If ever there were a moment for a cognitive double-take, it’s this one. It’s as if even our best minds are so mesmerized by secondary, hobby-horse considerations that they can’t grasp the import of what matters.
In the week when Trump is about to clarify his overarching policy on Iran and reportedly announce that he will not continue to certify Iran’s performance under the JCPOA, his competence as commander-in-chief and his grasp of how to command nuclear forces are being vituperatively – but anonymously – impugned by the mainstream media.
Yet what everyone has ended up in a huff about is the First Amendment and TV broadcasting – because in response to the vituperation, Trump tweeted something.
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
Frankly, it doesn’t look like Trump is the fool here.
If I read the media right, we’re supposed to be in lather over Trump’s craziness vis-à-vis the seriousness of nuclear arms and policy, as the Iran decision bears down on us.
But we’re not. The president’s threat about broadcast licenses has overwritten the whole issue, and now it’s simply not about the carefully crafted picture of Trump as a scary nutcase in charge of the nukes. The media’s effort to depict him that way is as irresponsible and destabilizing as anything I’ve ever seen – but it’s not getting traction, because Trump immediately vectored the public dialogue onto broadcast licensing and freedom of the press.
Debating principle uselessly on the sidelines
There was a heated debate on the Fox Special Report panel this evening (Thursday 12 October) about President Trump’s tweets this week on the media’s shenanigans.
Steve Hayes (conservative NeverTrumper) and The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway got into it over Trump’s undoubtedly improper suggestion that a network’s broadcast license should come under scrutiny if its behavior got too bad, unsubstantiated-smear-wise.
Both technically and in principle, Hayes has the high ground on this, having taken the rule-of-law perspective as his priority. Hemingway argued that many media outlets are, in fact, abusing their freedom of the press, and need to be called down for it. She acknowledged that the president may not be the right person to do that, and that Trump overstepped proper boundaries in his tweet seeming to threaten the licenses of broadcast media.
All of this is actually secondary, if you look at what the president is dressing down the media for.
But it’s worth noting a couple of things. It was obvious to me that Steve Hayes agrees with the anti-Trump media, and assumes there is substance behind their endless barrage of anonymous rumor-mongering. That simply limits his vision and interest, full stop. (It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a point about U.S. law, and Trump’s gratuitous tweet-swipe about licenses.)
I thought Mollie Hemingway got closer to the important point. But I haven’t seen anyone yet frame it the way it should be framed: as a serious threat to national security and global order – coming not from Trump, but from the media.
Backstory: NBC takes point
What happened this week was that NBC reported an anonymously-sourced rumor that Trump wanted to go back to the days of having tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, because he doesn’t understand the treaty-managed regime of nuclear arms limitation we have maintained with Russia since 1972. Ultimately, with the help of other media outlets, NBC managed to foster a theme that Trump is a maniac who doesn’t understand the nuclear arsenal he’s in charge of.
Actually, the garbled vagueness with which NBC and the other media outlets have discussed this point indicates to me that they don’t understand it. Deploying one or two properly constructed sentences about it would convey some bona fides, but they don’t do even that. My impression is that they assume their audience will be equally ignorant, and conveniently incurious.
Instead of shedding light on the topic, they leave it mostly unelucidated, apparently so that they can juxtapose alarmist commentary from themselves or third parties – go-to experts who speak from a political perspective congenial to their aims – and make the whole thing sound more (a) proven and (b) substantial than it is.
Consider these passages:
President Donald Trump said he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a gathering this past summer of the nation’s highest-ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.
Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.
The president’s comments during the Pentagon meeting in July came in response to a chart shown on the history of the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear capabilities that showed America’s stockpile at its peak in the late 1960s, the officials said. Some officials present said they did not take Trump’s desire for more nuclear weapons to be literally instructing the military to increase the actual numbers. But his comments raised questions about his familiarity with the nuclear posture and other issues, officials said. …
Any increase in America’s nuclear arsenal would not only break with decades of U.S. nuclear doctrine but also violate international disarmament treaties signed by every president since Ronald Reagan. Nonproliferation experts warned that such a move could set off a global arms race.
“If he were to increase the numbers, the Russians would match him, and the Chinese” would ramp up their nuclear ambitions, Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert and an MSNBC contributor, said, referring to the president.
This is just stupid. If not NBC, Joe Cirincione should certainly have explained that the president can’t just order up thousands more nuclear warheads. The leap here is absurd. There is no such scenario as Trump “increasing the numbers,” and the Russians and Chinese matching him.
If any of what NBC reported is valid, my guess is that Trump needed a brief tutorial on exactly why the number of warheads has declined so much from its high in the 1980s. Since you don’t need to know that to effectively exercise command and control of the extant nuclear force, it would be opportunistic alarmism to caterwaul over such a requirement – if it has any basis in fact, which we have no way of verifying.
But NBC and Cirincione teamed up to frame a very thin, single rumor – the allegation, reported without even a direct quote, that Trump wanted to vastly expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal – as if there were some larger story integrated with it about questionable behavior by Trump, which could lead to a horrifying nuclear arms race.
Try reading the NBC story with at least fifth-grade level comprehension. There is almost nothing in it about nukes that is supposed to have actually come from the 20 July meeting. Most of it is commentary sourced from elsewhere, spinning tendentious implications from the extremely little supposedly disclosed about the meeting. The audience is left with the impression of a substantial glimpse at the president and his knowledge level, but that’s not actually what this story offers. It’s a lot of spin around very little substance – and we’re supposed to take the “substance” on faith.
MSNBC runs with it
The NBC report bears a time stamp of 7:23 AM (Eastern) on 11 October. During the Morning Joe broadcast the same day on MSNBC, which airs from 6:00 to 9:00 AM Eastern, Joe Scarborough jumped on the NBC report in conjunction with a claim of his own that an anonymous third-party source had told him Trump asked repeatedly “why we couldn’t just use nukes,” a claim Scarborough first aired in 2016.
NewsBusters summarizes Scarborough’s plaint (emphasis by NewsBusters):
Scarborough and the panel immediately not only took this new [NBC] reporting at face value, but they went far astray from NBC’s original claims and interpreted them as “more evidence” that Trump wants to launch a nuclear war that will kill millions of people.
NewsBusters provides extensive excerpts from Scarborough’s comments, including a call for Congress to invoke the 25th Amendment and warn Trump they will remove him from office. NewsBusters also points out the ways in which Scarborough misrepresented things Trump is supposed to have said (which is worth taking the time to understand).
The theme takes off
While Scarborough was whipping himself into a frenzy, other media outlets were scrambling to turn in copy citing the NBC report, which they did within hours (the writers seem to have all been remarkably focused on exactly the same theme beforehand, to be able to produce these relatively hefty articles within hours of each other).
David A. Graham, for example, posted an 11 October piece at the Atlantic citing the NBC report, entitled “The Infantilization of President Trump.” Graham suggests that Trump takes the toddler-like view that “bigger is better,” and runs with an analogy to Trump’s supposed perspective on ice cream:
If Trump’s approach to nukes and ice cream alike is childlike, this story [about wanting more nukes] is the latest example of how Trump’s aides treat him like a child too. In the case of the nuclear weapons, advisers seem to have taken Trump’s outburst as bizarre and dangerous and quietly moved to suppress it.
Graham quotes an anonymous source cited by the Washington Post in a conveniently-timed 9 October article:
Other aides spoke about Trump this week like an under-napped toddler on the verge of a tantrum. The Washington Post reports: “One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam, he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. ‘I think we are in pressure-cooker territory,’ said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.”
In that article, entitled “A ‘pressure cooker’: Trump’s frustration and fury rupture alliances, threaten agenda,” the anonymous gossip WaPo retails is mostly much less incendiary than the headline would suggest. But if you don’t read with attention, or go past the headline or the pull-quote, it serves nicely to bolster Graham’s suggestive depiction of an incompetent, tantrum-throwing president.
Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair clocked in at 2:40 PM on 11 October with his own oeuvre, entitled “’I HATE EVERYONE IN THE WHITE HOUSE!’: TRUMP SEETHES AS ADVISERS FEAR THE PRESIDENT IS ‘UNRAVELING’.”
The teaser blurb reads:
In recent days, I’ve spoken with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods.
It goes downhill from there. I think you get the drift; read the article for a hefty dose of scare words and innuendo. I did get a belly laugh from this passage:
Today, speculation about [John] Kelly’s future increased after Politico reported that Kelly’s deputy Kirstjen Nielsen is likely to be named Homeland Security Secretary—the theory among some Republicans is that Kelly wanted to give her a soft landing before his departure.
If it’s a “soft landing” to be made Homeland Security Secretary – under any circumstances – I’m a monkey’s uncle.
At any rate, Salon stepped up with Heather Digby Parton’s piece at 5:12 AM on 12 October, entitled “Trump is falling apart, and nobody knows what to do about it.” The teaser blurb:
A cry for help is coming from the White House. Even Trump’s inner circle say he’s unstable; the danger is growing
The Parton article is basically a rehash of the earlier pieces linked above, but she does smash some glass and reassemble it to make the NBC allegation about Trump and the nukes sound worse than NBC implied:
Trump simply did not understand that decades of painstaking non-proliferation work had brought the U.S. nuclear arsenal down to about 4,000 warheads, more than enough to obliterate the human population of earth. Those present at the meeting didn’t perceive Trump’s remark as an order, mostly because his response to every item of military capability they brought up was “more, I want more,” with no understanding of the specifics.
Not actually what the NBC report said. (And Parton means arms limitation and arms reduction work, not non-proliferation work.) But about what you’d expect from a piece that ends this way:
There’s a cry for help coming from inside the house — the White House. Everyone can hear it, but nobody can figure out how to disarm the crazy man who’s holding the country hostage. He has no intention of surrendering.
There are probably more articles out there, forlornly flogging the theme of Trump as a wacko being led around the White House by a staff of special-needs caretakers.
It’s rather funny that his tweet about licenses for “fake news” media has sucked all the oxygen out of the room once again. It’s also not funny, considering the gravity of the underlying issue – the nuclear posture of the United States – and the extreme irresponsibility of the media in spreading anonymous, unverifiable rumors about it.
But there’s one more stop we need to make, to fully appreciate what the media have been doing this week.
That stop is with the nut-fringe “right-wing” blogosphere from the Obama days.
The sound of Obama’s fringe opponents making anonymously-sourced allegations about him
The rumors mongered by what responsible conservatives readily agree are nut-fringe bloggers sound remarkably like what the MSM are dealing in, as regards Trump, today.
You can’t find most of the stuff anymore. Six or seven years ago, people used to send me links to some of it, asking what I thought, and I always said I put no credence in it. Anybody could set up as a provocateur claiming unnamed “inside” sources, after all.
But now, a lot of the original posts are simply gone. I got lots of 404 errors trying to find examples for this piece, and only six pages of Google results.
Still, there’s enough left to convey the flavor. See, for example, “Is Obama having a mental breakdown?” from 2010, citing Wayne Madsen and an enterprising blogger who made a certain amount of fame for himself as the “Ulsterman.”
Now that the majority has turned against him he [Obama] is having a mental breakdown. Most recently, an anonymous White House insider and investigative reporter Wayne Madsen both paint an even more disturbing portrait of a U.S. President who is in a narcissistic meltdown – smoking and drinking too much, so depressed he’s on anti-depression medication, paranoiac, and in the grip of near-schizophrenic self-delusion.
…WMR can confirm from multiple sources is a president who is suffering from Nixonian levels of paranoia, depression, and schizophrenia…. Obama’s paranoia and severe depression over his correct belief that certain interests are out to get him. …
WMR has been told by informed sources that Obama’s drinking has, on occasion, been more than moderate. The only meetings he does not miss is the Wednesday reelection team of Emanuel, Jarrett, David Axelrod, White House pollsters and focus group specialists.
This post – and others – emphasized themes eerily similar to those pounded by the MSM against Trump in 2017. Richard Salbato’s listed 11 Obama officials who had departed office within a short span of time, implying that Obama couldn’t keep people on staff because of instability, unpleasant working conditions, and fears about his (Obama’s) future.
The Salbato post, along with others, also raised the specter of going after Obama with the 25th Amendment (including the claim that Democrats themselves wanted to do so).
The suggestion of the MSM writers above that Trump prefers cultivating his crowd support, rather than the hard work of governing, echoes another theme from the nut-fringe allegations about Obama:
…WMR can confirm from multiple sources is a president who is suffering from Nixonian levels of paranoia, depression, and schizophrenia…. Obama’s paranoia and severe depression over his correct belief that certain interests are out to get him.
…according to the former White House staffer who is talking to Ulsterman, [Obama is] extremely lazy, only interested in watching ESPN and discussing sports, and playing golf, and doing what he is most comfortable at: campaigning. Obama clearly wants to run again for president, citing the “adoring crowds” who greet him on the political stump. Mrs. Obama has reportedly told the president that “there are no more adoring crowds.”
And more here:
According to the most recent communication from DT2, Obama is battling severe depression and is on anti-depressant meds. He is also very angry and smoking more than a pack of ciggies a day — all signs of a man who’s very stressed but who remains in denial that he himself is the source of the problem. …
Like Watergate, the rumors about Obama’s mental health, his lack of interest in the routine tasks of the presidency, and his mistaken belief that the crowds who see him on the campaign trail automatically adore him, are emanating from a “Deep Throat”…
This isn’t a media sound that inspires confidence, no matter who it comes from. It doesn’t gain respectability by coming from mainstream outlets. Instead, it makes them sound questionable, like bloggers in meltdown, scratching their own itches just because they can.
The remarkable thing, however, seems to be not that the MSM have been piling on Trump this week with an all-out Ulsterman-style assault, but that with one tweet, Trump defused their assault and got everyone talking about something else. As we head to the much-anticipated speech on Iran on Friday, 13 October, the blabosphere is alive with sour jabs about broadcast licenses and the Constitution. Trump will be talking about Iran in a way George W. Bush could never talk about anything: without the MSM having successfully framed the whole proposition against him beforehand.