A garden full of thorny roses

  • Lord and master: Donald Trump holds court in the White House Rose Garden, free to disparage journalists as he so pleases (Photograph by Andrew Harre/Bloomberg)

    Lord and master: Donald Trump holds court in the White House Rose Garden, free to disparage journalists as he so pleases (Photograph by Andrew Harre/Bloomberg)

Sometimes Donald Trump can’t resist. His disdain for the media generally and particular journalists specifically is always bubbling under the surface. At times, it breaks through, as it did at a news conference yesterday.

Trump called on ABC’s Cecilia Vega to ask a question.

“She’s shocked that I picked her,” Trump then said. “She’s in a state of shock.”

Vega replied: “I’m not. Thank you, Mr President.”

Trump, apparently believing that Vega had said, “I’m not thinking that,” replied, “That’s OK, I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”

Nonplussed, she replied: “I’m sorry?”

Trump: “No, go ahead. Go ahead.”

That was only the beginning of Trump’s ill-treatment of the journalists he had invited to the Rose Garden.

Vega then asked a question about Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Trump disparaged the question and refused to answer it until later in the news conference.

When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins tried to come back to Kavanaugh a few questions later, Trump interrupted her, saying that asking about the judge was “not nice”.

As Collins continued to try to ask about Kavanaugh, Trump repeatedly spoke over her, telling her not to “do that” — which was, ask the question she wanted to ask.

Later still, Trump complained about what he said was unfair news coverage, including inaccurate reporting.

“I certainly had that with my election,” he said. “They were telling me I was, you know, in trouble in certain states, and I ended up winning in a grand — like in a landslide.

“And I knew I was going to win them in a landslide, but they wouldn’t report it that way. You know why? Fake news.” (Trump didn’t win in an landslide and admitted after the election that he didn’t think he was going to win.)

There is a presumed cordiality between the media and the President that still lingers, even in encounters between reporters and this particular president. Then at times we are reminded that it is a foolish presumption.

One component of that traditional relationship is that, when the President is not available to answer questions, his press secretary will do so. But over the past three months, the White House has held only nine “daily” press briefings and one additional, less formal press gaggle.

That includes the sole press briefing last month, during which most of the questions were fielded by Kevin Hassett, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Since July 1, the White House has spent only about 4˝ hours in press briefings and gaggles, including three briefings where someone besides Sarah Huckabee Sanders occupied most of the time.

There was no single month during 2016 when Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, spent less than nine hours briefing the media.

Trump largely gave up on news conferences after the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Over the next 12 months, well into his presidency, he held only two more. He has now held two news conferences in the past week.

Why? In a profile of Sanders that was published two weeks after her most recent press briefing, The New Yorker’s Paige Williams explained why Trump preferred Sanders to former press secretary Sean Spicer, who himself spent far more time talking to the media than she does.

“Despite her complaints about rude reporters, Sanders might not actually be hoping for more decorousness from the press corps,” Williams wrote. “The campaign strategist in her surely realises that heated exchanges generally work to Trump’s advantage.

“The more aggressive the press’s questions, the more loudly the President cries ‘fake news’, and the more tenaciously his base supports him. It’s also been good for Sanders’s job security: the more ferociously she responds to the media in public, the more Trump admires her.”

Trump has long realised that Sanders’s presumption was feasible. His campaign was predicated on framing the media as oppositional. In part this was because the media would regularly point out that many of the things he says are untrue. But in part it’s because he was running against the media as an element of the national elite.

Speaking with Trump supporters reveals that they see the media as unfairly targeting Trump, spurring his supporters to want to rise to his defence and, in the process, draw themselves closer to him. Why Sanders has slowed press briefings to a trickle is not clear, but it is certainly the case that, of late, Trump is happy to throw punches and engage with the press himself.

New York University professor Jay Rosen, a prominent observer of the political media, notes that the typical presentation of Trump as seeking and enjoying media attention is incomplete.

“In the United States, the President is leading a hate movement against journalism,” Rosen writes, “and with his core supporters, it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running.”

Polling consistently shows that Rosen is correct: Trump’s base trusts him more than it does the media. Trump’s outrage at the media bolsters that division, but it also reflects his own sincere irritation.

The White House does not want to talk to reporters. Trump largely wants to talk to reporters only if they praise and reinforce him — Fox News — or if he can berate and embarrass them. It is not how a president generally interacts with the media. But, as Rosen notes, it is what a leader who operates outside the constraints of a democracy is prone to do.

Press secretaries often play a role in the natural tension between an elected president and a demanding media. Sanders’s role is to shield Trump from questions and to criticise them so that Trump can keep his hands clean.

But Trump does not care about that insulation. He rejects it. He wants the press to feel, directly from him, his anger and dismissiveness.

Later in yesterday’s news conference, Trump allowed Vega to ask her question about Kavanaugh. In his response, he told Vega: “I consider you a part of the Democrat Party.”

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire

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Published Oct 2, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 2, 2018 at 7:50 am)

A garden full of thorny roses

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