It would have been too much to expect President Donald Trump to rise to the occasion after someone sent bombs to the homes of several Democratic politicians and CNN’s New York offices this week. Trump has spent his life casually and cruelly denigrating anyone who challenges him, and it was implausible to think he would draw a line between his vitriol and the apparent assassination attempts against some of his targets and vow to mend his ways. But even by the unconscionably low standards typically applied to the president, he has failed miserably.
Authorities have reported that pipe bombs in manilla envelopes were recently sent to prominent progressives across the country. Law enforcement has yet to identify the culprit or their motivation. But there is a clear pattern in the list of targets -- from President Barack Obama to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to progressive donor George Soros to the actor Robert De Niro, all are frequent subjects of incendiary attacks from Trump and the right wing.
In scripted remarks Wednesday afternoon, Trump called for unity in the face of the attempted bombings, saying, “We have to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.” Trump’s own past rhetoric -- his denunciations of journalists as “the enemy of the people,” demonization of his political foes as “evil,” and vitriolic attacks on Clinton that inspire chants of “lock her up” on the campaign trail -- made such paeans to a kinder politics meaningless.
But Trump would soon move from calls for civility to a naked attempt to exploit the attempted bombings. By Wednesday night, he was pairing his promises to bring those responsible to justice with new attacks on the real culprits: the press. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” he said at a rally in Wisconsin. “Have to do it," he added. He reiterated that argument on Twitter Thursday morning, blaming the “Fake News” media for “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society”:
Donald Trump asking for the revitalization of a “civil tone” and criticizing “hateful” rhetoric does not pass the laugh test. And lashing out at the press the day after CNN evacuated its New York studio after receiving an explosive device is despicable.
But the real giveaway for the president’s aim is the way he lumps together criticism of the media’s “tone” with what he terms “purposely false and inaccurate reporting.” This is not general media criticism; when the president criticizes journalists for producing “negative” and “false” stories, he is very specifically referring to coverage of him. For Trump, true reporting is the kind that makes him look good; anything that doesn’t is “fake news.”
For years, the president has engaged in a campaign to delegitimize the press. As part of that effort, he demeans journalists as the “enemy of the people” and baselessly accuses them of deliberately concocting false stories to politically damage him. Trump is trying to convince his supporters that he is the only accurate source for information about his administration, thus raising questions in the minds of voters about whether they can trust negative reporting.
Trump is now trying to use a campaign of assassination against his political opponents to further that argument that journalists can’t be trusted.
CNN’s reporters spent Wednesday afternoon trying to do their jobs from the New York City streets after a bomb was sent to their office. The president’s position is that this is their own fault, and that if they and their colleagues had been nicer to him, none of this would have happened.
“There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media,” CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker said in a statement yesterday. “The President, and especially the White House Press Secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.”
Zucker is wrong. The president has been warned time and again that his inflammatory attacks on journalists could one day result in a body count. His war on the press has continued as people echoing his rhetoric have been arrested for threatening to murder journalists. It has gone unabated -- indeed, it escalated in disturbing ways -- as a Republican congressman pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter. He has not stopped after a U.S. resident journalist was murdered by the Saudi government for critical coverage of that regime. And now a bomb is sent to CNN, and for Trump, it’s the press’s fault.
Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. At best, he doesn’t care about the potentially dire consequences of his actions. At worst, he’s getting what he wants.