this year. On Monday, the network announced that the story’s reporter, editor, and the executive editor of CNN’s investigations division had all resigned. A network source told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that while the network had not disproved the story, swift action had to be taken because there had been a “breakdown in process.”

    Viewed in a vacuum, this would be an admirable, if harsh, example of a major media outlet working to uphold its standards. But the incident -- and the response from the right, with President Donald Trump and his media allies attacking CNN -- comes amid a months-long effort to brand the network and the rest of the mainstream press as “fake news.” The attacks on CNN that have poured in over the last few days have not been credible arguments made in good faith by people who want a better media. They’ve been the vapid bleatings of the press’s enemies, who want to grind down journalists and narrow the scope of acceptable behavior for mainstream outlets using standards to which they don’t themselves adhere. There is no point in trying to appease the right-wing critics, and responsible journalists should not act as if there’s a way to win them over.

    “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign,” Trump tweeted this morning. “What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”

    “CNN's descent from news organization to political campaign is nearly complete,” Tucker Carlson claimed on Fox last night. For Fox’s Sean Hannity, the incident proved there is a “major credibility crisis at CNN.” Asked about the president’s tweets on Fox & Friends the next morning, Newt Gingrich, a close ally of the president’s, chimed in to say the network needs to get rid of president Jeff Zucker and bring in “an outside analyst” to “review everything at CNN and basically reset it.”

    To be clear, CNN investigated its report, found it did not meet the network’s standards, and the report was not only retracted, but the people involved with its production also no longer work there. At the pro-Trump press outlets like Fox, such consequences simply do not happen.

    If Fox held to CNN’s standard, the network would have fired Special Report anchor Bret Baier over last year’s retracted, anonymously sourced report, presented days before the presidential election, that an indictment was “likely” in the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. Fox & Friends hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade wouldn’t still have jobs after being scolded by a top network executive and a federal judge for their tendency to credulously report Internet hoaxes and absurd smears. Senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano would have been canned after he claimed that unnamed intelligence sources had told him that late last year, a British spy agency had surveilled Trump on behalf of then-President Barack Obama.

    The reality that mainstream outlets have standards that the right-wing press doesn’t is admirable, but it is also a vulnerability. The president and his media supporters have internalized the lesson that admitting fault is how you lose, and fighting back is how you win. Thus they almost never say they did something wrong -- and certainly never penalize themselves for their failings -- even if, say, tape emerges of the president saying that he likes to sexually assault women. This refusal to apologize has allowed them to prime their audience to feast on opponents who acknowledge failures.

    The right wing’s argument in this case is extremely simple, and it fits with a story its adherents have been telling for quite some time: CNN, and the mainstream media more broadly, is fake news, deliberately producing false stories to damage Trump and the conservative movement. CNN’s argument -- that the network tries hard to get its stories right, and when it fails to meet its own standards, it takes action -- is much more complex. That’s a weakness since the general public simply does not have much trust for journalists.

    And the president’s media allies do not intend to leave it there. Late last night, video propagandist James O’Keefe released a hidden-camera video featuring a supervising producer for the CNN Medical Unit, who said that the network had yet to uncover a Russia “smoking gun” and that the network’s reporting is driven by ratings.

    The claim that CNN has no standards and cares only about getting more viewers is contradicted by the resignations from yesterday, and it's unclear why a health producer would have particular insight into the network’s Russia coverage, or why all network producers should have the same opinions about coverage. But no matter; the point is to tear the network down. The video is being billed as a major scandal by the “alt-right” and pro-Trump media, with Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large for the conspiracy theory website Infowars, stating that Trump “must now revoke CNN’s White House press credentials” based on the tape.

    CNN and rest of the media should learn from this. For decades, the right wing has sought to work the press as a way to delegitimize and lessen critical coverage. But the conservative attacks on the media are not made in good faith. The most important tweet the president sent this morning explains what Trump thinks of major news outlets:

    This isn’t an argument over what constitutes good journalism and what doesn’t. It’s a fight over whether a critical press should exist.

    Journalists should do what they think is right in order to adhere to and uphold their standards. But they should make those decisions without paying attention to the bad-faith complaints from the right. They can’t worry about the conservative criticisms as if there is something they could do to make them stop. That will never happen. Firing journalists who mess up won’t help. Neither will hiring pro-Trump sycophants. The conservative goal is a cowed press that pushes the same propaganda that Fox does. Unless the rest of the press is willing to adhere to that standard, the right will never be satisfied.

  • New MSNBC host Hugh Hewitt is Sean Hannity in glasses

    The Trump supporter puts an intellectual shine on partisan hackery

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    “It is hard work to read widely and broadly, and on both sides of the political aisle,” conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt wrote in a July 2014 explanation of why he had decided to, in his words, “embarrass” a young Huffington Post journalist during an interview on his radio show by quizzing him about what books he had read about the war on terror. “Time consuming. Not very fun actually. But necessary. If you intend to be taken seriously. More importantly, if you intend the country to endure.”

    Since then, NBC hired Hewitt as a political analyst, The Washington Post brought him on as a contributing columnist, and MSNBC has now announced that it is handing Hewitt a weekly show airing on Saturday mornings. These media outlets fell for the idea that he is a different type of conservative talker, the “antidote” to “bombastic personalities” like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. In reality, his actions during the 2016 presidential election campaign and the early months of the Trump administration have showed that he simply puts an intellectual gloss on their same brand of partisan hackery.

    In recent weeks, while pundits who share Hewitt's reputation for erudition have castigated the president as dangerously unlearned and incurious, Hewitt has instead stood alongside the president's media sycophants, laying down cover fire for Trump. Hewitt supported Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating his campaign's connections to the Russian government; he downplayed reports that Trump had revealed highly classified information in a meeting with Russian officials; after numerous outlets reported that Comey had kept notes of a meeting with Trump in which the president suggested he halt an investigation into a Trump aide, Hewitt's focus was on whether Comey, not Trump, had behaved appropriately. 

    A breakout media star of the campaign, Hewitt garnered numerous glowing profiles stressing his intellectual heft and curiosity: the “necessary bookshelf” of national security tomes he promotes on this website; how he opens interviews by asking his guests if they know who Alger Hiss is and have read Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower*; his friends on all sides of the political debate; his regular interviews of prominent mainstream journalists; his experience in politics, law, and academia; and in particular the way those features make him distinct from other conservative radio and cable news hosts.

    But Hewitt set aside his concern for the life of the mind and voted for Donald Trump for president, a man of manifest ignorance and intellectual laziness who is unaware of basic historical facts and legal principles, uninterested in policy nuance or detail. As Hewitt had noted in demolishing a 31-year-old journalist, it is “hard work to read widely,” and Trump never bothered to try -- it seems plausible he has read fewer books as an adult than he is credited with writing. Asked to name the last book he had read in an interview last May, Trump commented, “I read passages. I read -- I read areas, I read chapters. I just -- I don't have the time."

    For Hewitt, reading widely was necessary to credibly comment on foreign policy, but not to make it.

    Hewitt, who remained neutral during the Republican presidential primary, frequently provided Trump with friendly access to his audience; he was “the very best interview in America,” according to the host. In none of those interviews with a man who was seeking to be the potential next leader of the free world was Hewitt nearly as aggressive as he had been in his interview with a young Huffington Post reporter.**

    In their first interview, in February 2015, Trump acknowledged that he hadn’t read The Looming Tower, couldn’t name any works of fiction that he’d read, and admitted that he could not speak about nuclear submarines in any real detail (“I just know this. Military is very important to me.”). None of this seemed to strike Hewitt as a problem.

    Hewitt could perhaps be forgiven for not going after Trump with guns blazing at that time, before Trump had announced he was running for president, when many commentators thought that his potential run was a joke. But as the months passed and Trump became and remained the Republican front-runner, Hewitt never pivoted to consistently scrutinizing Trump’s intellectual stature.

    Hewitt drew attention and praise for their seventh interview in September 2015. Saying that he was finally going to give the Republican front-runner “commander in chief questions,” the radio host quizzed Trump about major terrorist leaders and international events. “I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?” Hewitt asks at one point. “No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone,” Trump replied.

    Commentators praised Hewitt for having “stumped” and “tripped up” Trump. Hewitt himself takes issue with those characterizations, and indeed, if you review the interview transcript, you’ll find Hewitt repeatedly bringing Trump back from the ledge that the candidate’s ignorance put him on.

    Hewitt let Trump get away with saying it was appropriate for him not to learn about foreign policy issues until he’s elected and claiming that he wasn’t willing to talk about hypotheticals because he didn’t “want the other side to know” what he would do. At one point Trump openly rejected the entire premise of Hewitt’s purported worldview, saying that because he’s a “delegator” who hires “great people” it’s “ridiculous” to ask him specific questions about prominent figures and world events.

    Following the interview, as pundits criticized Trump for his performance, the candidate lashed out at Hewitt as a “third-rate radio announcer.” After initially defending his own performance, Hewitt said that it was his fault that Trump had "misunderstood" his question.

    Trump's criticism got results, as the host adjusted his interview style to get back on Trump’s good side. Hewitt interviewed Trump eight more times over the course of the presidential campaign. He never again asked Trump a question intended to demonstrate whether the candidate had specific knowledge, instead focusing on open-ended foreign policy hypotheticals, process questions, and softballs about Clinton’s alleged misdeeds.

    In the end, the erudite Hewitt, who cast aspersions at a reporter for commenting on foreign policy without first reading the right books, ended up supporting Trump just as Limbaugh and Hannity did, and for much the same reasons. In the end, Hewitt was a partisan, towing the Republican line and supporting the party’s nominee in spite of Trump’s manifest ignorance.

    “Of course I am voting for Donald Trump. You should be too if you are a conservative,” Hewitt wrote in July. His case was a raw appeal to the need to ensure that Republicans gained access to the levers of power. Conservative dominance of the U.S. Supreme Court outweighed all other factors, according to Hewitt; his other arguments included the claim that “Hillary Clinton is thoroughly compromised by the Russians,” that Trump will appoint conservatives to positions of power, and that he definitely really “isn’t a racist, or a dangerous demagogue, a Mussolini-in-waiting, a Caesar off-stage.”

    When Hewitt did speak out against Trump -- at times even calling for the Republican National Committee to take action to prevent him from being nominated and urging the nominee to drop out -- his argument was again partisan: that Trump should be replaced because he could not win. Trump was on the ticket on Election Day, and so Hewitt voted for him.

    This sort of naked partisanship -- the belief that one’s party is better for the country than the alternative, and thus should be supported as long as its candidate can meet some bare minimum standard (“isn’t a racist, or a dangerous demagogue”) -- is a defensible position. But it’s certainly not the position one would expect from someone with Hewitt’s exalted reputation, especially with that bare minimum very much in question.

    Trump’s rise was a revelatory moment that separated out the conservative commentators who had a political principle beyond ensuring the Republican Party gained power from those who did not. Several of Hewitt’s colleagues who are similarly regarded as intellectuals distinguished themselves by condemning Trump, saying that they could not in good conscience support someone with his history of ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, and demagoguery. Hewitt failed this test, in a manner that clashes with the story Hewitt tells about himself, and the one that others tell about him.

    Since Trump clinched the Republican nomination, some in the conservative press have blamed right-wing commentators like Limbaugh and Hannity for being willing to set aside principles and carry water for the candidate. But that behavior was completely in character for the right-wing talk radio hosts, who have long served as standard bearers of the Republican Party.

    While his megaphone is much smaller than those of Limbaugh and Hannity, Hewitt presents a bigger problem for the conservative movement. He was one of the few with a reputation as an intellectual force who was willing to sacrifice his principles to back the GOP nominee -- and was rewarded with new posts at The Washington Post and MSNBC as an in-house Trump supporter.

    Like other pro-Trump pundits, Hewitt is regularly called upon to defend the indefensible, and he frequently rises to the challenge. His recent missives at the Post include columns headlined "It's time to relax about Trump," "Stop the Trump hysteria," and "Trump’s first 100 days give conservatives a lot to celebrate."

    But unlike the Jeffrey Lords and Kayleigh McEnanys, and perhaps because of his strong relationships with mainstream journalists and pundits, Hewitt has largely managed to keep his reputation intact. He doesn’t deserve to.

    “I would not go through life ignorant of key facts, especially important facts. So many of the people writing under bylines are willing to do just the opposite today,” Hewitt concluded in his essay about why he embarrasses journalists. “It cannot end well when a free people are choosing leaders based upon the reporting of a class of people both biased and blind as well as wholly unaware of both or if aware, unwilling to work at getting smart enough to do their jobs well.”

    Fair enough. But surely it also “cannot end well” when the leaders we choose are also “unwilling to work at getting smart.” That is, perhaps, a key fact of which Hewitt remains ignorant.

    Hewitt got his Supreme Court justice. All it cost him was his dignity.

    Shelby Jamerson provided additional research. Images by Sarah Wasko.

    *Hewitt says he asks about Hiss “because the answer provides a baseline as to the journalist’s grasp of both modern American political history and to a crucial fault-line through it,” and about The Looming Tower because “It is almost journalistic malpractice to opine on any aspect of the West’s conflict with Islamist radicalism without having read Wright’s work, which won the Pulitzer Prize and which is the standard text.” For the record, the author knows who Hiss is, believes the evidentiary record supports the conclusion that he was a Soviet spy, and has read The Looming Tower.

    ** Hewitt has interviewed Trump 15 times during the campaign, for the following editions of his radio show: February 25, 2015; June 22, 2015; August 3, 2015; August 12, 2015; August 26, 2015; August 29, 2015; September 3, 2015; September 21, 2015; October 22, 2015; November 5, 2015; December 1, 2015; February 4, 2016; February 22, 2016; June 23, 2016; and August 11, 2016.