A couple of weeks ago, Esquire published a piece quoting an unnamed official in Donald Trump’s White House describing news organizations as “the opposition party.” At the time, the phrasing seemed rather provocative, so it stood to reason that the White House official didn’t want to be quoted by name.
This morning, however, the president himself described the media as “the opposition party.”
The White House’s offensive against journalism has clearly reached a new level. Stephen Bannon called the New York Times last week to tell the newspaper, “I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party.” He added that American media should “keep its mouth shut” and “just listen for a while.”
A day later, Trump sat down with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to argue, “Yeah, I think the media is the opposition party in many ways. I’m not talking about all of them … but a big portion of the media, the dishonesty, total deceit and deception. It makes them certainly partially the opposition party, absolutely.” The day after that, which was also the morning his controversial Muslim ban started causing international chaos, the president lashed out at the New York Times and the Washington Post via Twitter with aseriesof angry missives.
And then yesterday, Kellyanne Conway appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” where she delivered a lengthy tirade in which she appeared to call for media professionals to be fired for criticizing the president.
“Not one network person has been let go. Not one silly political analyst and pundit who talked smack all day long about Donald Trump has been let go. They are on panels every Sunday. They’re on cable news every day. […]
“We turn the other cheek. If you are part of Team Trump, you walk around with these gaping, seeping wounds every single day, and that’s fine.”
Remember, this is how White House aides talk when they’re “fine,” and turning the other cheek. I’ve seen some suggestions that this kind of rhetoric is comparable to President Obama’s aides referring to Fox News in 2009 as “an opponent.” I understand the point, but the details matter: Eight years ago, Obama’s White House was exasperated with one outlet that’s obviously closely tied to Republican politics. In 2017, Trump World is taking aim at practically the entirety of the American media at an institutional level.
And that’s not the sort of thing presidential administrations usually do. In his final press conference, a few days before leaving office, President Obama delivered an important message to the press corps:
“I have enjoyed working with all of you. That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed, but that’s the point of this relationship: You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics. You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.
“And you have done that. And you’ve done it, for the most part, in ways that I could appreciate for fairness even if I didn’t always agree with your conclusions. And having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest. It makes us work harder. It made us think about how we are doing what we do and whether or not we’re able to deliver on what’s been requested by our constituents.”
This is a perspective Trump and his team apparently have not yet embraced.
Broadly speaking, it’s notable that Trump’s two most spirited feuds in recent months have been with American news organizations and American intelligence agencies. That’s not a coincidence: this is an administration that has a strained relationship with facts, which inevitably creates a degree of hostility between the Republican White House and those who challenge the conclusions Trump World embraces.
What’s less clear is what the nascent administration intends to do with this dynamic. If the president and his aides believe they can upbraid journalists into docile obedience, they’re going to be disappointed. If they’re looking for ways to govern without scrutiny or questions, that won’t work, either.
No White House has ever liked the press, but successful ones have at least learned to interact with news organizations at a professional level. Will Team Trump ever manage this? Will it even try?