/Trump’s Fake Fight Against Real News

Trump’s Fake Fight Against Real News

Donald Trump

Evan VucciAP Photo

Fourth Estate

Pretending to ban a Washington Post columnist from the White House is a sign that the White House is losing its public-relations battle with journalists.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer. 

President Donald Trump must spend hours and hours of his executive time thinking up new ways to tease and taunt the press.

He has stirred hatred for reporters by calling them the “enemy of the people” and describing their accounts as “fake news.” He has singled out individual reporters—Jim Acosta, Peter Alexander, April Ryan, Abby Phillip, Yamiche Alcindor, and others—for direct, vocal abuse. He has threatened the New York Times with a libel suit. He continues to employ a mendacious press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has reduced the frequency of official press briefings from daily to less than monthly. (She hasn’t held one in 58 days, a modern White House record.) And most notably last November, his administration yanked CNN reporter Acosta’s White House press pass.

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The White House returned Acosta’s pass after he sued, but the president continues to prospect new frontiers in press hazing. On Wednesday, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank reported that the White House had revoked his “hard pass,” the credential that makes it simpler for journalists to access the grounds to report on the administration. Milbank had held a hard pass for 21 years.

I won’t say Trump’s micro-aggressions against the press are harmless, but they’re hardly the savaging of the First Amendment or the defenestration of the White House press corps some (not Milbank) would make them out to be. That Trump continues to toss pebbles rather than heaving cannonballs is a better indicator that the president is losing his campaign with the press rather than winning. A harassment campaign like this one is vintage Trump, like a slap-fight in a bar, something that gives the illusion that he’s a tough guy when he’s closer to a pushover.

To trust Sanders—and I don’t—Milbank isn’t being punished for anything he wrote. He’s a victim of a new set of rules, promulgated in March. Journalists can qualify for renewal of their hard passes if they visit the White House, on average, every other day in the half-year since their last renewal, the Post’s Paul Farhi reports. Sanders told Farhi that the new hard pass rules were designed to improve White House security, not to punish the press. In addition to Milbank, seven Post White House reporters lost their hard passes under the new requirements, but unlike Milbank they qualified for “exemptions” and had them reinstated.

Why pick on Milbank? “I strongly suspect it’s because I’m a Trump critic,” he wrote in his column. “The move is perfectly in line with Trump’s banning of certain news organizations, including the Post, from his campaign events and his threats to revoke White House credentials of journalists he doesn’t like.”

The White House’s new attendance-based rules are a farce no matter how you look at them. If applied consistently, Sanders, who rarely meets the press for official briefings, should have to give up her White House credentials, too! Nor is security an issue, as Sanders alleges in a conversation with Farhi. The Secret Service completes a security check—including an FBI background investigation—for all hard pass applicants. Milbank, who has cleared these bars, poses no security threat to Trump unless routinely fracturing the president’s fragile ego in his column can be considered a threat.

The administration’s cheap-jack tactics won’t exclude Milbank or other reporters from the White House. As Farhi notes, the hard pass is good for two years, but reporters who don’t hold hard passes can still apply for daily, weekly, or six-month passes for White House visits. The new rules merely inconvenience the White House reporters by forcing them to keep attendance records and to jump through the administration’s bureaucratic hoops if they miss too many days. The rules, writes Milbank, leave many in the White House press corps credentialed under “exceptions,” which means they’re serving “at the pleasure of press secretary Sarah Sanders.”

What’s next on the Trump administration’s agenda, Sanders taking daily attendance for the White House press corps? Truancy notes to editors? As many have noted, it’s not as if the president dislikes the press. He loves to take reporters’ questions on the White House lawn, or as they shout them out as he boards Marine One, or when a foreign dignitary comes to visit, or when he turns a White House event into a wild, impromptu news conference as he did Thursday afternoon. He lives to talk to supplicants on Fox & Friends or the Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity shows. As long he controls the terms of engagement and can stop tough queries in a decent interval, the president blooms with delight.

It’s hard to interpret the new hard pass rules as anything but Trump’s payback for his face-losing loss in the Acosta contretemps. He lost so badly in that round that White House carpenters had to build a special weeping room in the residential quarters for him to decant his tear ducts. These new rules—unlike his arbitrary and capricious treatment of Acosta—seem safe from being challenged or overturned. As acts of retaliation go, it’s minor, but it must have brought great cheer to the president, who loves to stick it in and break it off. I’ll bet he inhaled Milbank’s column like it was two scoops of ice cream nestled on a slice of chocolate cream pie.

The new rules put the Trump offense back on the field and presage at least two more years of similar tiny insults and inconveniences for the White House press corps. Think of him as the 11-year-old sociopath who, after getting bitten by ants, saw no recourse but to kick the anthill. Unless that 11-year-old wants to resort to napalm, it’s a fight he’ll never win.

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Ants use scent-power to remember who kicked them. Send ant lore to [email protected]. My email alerts are populated by carpenter ants. My Twitter feed, dark rover ants. My RSS feed—you had to ask?—fire ants.

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