Reprinted with permission from DailyKos.
Dubbed “the decider,” Donald Trump basked in lots of undeserved media glory last week after he invented a crisis with Iran, then claimed to have solved it by calling off a planned bombing raid on the country at the last minute. Largely missing from the tick-tock “crisis” storytelling was the media acknowledgement that the whole episode seemed to confirm Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that his stated reasons for aborting a military strike seemed completely arbitrary.
Yet the press coverage likely thrilled the White House, as reporters eagerly played up the drama. “Lawmakers in the room watched as the weight of his duties as commander-in-chief bore down on him, lives hanging in the balance,” CNN breathlessly reported. “That cautious mindset would hang over Trump’s deliberations throughout the day as he huddled several times with his national security team.” The Washington Post newsroom cheered that Trump had avoided “a potentially devastating new crisis in the Middle East,” while the New York Times stressed Trump “navigated his way through one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of his presidency.”
I’m sorry, but are we being serious? Trump blustered for a day or two about dropping bombs on Iran in response to the downing of an unmanned U.S. drone—i.e. the downing of a flying camera—then decided not to, and the Times immediately placed the about-face among the “most consequential” chapters of Trump’s presidency?
What the whole soggy saga proved, once again, is that the press really has no idea how this White House and administration function, in part because the press has been completely locked out of both. Reporters occasionally acknowledge the truth, like in this Times dispatch, but couch it all in the Trump “mystery”:
The full story of how Mr. Trump set in motion an attack on another country and then canceled it remained to some extent shrouded in mystery even to some of those involved, according to interviews with administration officials, military officers and lawmakers, many of whom asked not to be named.
Note that ten different Times reporters contributed to that Iran piece, and it’s doubtful any of them came anywhere close to getting to the truth about what took place inside the administration. One of the few sources referenced in the Times piece was “one administration official,” which could mean the source was any one of thousands of people currently employed by the Trump administration. Another piece quoted, “a person familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking,” which, again, could really be anybody.
Why are the sources so thin? Because reporters have had their access choked off.
Breaking with modern-day norms and traditions, Trump’s Pentagon has not held a press briefing in more than a year. This means reporters are in the dark, especially during a possibly unfolding military strike, like the one last week involving Iran. On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman did address reporters regarding Iran and read a statement, but he refused to take any questions. All of this is a perfect example of how news outlets have kowtowed to Trump and allowed his administration to seamlessly unplug channels of key communication with the press and the public.
For years, briefings have been used as a way for the president and the Cabinet to communicate their policies and priorities to the news media and to the public. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, of course, is closing in on 100 straight days without a press briefing, which meant it was nearly impossible for reporters to publicly ask White House or Pentagon officials questions about Iran last week.
That means that with reporters denied so many traditional sources of information both at the White House and at the Pentagon, Trump and his mostly nameless aides got to spoon-feed and spin reporters about Iran. It’s certainly curious how news outlets were fed the exact same story about Iran by the same vague “senior administration officials.” It’s almost like the whole thing was choreographed and “administration officials” knew the press would run with whatever story they were given.
“A senior US official said throughout the process, Trump was very invested and very serious,” CNN reported. Gee, you don’t say. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal newsroom cheered that Trump had “revealed a remarkable level of detail” about his Iran decision, and pointed to a (muddled) interview Trump gave NBC where he tried to explain what happened.
Meanwhile, why did journalists seem so anxious to tell the pleasing tale/myth about how a deeply engaged Trump, immersed in briefings, listened to his gut and turned off the war machine? It’s likely because the news media finds that to be a pleasing narrative, and one that helps normalize Trump. The press seems to desperately want there to have been an intense internal debate within the administration regarding the deadly serious decision of launching a military strike against a nation of 80 million people, not to mention a nation with budding nuclear capabilities.
The press wanted there to be a whip smart back-and-forth where military and diplomatic experts weigh in and there’s a fierce debate, just like in The West Wing! The press wanted that to be true so they can continue to pretend that the Trump administration functions, for the most part, like previous ones and that Trump isn’t really some kind of mad man. (He is.) The press doesn’t want to cross that red line and concede to news consumers that Trump is making this all up as he goes: That he has no staff per se, and that advisers have no idea what he’s going to do—in part because Trump knows so little about the world around him.
Remember: Just days ago, Trump announced ICE was going to unleash a massive round-up of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Suddenly, that has been called off and nobody really knows why, or why it was promoted in the first place. Trump is a car careening dangerously around the track and reporters can’t make sense of it, in part because they can’t get close enough to investigate.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.