April 24, 2020
Today’s news was consumed by Trump’s suggestion at yesterday’s coronavirus briefing that doctors should look into the value of disinfectants or sunlight taken internally to kill the novel coronavirus. Since that comment, he has been skewered by medical professionals and made fun of on social media. The makers of Lysol released a statement warning that “under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion, or any other route),” and the Centers for Disease Control warned that “household cleaners and disinfectants can cause health problems when not used properly.” When asked about the comment, Trump said: “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” then went on to mischaracterize his earlier statements.
It was notable that Daniel Dale’s article in CNN discussing today’s about-face was titled, “Fact check: Trump lies that he was being ‘sarcastic’ when he talked about injecting disinfectant.” Media outlets have been uncomfortable calling out Trump’s lies, instead using words like “untruths,” but Dale has fact-checked every Trump rally and speech in real time and regularly uses the word “lie” on Twitter. That the word is showing up more in news media suggests editors are rethinking how best to cover this president.
Their problem is that everything a president does and says is newsworthy, but reporting what a lying politician says without identifying it as false puts the media in the position of amplifying the skewed message, rather than delivering accurate information. This tactic was pioneered by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. He would accuse people of being communists and spread lies about them in press releases—which got covered by newspaper reporters—then move onto another story as reporters, trudging in his wake, discovered he was lying. But the fact-checking never got the headlines McCarthy’s extraordinary accusations did, and the accusations stuck.
McCarthy’s right-hand man, New York City attorney Roy Cohn, was Trump’s mentor, and it is perhaps no accident that Trump has always used this tactic to great effect. Essentially, he has made the media his accomplice in spreading disinformation.
Aware that this tactic gave Trump more than $5 billion of free airtime in the 2016 election cycle, media figures have tried to figure out how to cover Trump in 2020 without making the same mistake. This is especially important now that his coronavirus briefings have taken the place of his political rallies, making it hard to cover them without amplifying his political message.
As reporters have tried to fact-check him, he insists they are illegitimate. Yesterday, when Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker asked him to clarify his suggestions about alternative treatments for coronavirus, Trump responded: “I’m the president and you’re fake news.” After Trump won the 2016 election, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl asked him why he continued to bash the media. He replied, "You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Trump needs that mistrust of the media now, as American deaths from Covid-19 exceed 50,000. The United States has now suffered one quarter of the world’s 190,000 deaths from the virus. It appears the White House latched onto an unrealistically optimistic model in early April when it suggested we could keep our deaths at 60,000.
Trump is fighting back against news stories that detail the administration’s botched response to the crisis. Administration officials speaking to NBC News say that Trump’s disinfectant suggestion showed his irritation at his health advisers’ continuing warnings that the disease is not going away anytime soon, and that we must be prepared for a second wave in the fall. (In a sign that we are in this for the long haul, the editors of the New York Times announced today that, for the duration of the pandemic, they are replacing the “Travel” section of the Sunday newspaper with one entitled “At Home.”)
Suspicions that Trump is using the pandemic to consolidate power were confirmed in a report from NBC News today establishing that the administration has a secret “adjudication” process that enables Trump’s people to override the formulas designed to apportion medical supplies according to need, sending them instead to Republican supporters. “There’s a lot of politics involved,” one person told reporters. “Senior leadership from [Capitol] Hill can call up and say ‘ship 500 ventilators’ and 500 ventilators go out.”
While a White House spokesman said "It's outrageous that the media would ask or even speculate that the resources being delivered by the federal government to the states is somehow based on politics," reporters Jonathan Allen, Phil McCausland, and Cyrus Farivar establish that it sure looks like federal agents are seizing supplies acquired by Democratic states and redistributing them along partisan lines. And Trump appears to have said so. Last week, he warned that he would withhold supplies from governors who didn’t open up their economies when he wanted. “They need the federal government not only for funding — and I'm not saying take it away — but they need it for advice," he said. "They'll need, maybe, equipment that we have. We have a tremendous stockpile that we're in the process of completing. We're in a very good position."
In more news about the misuse of political power, a digital technology firm working for the Trump campaign, Phunware, got a $2.85 million loan from the Paycheck Protection Program. The loan was legal, but it was nearly 14 times larger than the average award under the program, and it got the loan two days after it applied while other companies that applied earlier for what was supposed to be a first-come, first-served program are still waiting.
Trump also announced today he would block the $10 billion of credit Congress approved this month for the United States Postal Service unless it quadrupled the cost of shipping a package. His hatred of the USPS is rooted in his hatred of Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos. Bezos also owns the Washington Post.
Trump has his own financing issues: a 30% stake in a building that was refinanced in 2012 in part by the state-owned Bank of China. That debt $211 million comes due in 2022, raising questions about Trump’s conflicts of interest.
The president also needs to control the media as he faces increasing resistance over the amount of power he has claimed for the executive branch in other ways, too. At Politico, reporter David Rogers is chasing the complicated story of how Trump has moved $3.6 billion allotted for military construction overseas to building a wall on the country’s southern border. Since Congress decides on appropriations, this transfer looks dicey.
Also today, news broke that Attorney General William Barr’s Department of Justice has appealed to the Supreme Court to block Congress from seeing the secret grand jury material collected during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Last month, the appeals court agreed by a vote of 2-1 that the House Judiciary Committee has a “compelling need” to see the material so it can investigate the president for obstruction of justice during the investigation. The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court for a stay.
Finally, the U.S. Navy today formally recommended that Captain Brett Crozier be reinstated as the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Crozier was removed from his post after writing a letter calling attention to the spread of coronavirus on the ship, but the profane diatribe of the acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly about Crozier after his removal led to an outcry that made Modly resign. To the surprise of Navy officials, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a Trump loyalist, is holding up Crozier’s reinstatement.
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Roy Cohn and Trump: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/06/donald-trump-roy-cohn-relationship
Good thread on journalism: