The hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe promised to ask a “bunch of hard questions” to embattled Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder about his role in the Flint water crisis, but instead co-host Mika Brzezinski introduced Snyder as “pretty transparent,” and Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough conducted a softball interview that allowed Snyder to deflect blame from himself and his political staff to career civil servants and local officials in Flint.
The problems with the interview began with Brzezinski's description of Snyder as “pretty transparent.”
Brzezinski's characterization of Snyder echoed a talking point put forward by the Governor himself. But as The Guardian noted, the series of emails that Snyder released two days before the interview with Morning Joe included significant redactions that undercut his claim of transparency:
Michigan governor Rick Snyder cited a commitment to transparency and accountability when he announced he would voluntarily release his emails related to the city of Flint, Michigan.
“The Flint water crisis is an extraordinary circumstance and therefore I'm taking this unprecedented step of releasing my emails to ensure that the people of Michigan know the truth,” Snyder wrote.
But that pledge didn't translate smoothly into the first document of the 274-page tranche released Wednesday: A three-page email that was entirely blacked out.
Snyder said the document was redacted because it contained privileged attorney-client communications about a lawsuit unrelated to the Flint water crisis.
But redactions appear throughout the files, which only cover a two-year period between 2014 and 2015 - not 2013, when the decision to use the highly corrosive Flint river was made. And Snyder declined to release emails of his entire staff, saying they're protected under state statute. Michigan is only one of two states that exempt the governor from the Freedom of Information Act.
When Scarborough asked Snyder how two state agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency could have all failed to act on the water crisis as it emerged, Snyder responded that the explanation is “a huge bureaucratic problem and it's part of the problem with culture and government.” Scarborough replied, “You did appoint, though, these two environmental bureaucrats in Michigan, though, didn't you?” But he then let Snyder claim that his administration did not adequately respond to the crisis because “career civil servants” in the state Department of Environmental Quality failed to realize that the water was contaminated.
The Morning Joe hosts failed to ask Snyder about his recently-released emails, which show that his own chief of staff Dennis Muchmore -- who has since retired -- disputed that the state was responsible for addressing the issue and cited state officials to dismiss concerns about contaminated drinking water as attempts by “some in Flint” to turn the issue into a “political football.” Muchmore also referred to people raising concerns about the water as an “anti-everything group.” Snyder himself “wrote just seven brief emails concerning Flint water during the past two years,” according to an MLive.com review of the emails.
Morning Joe also let Snyder attempt to pin the blame on local officials in Flint. Brzezinski asked Snyder whether it was the state-appointed emergency manager who “authorized the switch for the city of Flint to stop buying water from Detroit.” Snyder responded: “In terms of the change itself, it was a broader effort in terms of saying they wanted to change their water system to a new water authority. And it was actually voted for by the city council and it was ratified by the emergency manager. It was a 7-1 vote of the city council to leave the Detroit water system.” Earlier in the interview, Snyder also took credit for working to “reconnect the Detroit water system” once the problem “first came to light.”
But the Morning Joe hosts failed to challenge Snyder by explaining that the decision to use the polluted Flint river as the new water source was the state-appointed emergency manager's alone. As the Detroit Free Press “Truth Squad” noted in response to an even more inaccurate document distributed by the Snyder administration that claimed the "[c]ity of Flint decide[d] to use the Flint River as a water source":
City officials did not drive the decision to take water from the Flint River. There was never such a vote by the city council, which really didn't have the power to make such a decision anyway, because the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.
The council's vote in March 2013 was to switch water supply from Detroit to a new pipeline through the Karegnondi Water Authority - but the pipeline wasn't scheduled to be completed for at least three years.
Flint officials didn't make that decision [to use the Flint river as a water source] while under state emergency management. State-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz made that decision, which would have had to be approved by the state.
Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer has similarly explained that Snyder's citation of the March 2013 city council vote to place responsibility on local officials “doesn't wash” :
Snyder's spokeswoman has consistently placed responsibility for Flint's water crisis in local hands, pointing to a 7-1 Flint City Council vote endorsing the switch to Karegnondi. But that explanation -- like so many things about this whole situation -- doesn't wash.
The Flint City Council voted 7-1 to approve the switch, with the support of [Flint mayor Dayne] Walling, who lost his seat earlier this month. But that's of no matter; when an emergency manager is in place, he or she is the ultimate authority. Moreover, emergency managers are appointed precisely because, in the judgment of the governor and treasurer, a city hasn't adequately managed its affairs.
Additionally, the Morning Joe hosts failed to mention that the Flint City Council also voted 7-1 to stop using the Flint river in March 2015 -- only to have that move rejected by the state-appointed emergency manager.
Brzezinski did ask Snyder to respond to a “pretty searing” New York Times article that posed the question: “If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan's state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?” But Brzezinski led into the question by assuring, “we think you're a really good man,” and when Snyder responded by disputing the Times' premise and again laying blame on “a handful of quote unquote experts that were career civil service people that made terrible decisions,” Morning Joe moved on to a discussion of the Detroit public school system.
The Morning Joe hosts could have asked Snyder about a Times editorial that more definitively linked the question to his own conduct, writing that the emails Snyder's political staff sent him “show a cynical and callous indifference to the plight of the mostly black, poverty-stricken residents of Flint.”