By Prabasi Nepali
Trump’s War on the Media
Trump had already designated a part of the American media as ‘enemy of the people’. Before that, Stephen Bannonhis top strategist and High Priest of Trumpism had warned that White House relations with the media (print and electronic) would get “worse every day”. It has become abundantly clear that the Trump administration is not interested in keeping its word, nor in upholding the truth. The White House spokesman Sean Spicer — himself under heavy attack for his (mis)adventures with the truth — said the White House has shown an “abundance of accessibility. . . makingourselves, our team and our briefing room more accessible than probably any previous administration”, which in itself is a whopping untruth. In a December interview, Spicer had told the “Politico” news outlet that the Trump White House would never ban a news outlet. He had the audacity to add: “Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.” Not long after, he has had to eat his words.
Now two months later, after a simmering war of words since Trump’s inauguration, the administration has escalated the skirmishes into an open war on the media. It brazenly excluded some news outlets that have provided critical coverage from an off-camera event that replaced the traditional on-camera daily briefing. Several news organizations, including BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Mail (all British), and CNN, BuzzFeed, Politico, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and others were excluded from the daily press briefing.On the other hand, friendly conservative news organizations like Fox News, the One America News Network and Breitbart News were allowed to attend. This was blatant discrimination, pure and simple.
Other news outlets that regularly cover the White House as part of the “pool”, including newswires Reuters and Bloomberg, CBS, NBC and ABC attended the briefing. The Associated Press and TIME magazine were invited, but boycotted in protest. The Agence France-Press (AFP) protested being excluded, despite being in the “pool”, but still attended the briefing uninvited!
In an unprecedented move, The White House Correspondents’ Association said it was “protesting strongly” against the administration decision. Most major US media outlets have condemned the White House media manipulation as “unacceptable” and an “insult to democratic ideals”. CNN anchor Jake Tapper decried the move as “un-American”, and its communications department wrote on Twitter: “Apparently this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don’t like. We’ll keep reporting regardless.” The New York Times wrote in an editorial that the exclusion was an “unmistakable insult to democratic ideals.”
Media organizations were not alone in defending the free press. Robert Reich, the prominent Democrat and University of California Berkeley economist, said: “Trump is supposed to be a public servant, and the truth is a public good” he wrote on Facebook, continuing: “But he continues to lie incessantly,and punish media that call him out . . . These are the sort of antics we’d expect from a two-bit dictator but not from the President of the United States.” Trump’s hostility towards the press “may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime,” said William McRaven, a retired admiral and Navy SEAL who oversaw the raid in Abbottabad (Pakistan) that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks in 9/11) in 2011.
John Dean, the White House counsel for Republican president Richard Nixon in the 1970s, described the Trump media bashing as “more Nixonian than Nixon.” Dean told a radio show last Friday that Nixon had blasted the media as “the enemy” (albeit) behind closed doors. But “the big difference is, Trump is doing this right out” and challenging the US Constitution’s First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Dean described it as “very startling and very troubling.” After all, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s main strategist during the election campaign and now one of his chief advisers, called the administration’s own version of the ‘truth” as ‘alternative facts’!
There is absolutely no doubt that Trump’s administration is dysfunctional. The public display of the stream of contradictions and cleanups are worrying and unprecedented. According to The Washington Post, it seems that as part of their ‘unofficial’ duties, senior officials have to regularly clean up the statements of the man they serve. His deputies have found themselves softening, explaining and sometimes outright contradicting the president, who keeps putting his foot in his mouth. Trump’s principal deputy press secretary cast the disagreements between Trump and his cabinet officials as questions of nuance and semantics, not true ideological conflict: “Our president chose bold leaders, not a group of yes-secretaries” [!] But Trump himself seems to be not so bold, in fact, is downright cowardly, as he cancelled his participation at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (two months hence), so as not to confront his critics!
Trump’s Continuing Confrontation with Mexico
Trump’s attitude towards America’s immediate southern neighbor is not at all ‘good neighborly’ but that of the bully in the block. There are no fine points of diplomacy, but to talk hard, rough, harsh and, of course, carry a big stick.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray told a news conference: “there exists among Mexicans worry and irritation about what are perceived to be policies that could be harmful for the national interest and for Mexicans here and abroad.” He was speaking after talks in the Mexican capital with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security chief Gen.(retd.) John Kelly who later met with President Enrique Pena Nieto. It may be recalled that the Mexican leader had scrapped a summit meeting with Trump in January as bilateral tensions rose.
Mexican newspapers leaked comments from Videgaray that bolstered the perception that Mexico is taking a more robust approach to its dealings with Trump, following intense public pressure that Pena Nieto should stand up to his counterpart. The foreign minister is reported as saying that if the US unilaterally taxes imports from Mexico to finance a border wall, there will be a response that “hits them where it hurts.” Whereas Tillerson and Kelly were quite conciliatory in their approach, Trump has lost none of his bluster. Last Friday, Trump again vowed to always put American citizens first and build a “great, great border wall”, estimated to cost up to US $ 21.5 billion, starting very soon “way, way, way ahead of schedule.” However, Trump needs Congressional approval for funding before moving forward with construction of his wall — which may (among other sensitive and notorious agendas) very well turn out to be his Achilles heel.
Trump’s New National Security Adviser: Soldier & Scholar
As with his secretary of defense and the head of Homeland Security, Trump has opted for a distinguished military officer to be his national security adviser: an active duty three-star army general H.R. McMaster.He is well known among observers of the US military and was in fact recommended by a Republican senator and army veteran. He enjoys a sterling reputation as a strategist, leader and intellectual — qualities fully lacking in his boss, the president and also his predecessor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who had a reputation for being a loose cannon attracted to fringe political ideas.
According to Andrew Exum, the current contributing editor at The Atlantic and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, Trump has chosen one of the most talented officers the U.S. Army has ever produced to his team. He wrote that Trump’s selection is “unambiguously good news. The United States, and the worldare safer for his decision.” In the Gulf War, he led an armored cavalry troop and in a battle (much studied since) his 12 tanks destroyed Saddam Hussein’s 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 armored personnel carriers and 30 trucks — all in 23 minutes! In the next Iraqi war, he led a brigade in 2005 and was among the first US commanders to think strategically different about the conflict and employ radically different counterinsurgency tactics to pacify. According to Exum, he thus “excelled at two different echelons of command in two very different wars.”
In between, he earned his doctorate in history. His thesis — which was later published as a best-selling book, “Dereliction of Duty”— analyzed the poorly disciplined national security decision-making process in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and especially the way in which national decisions were made by a small group of confidants without a robust process (the Trump administration is gravitating to such an operation). However, it remains to be seen to what extent his careful study and incisive criticism of the national security decision-making process will give him the necessary leverage within the US government. His biggest challenge to influence the president will be other (more) powerful advisers (not necessarily more competent), and the president himself, considering his unusual temperament and the way he receives information and makes decisions. McMaster is also the latest to break with the president, when in his first staff meeting last week, he rejected the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” (a label frequently used by Trump) — it was not helpful and that terrorists were not accurately representing the religion of Islam.Exum fears that “this president and his known weaknesses will be too much for even as great a public servant as McMaster.”
Trump on the Rampage
By Prabasi Nepali