The White House became just another set for President Donald Trump’s reelection show on Tuesday. The second night of the Republican National Convention featured the president issuing an official pardon and leading a naturalization ceremony, Secretary Mike Pompeo breaching tradition and his department’s regulations with a video message shot during an official visit to Jerusalem, and Melania Trump giving a keynote speech from the Rose Garden. Ethics experts are agog, and say that at least some of these events may have violated the Hatch Act, which restricts politicking by federal officials. And it’s not over yet -- Trump will again flout presidential norms on Thursday when he accepts his party’s nomination from the White House’s South Lawn.
The scope and brazenness of Trump’s use of government resources to prop up his political campaign is unprecedented, and it could be a major scandal -- if reporters decided to treat it as one. But some political journalists are shrugging off Tuesday’s events, arguing that while the administration’s actions were unethical, they probably won’t matter to voters. This does not seem to be true. But moreover, there’s an odd passivity here that ignores the reality that the extent to which voters care about such stories is linked to the amount of time and attention cable and broadcast news producers and print and online news editors are willing to devote to them.
Politico’s Playbook ran down the list of actions on Wednesday and described them as unparalleled, improper, and in some cases potentially Hatch Act violations. But the reporters then pivoted to how the public is unlikely to care, writing: “But do you think a single person outside the Beltway gives a hoot about the president politicking from the White House or using the federal government to his political advantage? Do you think any persuadable voter even notices?”
An Associated Press politics reporter similarly tweeted that “journalists - and people on Twitter” who think the public cares about the Hatch Act “should really get out more.” And a CNN political correspondent chimed in, tweeting, “As notable as it is that this administration repeatedly flouts ethics norms, it is true that there are no real world consequences and the Hatch Act means nothing to most people.”
Their arguments are in line with those of pro-Trump media figures and the White House itself, who are suggesting that journalists who pursue the story of unethical behavior by the Trump administration will only prove they are out of touch.
It is true that potential Hatch Act violations are a fairly esoteric issue without a direct connection to the lives of most voters. I’m certainly not against journalists instead deciding to prioritize, say, the wave of evictions looming due to the Trump administration’s failure to stop the coronavirus or secure more federal support for renters. But it is also true that Trump is likely in office specifically because of the willingness of press outlets to devote substantial resources to a story that is similarly arcane -- Hillary Clinton’s purported violations of federal email protocol and government records retention.
Clinton’s use of a private server to conduct government business as secretary of state lacked a direct material impact on the lives of voters. It would have been easy for reporters to decide that the story was not of interest “outside the Beltway” and move on to other things -- particularly since it was immediately apparent that Clinton had not broken the law.
Instead, political journalists followed the lead of Republicans and right-wing media and made Clinton’s emails the key story in the run-up to the 2016 election. The three national broadcast evening news shows, for example, devoted roughly three times as much coverage to Clinton’s emails as they did to all in-depth campaign policy reporting between January and mid-October 2016. The email obsession reached a crescendo when FBI Director James Comey announced just a week and a half before the election that the bureau was reopening its server probe. The ensuing onslaught of newspaper and TV coverage -- one study found the story got as much front-page New York Times attention in six days as policy had over the previous 69 -- likely cost her the election.
Perhaps if journalists treat the Trump administration’s possible violations of the Hatch Act with the same all-consuming heat they did Clinton’s potential Presidential Records Act infractions, they might discover that the public at large becomes concerned, and not just Washington insiders. Likewise, concerns that no one would care outside the Beltway did not prevent reporters from devoting copious attention to then-President Bill Clinton inviting political supporters to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, or then-Vice President Al Gore making fundraising calls from his White House office.
With their email coverage, journalists apparently thought they were covering the first scandal of a future Clinton administration. But once Trump was elected, information security and public records law again became abstruse, boring stories for Washington insiders. Reporters broke a wealth of stories showing that White House and administration officials were rampantly violating those laws -- but none of them were treated as huge national scandals the way Clinton’s emails had been.
Last night’s use of government resources for political purposes seems to be headed in a similar direction. Major newspapers, including the Times, used neutral language in their headlines to describe Trump’s unethical actions -- when they mentioned them at all.
If journalists think that Trump’s demolition of political norms and flouting of the rule of law are major stories, they should try treating them like that. Claiming that voters just don’t care is a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures that they won’t.