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.
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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.
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:
Shelby Jamerson and Rob Savillo provided additional research
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.
Thomas McInerney’s shameless conspiracy mongering comes one day after Rich family told partisans "cease using Seth as a political football"
Fox News military analyst and retired Lieutenant General Thomas McInerny defended Donald Trump Jr. from accusations of colluding with Russia by promoting the discredited Seth Rich murder conspiracy.
One day after the Rich family pleaded with the public to stop using their son's murder as a “political football,” McInerny appeared on Fox Business’ After The Bell and used Rich’s murder to claim that Russia was not behind the DNC email hacks and to dismiss accusations of Russia collusion around Donald Trump Jr.:
MELISSA FRANCIS (HOST): A couple of the assumptions that he is making based on this, that he feels that the Trump family has been discredited in terms of self-reporting on the meetings that they had. Also proving that they were in fact receptive to the idea of receiving information that would hurt the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign, based on information that the Russian government had. Let's bring in retired lieutenant-general Thomas McInerney, retired general and Fox News military analyst. Some of the things, the other conclusions that he made there, I'm not totally convinced of.
THOMAS MCINERNY: This is all fake news. The fact is, there are two things that that committee has got to look at. They have got to look at the DNC computer servers, that was hacked that released that information, and John Podesta's and others emails. Why hasn't the DNC turned that over to the FBI?
FRANCIS: But tell us, why you are tying that to this?
MCINERNY: Because this shows that the Russians did not do it. That server was turned over by Seth Rich and no one will look at his server. And those two servers blow this whole Russian conspiracy, collusion up.
MCINERNY: And that is why it is that simple. I've been watching this for a long time and why the Congress has not gone after those those servers, because cyber is my business, Melissa -- and so, if you get the server, you get the fingerprints of the people that hacked you.
FRANCIS: Okay. So let's concede that we want to get that server.
Seth Rich’s family has previously detailed the “nightmare” caused by right-wing media figures peddling conspiratorial smears about their deceased son, writing “The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.”
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President Trump and his family members have made more than 100 appearances on Hannity's show
Donald Trump Jr. is retreating to the safe confines of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in the wake of a devastating series of reports which prove that the president’s son met with a Russian national after being told she would provide damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of the “government’s support” for Donald Trump. Members of the Trump family have made more than 100 appearances on Hannity’s program since the start of the campaign for pillow-soft treatment.
Over the past three days, the Trump administration has been rocked by a series of stories detailing a June 9, 2016, meeting between Trump Jr., then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, the entertainment publicist Rob Goldstone, and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with ties to Vladimir Putin. In emails setting up the meeting that were made public today, Goldstone told Trump Jr. that his client’s father, a Russian businessman, had been contacted by a senior Russian government official and could provide Trump Jr. with documents that would “incriminate” Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Veselnitskaya, described by Goldstone as a “Russian government attorney,” was supposed to convey the information at the meeting. According to Trump Jr., he was eager to accept damaging information about Clinton from a foreign government, but the information Veselnitskaya provided was no good. Trump Jr. has repeatedly dissembled about the meeting over the past few days, with his story changing drastically as reporters uncovered new details about it. And the Russian government’s subsequent “support” for Trump involved a campaign orchestrated by Russian president Vladimir Putin in which emails from Democratic Party officials and organizations were stolen and distributed, according to the U.S. intelligence community.
Having openly admitted that he knowingly sought information from a U.S. government adversary in order to influence an election -- that he was trying to collude with the Russians -- Trump Jr. is in a lot of trouble. But he has an ally in his corner. Tonight he will make his case under the friendly questioning of Hannity, who is virtually without peer in his loyalty to President Trump and whose softball rescues of Republican politicians are so legendary they have spawned the neologism “to Hannitize,” which means “to clean up a messy situation with a softball interview, typically one conducted by Sean Hannity.”
According to a Nexis review, since Trump launched his campaign in June 2015, he has made 68 appearances on Hannity's show; his sons Don Jr. and Eric, who run the Trump Organization, have made 14 and 12, respectively; daughters Ivanka, a White House aide, and Tiffany have made one and two appearances, respectively; Eric’s wife, Lara, a Trump campaign aide, has appeared four times; and Trump’s wife Melania has appeared once.
It is difficult to overstate just how obsequious Hannity’s interview style is during these encounters:
In recent weeks, Hannity has moved the goal posts, declaring that there’s nothing wrong if the Trump campaign did collude with Russia. In a pre-taped segment last night, he suggested that the Veselnitskaya meeting had been a setup by Democrats (this makes no sense). Based on his Twitter feed, he’s planning on attacking the media for reporting on the story and trying to find a way to attack Clinton. Other pro-Trump sycophants have responded to the story by foolishly praising Trump Jr. for his “transparency” in publicly releasing the emails after learning that The New York Times was about to report on them, or falsely claimed the emails disproved the Times story altogether.
A better lawyer might counsel Trump Jr. that he should shut the hell up and stop speaking publicly. But if he’s unwilling to take that step, the friendly confines of Hannity are the next best thing.
Rob Savillo contributed research to this post.
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