President Donald Trump keeps hammering away at the media, in part because of his own watch-too-much, read-too-little inclinations, but also because he needs a foil, now that he’s not actively locked in an election battle.
In July, The New York Times analyzed all the insults Trump had published on Twitter and concluded that “Mr. Trump usually picks out a couple of chief enemies and attacks them until they are no longer noteworthy to him. This can last weeks or even months.”
The Times continued:
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“Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton have all held Mr. Trump’s attention in this way. Nearly one in every three insults in the last two years has been directed at one of them. After winning the nomination, Mr. Trump narrowed his focus on Mrs. Clinton. After the election, his attention turned toward the subjects described above: primarily the media, Obamacare and the allegations of collusion.”
Strategy for Trump is all street fight, on the widest street, under the brightest light. And the media is an easy target, because it targets him. The press is in search of truths and Trump is a fount of lies, which makes them natural adversaries.
But these two institutional forces – the press and the presidency – operate under different codes, have different objectives and are held to different standards. While the press is, for the most part, properly exercising its power to shine light into places that the powerful would prefer remained dark, Trump is abusing his power by trying to squash dissent through defamation of individual journalists, individual shows and individual networks or newspapers.
This battle that Trump insists on maintaining also serves a wider goal for him: distraction. As long as we focus on the latest outrage he publishes on Twitter attacking one person or another, the less time we have to focus on the fact that his presidency thus far is a colossal legislative failure, his Cabinet is an unending game of cloak and daggers meets musical chairs, his Justice Department is systematically and unrelentingly expressing its hostilities to equal rights, and Trump’s reckless, emotionally triggered language and actions are making us less safe by denigrating diplomacy and advocating military aggression.
This says nothing of the work that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is doing, although I try to keep that to the side while still keeping an eye on it. No one outside of Mueller’s team truly knows the extent of his investigation or the extent of what has been discovered. In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Just this week, Trump signaled his plan to decertify the landmark nuclear deal with Iran that was negotiated under the Obama administration, while at the same time he ominously mused at a photo op with military commanders: “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” When asked what he meant by storm, Trump refused to clarify. But, on Saturday afternoon in consecutive tweets, Trump wrote:
“Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid…… …hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
It is completely possible that this is all just big talk from a small man, but that small man holds the presidency. Now, put yourself in the shoes of the North Koreans: By backing away from the Iran deal, Trump has signaled that the word of the U.S. is not to be trusted, because it is amendable by each successive administration. At the same time, Trump is minimizing diplomacy while maximizing bluster. There is no incentive for them to pull back at all, which means that Trump is making a bad situation worse.
Trump continues his mission to undermine Obamacare, since he and his legislative majority failed to repeal and replace it. He has already drastically reduced ad spending to encourage people to enroll, but now he’s attacking actual benefits. Last week the administration unveiled a new rule to curtail women’s access to “a full range of birth control at no cost,” as CNN reported. The report continued:
“The rules, which take effect immediately, would grant exemptions to employers whose religious or moral beliefs conflict with providing contraceptive coverage. This could allow many organizations and companies to stop providing some or all of the 18 contraceptive methods that are now required, including birth control pills, IUDs, emergency contraception and sterilization, policy experts say.”
Also last week, as The New York Times reported: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to take the position in court cases that transgender people are not protected by a civil rights law that bans workplace discrimination based on sex. The move was the Trump administration’s latest contraction of the Obama-era approach to civil rights enforcement.”
Trump’s attacks on the media are mere sideshow; The main events are his attacks on civil rights and his itching for a military attack on North Korea.