The White House Press Corps Must Do Its Job

Most weekdays White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds a Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, during which members of the White House “press corps” sit in a small room, listen to a recitation of White House “news” and, when signaled by Spicer, ask him questions. March 28 was No. 30 in the series. You can, if so inclined, read the transcripts of these events, with a day’s delay, at http://bit.ly/2nMPMqv. The contests are also covered on radio and sometimes on television. I caught part of the March 28 episode on radio, during which Spicer lambasted a reporter for “shaking your head” while he was rejecting her question, and decided to read the entire transcript.

Because the mission of the free press is to discover and report the factual news, what we might call reality or as close to reality as they can get, while the working hypothesis of the Trump administration is that the free press is out to get the President through “fake news” (i.e., anything Trump doesn’t like), these sessions often have a competitive edge to them. Indeed, you might say there is a lot of hostility, both expressed and implied. Some of this conflict is natural and has been around for decades. The White House always wants the news to be good and the press brings to the table an innate skepticism about much of what politicians have to say. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has, perhaps uniquely, declared open war on the press, describing it, in a phrase borrowed from dictators and autocrats over the ages, as the “enemy of the people.”

Turning to the Spicer performance, he said this:

“One of those places that he [Trump] hopes to find common ground with Senate Democrats … is the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.  Yesterday, many Senate Democrats began declaring support for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s partisan filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch….

Leading Democrats have lamented these tactics as recently as last year [citing statements by Senator Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Senator Claire McCaskill who tweeted “[T]he constitution says the Senate shall advise and consent.  And that means having an up-or-down vote.”] ….

When the shoe was on the other foot, when a Supreme Court nominee for a Democratic President went through the confirmation hearings and meetings with senators from both parties, neither Justices Kagan nor Sotomayor faced an attempted Senate filibuster.  Both received Republican votes in support of their confirmations.

In fact, during the Kagan nomination, on the Senate floor, when Senate Leader Harry Reid planned to file a cloture motion to bring Kagan to a vote, it was then-Senator and now current Attorney General Jeff Sessions who … asked Senator Reid to proceed with a vote without the need for overcoming a Republican filibuster.

Judge Gorsuch has met with most of the Senate Democratic caucus.  He has gone through days of hearings and answered probing questions.  He is eminently qualified and deserves the deference and consideration from the minority Senate Democrats that President Obama’s selections were given once they had gone through the confirmation process.” [Italics added]

Wow! That one takes my breath away. Notice the phrasing “when a Supreme Court nominee for a Democratic President went through the confirmation hearings” and “once they had gone through the confirmation process.” That language enables Spicer to completely ignore the fact that the Republicans refused to give even a hearing to President Obama’s nominee for the same Supreme Court seat. Nicely done, Mr. Spicer. You juked and dodged around that one without a challenge!

Later, Spicer said: “… the President was pleased to see that Ford announced $1.2 billion investment in three manufacturing facilities in Michigan, just two weeks after automobile executives came to the White House and met with the President.”

Another whopper. Trump once again claims credit for something that Ford Motor Company, according to its President for the Americas, as reported in the Detroit News, has been working up for “quite some time. It’s a mixed bag here for what’s new.”  http://detne.ws/2nGDC24. Ford’s own announcement on March 28 did not mention Trump or their meeting. http://ford.to/2nedho9.

Eamon Javers of CNBC asked this:

“… the White House is saying that they’re going to reverse President Obama’s so-called “war on coal.”  But a lot of people in the coal industry suggest that jobs are just not going to come back in that industry, based on the way the industry has changed, technology and other things.  Does this administration have an estimate of how many jobs will be created as a result of the actions it’s taking today?

Spicer’s response: “I’m not aware of one, an estimate….” He went on the say that miners and mine owners who had been invited to the White House were big supporters and that was enough.

Clearly, the White House has no clear idea what the job-creating effects of the reversal of environmental restrictions on the coal industry will be. The administration is simply taking the word of the industry that it’s “going to make coal great again,” and is disregarding the painstaking work that went into the Clean Power Plan to estimate the benefits and costs, as required by law. The MCGA move will result in huge environmental damage while likely yielding an insignificant number of new jobs.

But that is small potatoes compared to what followed.

Francesca Chambers of Mail Online asked:

“Yesterday you weren’t able to tell us very much about Congressman Nunes’s visit to the … White House grounds to view classified information last week.  A Democrat on the committee today said that the White House would have known that he was here.  The same Democrat also said that it looked like a criminal cover-up to him.  My question to you is, have you learned any more information since we had this conversation yesterday about how he would have even gotten in and how he would have gotten cleared?

Here is Spicer’s response:

“I think the thing that’s important to note is there is somewhat of a double standard when it comes to classified information.  When leaks are made illegally to the press, and you all report them, the coverage focuses almost entirely on the substance of the allegation and that are part of an illegal lead, not on the illegal nature of the disclosure, the identity of the leaks, or their agenda.

But when the information that is occurring now, which is two individuals who were properly cleared — or three, or whoever he met with — I don’t know — that they are sharing stuff that is entirely legal with the appropriate clearances — and then there is an obsession on the process.

… it’s a backwards way that when you all report on stuff with sources that are leaking — illegally leaking classified information, that’s appropriate and fine.  No one questions that — the substance and material.  When two individuals, or however many are engaged in this process, have a discussion that is 100 percent legal and appropriate and cleared, suddenly the obsession becomes about the process and not the substance.

And I think that it is somewhat reckless and — how the conversation over classified information is discussed without — while sort of attempting to press a false narrative that exists.  So while it is completely appropriate to share classified information with individuals who are cleared, it is clearly not the case to do that when it is illegally leaked out.  And I think that’s sort of the irony of how this whole conversation has …. [Note: transcript ends here]”

Spicer never came close to answering the question that was asked, which was: ““have you learned any more information since we had this conversation yesterday about how he would have even gotten in and how he would have gotten cleared?” Instead, he launched an attack on the media’s treatment of leaks, the standard playbook for almost every question that relates to whether Trump and colleagues colluded with Russia to influence the last election.

And he got away with it! The closest he came to a substantive response is this exchange with another reporter: “So we’re taking what you’re saying as assurances that Chairman Nunes’s decision to call of [sic: s/b “off”] that hearing did not have anything to do with any pressure from with [sic] White House? Spicer’s answer: “No.”

Then there was this exchange:

“Does the President still believe that climate change is a hoax?

Spicer’s reply:

“I think you will hear more today about the climate and what he believes.  I think he understands — he does not believe that — as I mentioned at the outset, that there is a binary choice between job creation, economic growth, and caring about the environment.  And that’s what we should be focusing on.  I think, at the end of the day, where we should be focusing on is making sure that all Americans have clean water, clean air, and that we do what we can to preserve and protect our [transcript ends].”

Of all the questions asked at this briefing, that one, you would think, could be answered with a simple, direct “yes or no.” The equivocation suggests that the actions the President has taken to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency and other abrupt removals of restraints on air and water pollution show that the President of the United States sticks to his earlier claims that “climate change is a hoax.”

It’s also a fair conclusion that, despite the dissembling, the press corps never laid a glove on Spicer or Trump, despite multiple opportunities to challenge falsehoods, distortions and deflections. It’s perhaps too early for a final judgment but this experience suggests that Trump is winning the disinformation battle with the media. If so, we are in serious trouble.

If you are concerned about this, you should communicate with the principal media organizations on which you depend to find out and report the truth. Tell them they must not sit like lumps of clay when confronted with overt dissembling, avoidance of hard questions and outright false statements. It is difficult, but the members of the White House press corps must aggressively press for answers to their questions and challenge the evasions with which the March 28 event was replete.

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