Matt Gertz

Author ››› Matt Gertz
  • When it comes to John McCain, some journalists will never, ever learn

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko /  Media Matters

    Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted yesterday to proceed to debate on an unknown Republican health care bill (or bills) written in unprecedented partisan fashion outside of the normal legislative process. Then he stood in the well of the Senate and decried partisanship and legislative hijinks. Many political journalists applauded his words and scoffed at liberals who pointed out the inconsistency with his actions, even generating convoluted, nonsensical explanations that he was setting himself up to oppose the eventual bill. Hours later, McCain proved the liberals right by supporting a proxy vote for a partisan bill written outside of the legislative process that had not been fully reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office.

    It’s not a coincidence that political reporters missed the story on McCain in their rush to canonize him. They’ve been wrong about him for decades.

    Political journalists love to tell the legend of John McCain, the noble, straight-talking maverick who says what he means and means what he says. The reality is much less interesting: McCain is a standard-issue Republican senator with few legislative accomplishments but an immense talent for press relations.

    McCain won the affection of the press in the simplest way possible -- he worked them. Beginning in the late 1990s, as he and his ghostwriter Mark Salter were reinventing him and positioning him for his first presidential run, McCain gave reporters access, treated them alternatively to respect and jocular insults, and provided a steady stream of good quotes. The deployment of the Straight Talk Express, the presidential campaign bus McCain used to charm and disarm reporters on long trips through the countryside, was a brilliant maneuver. And it worked. “The press loves McCain,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said in 2006. “We’re his base.”

    McCain talks a good game to reporters, at times providing them with juicy quotes criticizing his party’s excesses. But his voting record in recent years is basically in line with that of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). No one calls Hatch a maverick. On the rare major legislative issues in which he has defied his party -- the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and comprehensive immigration reform -- McCain has repudiated or abandoned his attempts to break with the party as they came under increasing fire from the right.

    The “maverick” reputation largely unraveled among the press late in the 2008 presidential campaign, helped along by his nakedly cynical decision to pick the woefully unqualified Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. But old habits die hard, and for years we have seen declarations from political journalists and commentators that Maverick McCain is “back.”

    The label even survived McCain’s decision to endorse Donald Trump (a man he fairly clearly did not trust with nuclear weapons), a clear admission that, to the extent McCain ever represented a different kind of Republican, he lost and was willing to bow to those that won. After McCain offered criticism of the president in the early days of his administration, reporters again rushed to praise his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, ignoring that he had voted for almost every member of the president’s cabinet.

    Yesterday’s paean to the “need for bipartisanship” and a demand to return to “the old way of legislating in the Senate” immediately following a vote in favor of partisan legislation crafted in secret should have exposed McCain to his friends in the press. Instead, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted, there was a divide between “less traditional reporters” who pointed out McCain’s inconsistency and television and newspaper reporters who warmly received his remarks.  

    Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of a CNN.com news article by White House reporter Stephen Collison: “In a Washington moment for the ages, Sen. John McCain claimed the role of an aging lion to try to save the Senate, composing a moving political aria for the chamber and the country that he loves. With a deep-red scar etched from his eyebrow to his temple, the legacy of brain surgery less than two weeks ago, McCain beseeched his colleagues to forsake political tribalism and restore the chamber to a spirit of compromise that had helped forge national greatness.”

    Some in the press, noting McCain had said in his speech that he “will not vote for the bill as it is today,” created convoluted explanations for how McCain was “laying the groundwork to vote no” on a final bill. This made little sense at the time -- McCain doesn’t need to lay “groundwork”; if he has a problem with how the bill was put together he could have opposed it and forced the return to regular order he championed. And in any case, McCain effectively voted for “the bill as it is today” later that night, proving his media backers wrong in embarrassing fashion.

    Maybe McCain will find a way to vote “no” on one of the health care bills that will apparently come before the Senate, while voting “yes” on other versions of the legislation. If that happens, his “base” in the media will surely grab ahold of that vote with both hands and declare the senator and themselves vindicated, regardless of how little sense that makes. But expecting McCain to be the deciding vote preventing Republican health care legislation would be foolhardy. He’s a run-of-the-mill Republican senator who can be counted on to fall in line. Indeed, he almost always has.

  • Capitol Hill staff prevent journalists from reporting on health care protesters

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Capitol Hill staff blocked reporters from reporting on demonstrators who were protesting the Senate’s vote to proceed to debate on an as-yet-unknown Republican health care measure. In at least one case, a journalist said they forced him to delete his video of the protesters.

    As voting began on the measure, dozens of protesters yelled “kill the bill” and “shame” from the Senate gallery. The demonstrators were removed from the gallery and placed under arrest by Capitol Police:

    But reporters who attempted to report on the scene were denied access on the grounds that they were observing a “crime scene”:

    Reporters were told they could not take photos and had to delete any they had taken:

    And in at least one case, a journalist says he was forced to delete a video he had recorded:

    In recent weeks, Republicans have sought to curtail press access on Capitol Hill. At one point, the Senate rules committee said it would begin enforcing a rule banning reporters from filming interviews with senators unless they had been granted permission ahead of time, according to journalists. Following an uproar, Republicans backed off.

  • Donald Trump's ideal attorney general is this random Fox News anchor

    Fox's Gregg Jarrett fits the model the president seems to be seeking

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III may be on his way out. The former senator who was one of the first converts to President Donald Trump’s cause has lost his favor after properly recusing himself over the Russia investigation. And the president isn’t shy about it -- he’s been publicly demeaning Sessions on Twitter for not prosecuting Hillary Clinton for her “crimes” and sending out incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci to suggest that the president wants him gone.

    The possible removal of the nation’s top law enforcement officer because he has not prosecuted the president’s former political rival is deeply troubling and points to Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. But it also shows that the president is trapped in a right-wing media feedback loop.

    As has been the case with many of the president’s Twitter rages, his most recent attack on the attorney general seems to have come in response to a Fox News segment, in this case one defending the president over the Russia investigation. The president constantly consumes the network’s propagandistic defenses of his conduct. That seems to inexorably push him to behave as if the alternate reality Fox is depicting is the real one. And then Fox has to scramble to find a way to defend the new indiscretion.

    The president has come to believe the legal arguments that Fox has been making to defend him -- that he has done nothing wrong with regard to Russia, that Clinton is the true criminal, that special counsel Robert Mueller has conflicts of interest and should be fired. With Trump’s behavior already scaring off potential Sessions successors, it would be plausible -- and consistent with his TV-based rationale for recent hires -- for him to nominate as attorney general someone he has watched make those arguments on television.

    If Trump wants an attorney general who will defend every aspect of his behavior with regard to Russia while using the power of the Department of Justice to persecute his political foes, he should look no further than Fox News’ Gregg Jarrett. While it’s unlikely that Jarrett would actually be the pick, he has been providing a model for the type of behavior Trump would want from an attorney general.

    A former attorney who spent years as an anchor for COURT TV, Jarrett has been an anchor for Fox since 2002. Usually a low-profile news anchor, Jarrett has in recent days emerged as the network’s leading legal defender of the president regarding the Russia probe. Jarrett makes regular appearances on Hannity and other programs to put forward legally dubious explanations of why the Trump team’s actions have been legally acceptable while the president’s opponents and investigators have broken the law.

    Jarrett’s defenses of the president have ticked all the boxes. He’s repeatedly said that even if the president or his team colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, they wouldn’t have broken any laws. That’s false, but as far as Trump is concerned, it’s an improvement from Sessions, who has said such collusion would be “improper and illegal.” When news broke that the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. had set up a meeting with Russians interested in influencing the election, Jarrett scoffed.

    After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, many legal experts said it appeared to be textbook obstruction of justice. Not Jarrett, who claimed that Comey “deserved to be fired” and that “it should have happened a long time ago.” After it emerged that Trump had asked Comey to shut down the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Jarrett found a way to defend that too.

    But Trump doesn’t just want an attorney general who will defend his actions -- he wants one who will attack his enemies. Here, too, Jarrett’s spin has been exceptional. Hillary Clinton? Jarrett wants a special prosecutor to review the emails case. James Comey? Jarrett wrote that his interactions with the president showed that Comey had obstructed justice. Robert Mueller? Jarrett wrote that Mueller’s relationship with Comey is a disqualifying conflict of interest and called for his removal. Jarrett has even said that Mueller and Comey “may be acting in collusion to get the president” and called for the president to get an injunction to stop the special counsel investigation if it starts to pursue his finances.

    There are, of course, some downsides to a Jarrett pick. He has never served as a prosecutor or in public service, nor has he ever led a large bureaucracy, of course, but since when has Trump cared about typical qualifications? The bigger problem is that Sessions’ bigotry and his anti-immigrant stance have made him a beloved figure among a big chunk of Trump’s base. His efforts to punish immigrants have led to some of the administration’s few policy accomplishments. Jarrett claiming that he frequently experiences microaggressions as a white man doesn’t really rate, though his attacks on sanctuary cities are promising. And pushing through a nominee who is on the record making these claims might be too much for even Senate Republicans to stomach.

    While Jarrett probably won’t be Trump’s pick if he dynamites convention and fires Sessions, it is clear that the president expects this sort of behavior from an attorney general. Just as the obsequious support of Sean Hannity and the hosts of Fox & Friends represent Trump’s model for how journalists should behave, people like Jarrett are what he expects from a government lawyer. When all you know about the government comes from watching Fox News, Fox News becomes your model for how the government should work.

  • Trump's toady at Breitbart attacks Jake Tapper, and that should worry everyone

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The White House communications director has changed, but the White House message remains the same. The mainstream press is still viewed as the administration’s enemy. All signs point to the conclusion that at best, the cold war between President Donald Trump and the media will continue, and at worst, we may be entering a new, darker phase where the Trump team turns individual journalists into targets, rather than raging against the press as an institution.

    Anthony Scaramucci, the New York financier Trump hired last week to take over his public relations effort, said in an interview on Sunday that he wants to reboot the White House’s relations with the press and create “an era of a new good feeling with the media.” But his Friday press briefing was filled with warning signs for the reporters who cover the president, and his appearances on the Sunday morning political talk shows featured attacks on “fake news” from mainstream journalists “that do stretch stories or do fabricate things.”

    “I expect that they’re going to want to hold me and the White House accountable,” Scaramucci said of reporters on Fox News Sunday, “but we’re going to sort of want to hold them accountable, too.”

    Scaramucci didn’t explain what he meant by holding reporters accountable, and host Chris Wallace didn’t press him on it. But hours later, after Scaramucci faced a tough interview on CNN, Matt Boyle, a close media ally of the president, fired off a nonsensical hit piece aimed at Scaramucci’s interlocutor, Jake Tapper.

    In their extensive, contentious interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Tapper grilled the new White House official on the investigation into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia. After one particularly heated exchange, in which Tapper asked why Trump still refuses to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Scaramucci suggested that the press is deliberately trying to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by covering the story.

    Tapper’s interview quickly drew attention from his colleagues in the press. Numerous media outlets highlighted Scaramucci’s claim to Tapper that an anonymous person had told him that if the Russians had actually hacked Democratic Party institutions, as the U.S. intelligence community has said, “you would have never seen it.” Seconds later, after Tapper pressed him for the source, Scaramucci admitted it was Trump.

    But that embarrassing incident wasn’t why Tapper’s interview drew the attention of Matt Boyle, the bombastic Trump sycophant who serves as Washington bureau chief for Breitbart.com, the conservative organ previously run by the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Boyle had been rewarded the day before by getting the first interview with Scaramucci as newly minted White House communications director. The pair spent the interview joking about a possible place for Boyle in the administration and lashing out at CNN over their “fake news.”

    In a piece that reads like bad oppo used by someone more interested in nailing a political foe than considering whether his argument holds up, Boyle fixated on Tapper’s statement that he had grown up in a Philadelphia neighborhood “very similar” to Scaramucci's. According to Boyle, Tapper had “been caught misstating his background on live television” because he “puffed up his own credentials trying to link himself back to the middle class and the working class in America -- a link he does not have.”

    But Boyle provided no evidence that Tapper’s statement that he grew up in a middle class neighborhood was inaccurate, instead focusing on the CNN anchor’s tenure at a “private elite high school with exorbitant tuition rates” and at Dartmouth College to claim that he “is in fact an Ivy League elite.”

    These facts are neither new nor contradictory. As Tapper explained on Twitter yesterday -- in a thread that Boyle embedded in the article -- his parents divorced when he was young, and he split time between his doctor father’s suburban home and his mother’s house in a working class neighborhood. Ignoring what Tapper actually said, Boyle suggests the CNN host is lying because Tapper's school was expensive (notably, Boyle knows the current price of tuition, but not the price when Tapper attended decades ago). Moreover, Boyle’s attack on Tapper for attending a pricey “elite high school” downplays a key fact: The school, according to Forward, was a Jewish day school. Criticizing someone as an elite because they attended a religious school instead of a public one is a curious maneuver for a purportedly conservative outlet. (The salt-of-the-earth Scaramucci attended Tufts University and Harvard Law School before joining Goldman Sachs.)

    Notably, the Boyle piece does not challenge Tapper’s reporting in any real way. It’s an attack on him, not on his work.

    It’s certainly not unusual for Breitbart to attack real journalists. But was it simply a coincidence that the president’s house organ published a hit piece on a journalist who engaged in a combative interview with a White House staffer, or is there something more in play?

    Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that “Republican operatives close to the White House” are conducting opposition research on reporters as part of “what could be an extensive campaign” to discredit journalists who report on the Russia story. Feeding negative information to conservative news outlets was seen as a key part of that effort. And Tapper has long been a top target of the White House -- Axios reported back in February that GOP operatives were pushing anti-Tapper hit pieces after a contentious interview with White House aide Kellyanne Conway.

    The Trump administration often seems to divide reporters into two categories: the pro-Trump ones who are praised and rewarded for their loyalty, and the mainstream media “opposition party” who are often undermined and attacked.

    But while the Trump White House’s attacks on the press have been a key element of his team’s messaging strategy throughout the administration thus far, the criticisms have largely targeted the institution of the media at large, or particular outlets that angered the president. (The key exception is CNN’s Jim Acosta, who challenged the president during a February press conference.) By contrast, during the campaign, Trump frequently lashed out at individual reporters by name, on Twitter and on the stump. His most prominent targets received a wave of death threats and hate mail, at times compelling them to hire security guards.

    We’ve already seen cases where the press office uses its media allies to target mainstream outlets. We may be seeing a lot more of that in the days to come. If the White House and its allies begin targeting individual reporters, the consequences could be dire.

  • The lights are going down on the Sean Spicer show. Here’s the mess he leaves behind.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    UPDATE: At today's press briefing, new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci announced that Sarah Huckabee Sanders will replace Sean Spicer as press secretary. Sanders has a long record of lying and attacking the press on President Donald Trump's behalf, and she will doubtlessly continue Spicer's shameful record. 

    Sean Spicer is on his way out, The New York Times reports, resigning from his post at the end of August to protest President Donald Trump’s plan to make financier Anthony Scaramucci his new communications director. But the former White House press secretary will not be forgotten. A respected Republican political operative who served as communications director for the Republican National Committee, Spicer provided establishment polish to the president’s war on the media, serving as the administration’s heavy until Trump grew tired of his performance. As much as any other member of the president’s team, Spicer is responsible for the dissolution of political norms that Trump’s administration has effected as it tries to delegitimize its critics in order to maintain power.

    Spicer turned the daily press briefings from a give-and-take between reporters and a White House seeking to inform the public into a grueling battleground where journalists were constantly denigrated for diverting from the party line. When he wasn’t lashing out at mainstream reporters, he was trying to stack the deck with more favorable questions by elevating representatives from conservative outlets -- particularly through the innovation of “Skype seats.” The length of the briefings -- which were short to begin with -- had plummeted in recent months, with the press office often demanding that they be kept off-camera.

    Spicer’s relationship with the press as press secretary began in crisis. On the evening after Trump’s inauguration, he convened the press corps. What followed was a shocking and unprecedented scolding, as Spicer lashed out at the press for its supposed “shameful and wrong” coverage of the inaugural crowd. Spicer, lying, claimed before images of the crowd that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe.” Setting the tone for future encounters, Spicer said that he intended to “hold the press accountable” for reporting facts that the administration denied, and then he left the briefing room without taking questions, to the shock and dismay of the journalism community.

    Two days later, a more subdued Spicer appeared for his first official White House press briefing. Spicer denied that he had lied about the inaugural crowd, saying that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” while standing by his comments. Spicer told the same lies he had before, but because he did so in a calmer fashion, he received plaudits from reporters who no doubt hoped that the trend would improve.

    It did not. In order to defend a president who lies on a shockingly regular basis, Spicer would need to bend the truth again and again in the months to come.

    But lies alone cannot sustain an administration like this. In order to preserve the backing of its supporters, the White House would need to delegitimize any source of information that provides unfavorable facts about the administration. That strategy required regular attacks on the press from the White House briefing podium. Spicer filled that role with vigor. He attacked outlets and demeaned reporters who produced reporting damaging to the administration on a regular basis. He compared reporters to children, called one an “idiot,” and demanded another stop shaking her head in the briefing room.

    Spicer consistently harangued the media for its “negative” narrative and its “fake news” reports. When other members of the administration criticized the press as the “opposition party” or even the “enemy of the American people,” Spicer had no apparent problem standing by them. Nor did he see an issue with helping along the president’s attacks on other government entities.

    Spicer’s overzealous willingness to do anything and everything to defend the president notably caused an international incident back in March. In order to try to back up Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 presidential campaign, Spicer read a series of articles from the podium. This included a Fox analyst’s anonymously sourced claim that a British intelligence service spied on Trump on Obama’s behalf. The intelligence service denied the claim, Fox repudiated the reporting, and the administration was forced to discuss the incident with the British government. When Spicer was asked about the incident the following week, he shut down the briefing.

    Spicer was performing for an audience of one -- Trump, who regularly watched the press briefings on TV and even reportedly would send notes on his performance to the podium -- and he was willing to do anything to make the president happy. Spicer’s loyalty to the administration and his complete lack of standards or honesty in his role did little to help him.

    In May, the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey led to a communications disaster that ended with the president saying that his own spokespeople could not be trusted to convey the facts and suggesting that the administration might cancel all press briefings. Angry with his handling of the story, the president reportedly considered firing Spicer. In the months since, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, has often taken Spicer’s place at the podium, and rumors constantly swirled about possible replacements.

    On Tuesday, Spicer conducted his final briefing before news of his resignation broke -- it was his first briefing in three weeks. According to The Washington Post, his performance was “clueless,” and he seemed “out of the loop… often punting on basic questions.”

    The White House press corps should not expect things to improve with Spicer gone. Sanders has shown the same willingness to lash out at journalists, has demonstrated little interest in answering their questions or providing the slightest bit of information, has overseen the continuing de-emphasis of the briefings, and has eagerly worked with pro-Trump media outlets to undermine the rest of the press. Any political operative who comes from outside the administration to replace Spicer will know exactly what he or she is getting into and what is expected of the role, including continued attacks on the free press.

    Spicer will be gone, but the show will go on.

  • 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.