What was the tipping point for The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page in terms of dealing with President Donald Trump’s increasingly sketchy behavior? We now know: It’s the demonstrable lie Trump told about President Barack Obama having wiretapped Trump Tower.
Lamenting “the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods,” the Journal on Tuesday night belittled Trump for being “his own worst political enemy.”
Claiming that “the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle,” the Journal relentlessly mocked Trump’s evidence-free wiretapping claim, using the type of biting rhetoric the page usually reserved for attacking President Barack Obama or the Clintons.
The public undressing represents a clear demarcation line that has extended throughout the Beltway media in recent weeks, as pundits and reporters have drilled down deep on the wiretapping lie and demanded answers, day after day. With none forthcoming, Trump’s team continues to be battered by the story. Even more bizarre, the White House stubbornly refuses to move off its scripted talking points about there being imaginary evidence of the nonexistent Obama-driven wiretapping scheme.
That hyper focus only intensified yesterday after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) took the extraordinary step of going to the White House to brief Trump on an investigation before discussing the information with ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). Trump and his media loyalists immediately insisted that Nunes’ vague claims of incidental intelligence gathering involving officials on the Trump transition team bolstered the president’s wiretapping claim against Obama. But it does no such thing. (Nunes himself “reiterated” that he “had no evidence of” Trump's wiretapping claim, according to Politico.) All of which means Trump’s still stuck pushing a signature, hollow allegation.
Here's the key: The kind of focus on the White House’s wiretapping charade should be extended to the rest of the Trump’s fabrications. Trump lies about everything. And Trump’s surrogates lie about everything. So if journalists are going to relentlessly call out the White House for its wiretapping smear -- and they definitely should -- they ought to be equally aggressive in calling out all of Trump’s casual deceits, which now tumble out on a daily basis. (In a new interview with Time about falsehoods, Trump laced his comments with at least 14 falsehoods.)
In other words, the press is giving Trump a hard time about the Obama wiretap lie, but the media is still too slow and timid about calling out Trump's often more substantial, policy-based lies.
What journalists continue to struggle with is the obvious realization that not only does Trump lie constantly, but that he doesn’t care that people know it. Trump doesn’t care when his claims are swiftly fact-checked. It gives him no pause. And that represents the burgeoning challenge the press faces in covering the Trump White House, based on its almost chronic attempts to fabricate information, followed by no expression of remorse for the wild dissembling.
Ten days into Trump’s term, I cautioned that journalists shouldn’t believe anything the White House tells them – ever. And that journalists needed to rip up the old rules in covering this new president, simply because we’ve never had a White House staffed with so many dishonest people embracing so many “alternative facts.”
Note this exchange from MSNBC on Monday night, as Politico’s Michael Crowley and MSNBC’s Katy Tur analyzed that day’s hearing in the House Intelligence Committee on ties between Russia and Trump, as well as the hollow allegation of Obama wiretapping:
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Over and over again, Sean Spicer and people around Trump are just making these implausible assertions about the scale of this story. And if they would just give a little ground they would have so much more credibility. If they would take the underlying issue seriously, if they would speak accurately and honestly about the players and the factors involved. But when you get this kind of wild overcompensation you have to ask, what are you afraid of? And what are you hiding? It’s just very strange and it begs more questions.
KATY TUR: Or are you working on behalf of a president who is so erratic that you don’t know where solid ground is.
All of that is accurate. But here’s the thing: That critique applies to virtually every topic that the White House tackles. “He lies in ways that no American politician ever has before,” wrote David Leonhardt of The New York Times this week.
And that really needs to be the prism through which journalists view the president. They need push past the idea that it’s mean or “biased” to call Trump a liar. Just like when the White House unveiled its extremist budget proposal last week. If Trump is going to advocate radical positions, then journalists shouldn’t shy away from detailing his radical positions.
The same is true for Trump’s lies. His bizarre one about Obama committing a felony in order to listen in on Trump’s phone calls has caught the media’s imagination. But all of Trump’s bogus claims should be highlighted and ridiculed. Yes, Trump rolls out endless falsehoods, and there's a suspicion that he does so on purpose so the press can't keep up. But they have to. It's now a paramount responsibility.
Whether the lies are about the travel ban, crime statistics, Obama’s birthplace, Jersey City Muslims on 9/11, the unemployment rate, Mexico paying for the border wall, health care for “everybody,” the U.S. murder rate, IRS audits, news coverage of terror attacks, the Electoral College, or voter fraud.
The press should apply the same relentless attention and detail to those lies as that it has to Trump’s wiretapping lie.