Hard-Pressed — Evan Osnos in The New Yorker on Trump’s relationship with the media.
Even before the White House press corps was born—in 1896, when newspapers assigned reporters to a table outside the office of Grover Cleveland’s secretary—attentive reporters irritated occupants of the White House. To hide the fact that he had a tumor, Cleveland, in 1893, disappeared from Washington for four days to have surgery aboard a friend’s yacht. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson, who hated the press’s fascination with his three daughters, accused “certain evening newspapers” of quoting him on things he meant to stay off the record. He eventually all but abandoned news conferences. It was six years before Warren G. Harding, who had been a newspaper publisher, revived the tradition.
And, yet, over the years, almost every President has adopted a fruitful, if tense, mutual dependence with the press. Each needs something from the other, and both sides know it. Bruce Catton, a correspondent in the nineteen-forties, defined the constant business of leaking as information that officials were “either unwilling or unready” to reveal by name. Anonymity, ritually bemoaned and practiced by both sides, endures because it allows members of government, high and low, to speak more freely. Earlier this month, anonymity allowed the Washington Post to report, on the basis of nine sources, that Michael Flynn, the national-security adviser, had discussed Obama Administration sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Donald Trump took office, contrary to what Flynn told his colleagues. (Three days later, Flynn resigned.) Early Friday, CNN cited unnamed officials to report that the F.B.I. had rejected a White House request to dispute media reports that Trump’s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.
Anonymity, of course, is also a tool of the White House. On Thursday, one of Trump’s advisers e-mailed me a statement that began with the words “A WH official confirmed.” In Washington, anonymity, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, is a lousy solution, except for all the others.
But under Donald Trump, the dynamic between the press and the President has turned toxic. As a real-estate developer, Trump was, for many years, an energetic anonymous source (even pretending to be his own P.R. man to salt the local papers with news about himself), but Trump has bridled against the scrutiny applied to every President since Cleveland. On Friday morning, about an hour after his press secretary, Sean Spicer, and chief of staff, Reince Priebus, held an anonymous briefing for the press, Trump publicly excoriated the press’s use of anonymity. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said, “I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people’—and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none.” At one point, he posed changes that would effectively alter the First Amendment, saying, “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.” He added, “We’re going to do something about it.”
And do something they did. Shortly after Trump’s speech, his press office narrowed the day’s briefing to what’s known as a “gaggle”—a smaller, off-camera format that is useful for impromptu or informal updates. It turned away CNN, the Times, BuzzFeed, Politico, and other outlets that have published tough stories about his Administration lately. It ushered in Breitbart, the Washington Times, and a conservative outlet called One America Network. When Zeke Miller, of Time magazine, and Julie Pace, of the Associated Press—both of whom are on the board of the White House Correspondents Association—realized that organizations were being excluded, they left in protest. Reporters who stayed later shared the contents of the briefing in full.
The White House defended its actions by saying that every White House holds handpicked, off-the-record sessions, but reporters noted that this was an on-the-record briefing. “In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve never been a party to a gaggle that was not on Air Force One or on the road,” Mark Landler, a senior White House correspondent at the Times, told me. “Handpicking the participants is totally new.”
By day’s end, news organizations still couldn’t decipher whether the change was temporary—a kind of press-office panic attack—or a more permanent turn. Davan Maharaj, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, which was among the excluded, told me, “We don’t know what this means. We don’t know if Spicer is under pressure to show that he’s being tougher with the press. We don’t know if this is another effort at manipulation to shift the topic from whether the Administration inappropriately tried to influence the F.B.I. on the Russian investigation. What it does seem like is another effort to target the press as the disloyal opposition and an attack on what objective truth is.”
There was, of course, no shortage of reasons for the White House to shift the topic. In addition to contacting the F.B.I., according to the Washington Post, the White House also “enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and Congress in efforts to counter news stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia”—a development that drew comparisons to Richard Nixon’s attempts to stifle the Watergate investigation. In another blow, the White House was confronting an article in the Forward, headlined, “Senior Trump Aide Forged Key Ties to Anti-Semitic Groups in Hungary,” which focussed on Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the President, who rose through the far-right edge of Hungarian politics.
“I think there are two things going on,” Maharaj said. “I think there is a clear effort to bring the press to heel, something that’s not going to happen to the people who are the purveyors of high-quality journalism in the press in the United States. There’s also a clear effort to delegitimize credible sources of information so when something happens, when we or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post pop a story, that there’s a record of already discrediting the source.”
So far, news organizations have been galvanized by the pressure. The Washington Post has added a new motto to its front page: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” And the L.A. Times has printed up T-shirts, for staff and the public, with the phrase “We will not shut up” in thirteen languages. “Look, we all joined this business to hold officials accountable and to search for truth and to be vigorous in that search,” Maharaj said.
In the days to come, there will be questions to settle. Will the White House Correspondents Association, which said it was “protesting strongly” the exclusions, urge members to boycott the briefings? (For its part, The New Yorker will not attend White House briefings until the exclusions are ended, according to David Remnick, the editor of the magazine.) Will members of Congress see it as another sign of the President’s authoritarian turn? In a telling sign of displeasure, Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who had supported Trump in the campaign, called, on Friday, for a special prosecutor to manage the investigation into contacts between Trump associates and Russia.
The course of events will be shaped, above all, by the President himself. Barring a critical press is a step that Trump’s predecessors avoided even at the depths of scandal. During Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Monica Lewinsky affair, they continued to engage the press because an open society is at the heart of the values that compelled them to seek the White House in the first place. As Spicer himself said in December, the Trump Administration never planned to ban a news outlet: “Conservative, liberal, or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”
Every President is tempted, at times, to cower, to bully, to flee—even to a friend’s yacht. For Trump, there is an added incentive. He has at his disposal, and is using to full effect, something previous Presidents didn’t have: social media and a direct method of communication that bypasses the press.
But, historically, most Presidents eventually calculate that it is a ruinous strategy that only intensifies an Administration’s isolation and deepens the public’s distrust. During Grover Cleveland’s first Presidential campaign, in 1884, news broke that he had fathered an illegitimate child. He told his political aides and allies, “Whatever you do, tell the truth.” It contributed to his reputation and ultimately helped him win the White House. But in Washington today, the White House has slipped into a fragile, frantic mode, lurching from crisis to crisis, and not yet able to demonstrate whether its animating value is the preservation of its personnel or its integrity.
The Hard Part — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the part for the DNC.
And to think, that was the easy part. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected as chair of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, edging out Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in the first competitive election for the job in decades. The 55-year-old Perez, the first Latino chair of the party, will now inherit the most thankless job in politics—rebuilding a party that is at its lowest point since the 1920s.
The race was often miscast as a proxy fight between supporters of Bernie Sanders and supporters of Hillary Clinton, a framing that was unfair to both Ellison and Perez, dynamic and progressive political operatives running for a job often reserved for staid political figures. In the end, Perez’s win was not a rejection of Ellison’s vision of the party; in key ways, his campaign was an affirmation of it.
Party chair is a position typically of interest only to political junkies. But with organizers still amped up from the presidential election, the race had the feel and structure of a competitive primary, with a half-dozen candidate forums across the country and an intensive push from rank-and-file voters that recalled previous courting of superdelegates. “I’ve been lobbied consistently by phone, by email, by Facebook, by Twitter for the last month,” said Melvin Poindexter, a DNC member from Massachusetts who was supporting Ellison.
Ellison, for his part, tried to tamp down the barrage of phone calls on his behalf, which one state party chair unfavorably described as “anarchy.” But aggressive lobbying proved critical. Kerman Maddox, a DNC member from California, explained that he’d chosen Perez in part because “Tom called me more than any of the other Democratic candidates”—a sentiment echoed by other voting members.
After the results were announced, a dozen Ellison supporters—including the congressman’s brother, Eric—chanted “party for the people, not big money” from the back of the Atlanta ballroom, with a few cries of “bullshit!” thrown in. While the formal final vote, sealed on the second ballot, was 235 to 200, in a show of unity, Perez was subsequently elected by acclamation. In his first move as chair, he announced that Ellison had agreed to serve as his deputy chair.
“If you’re wearing a ‘Keith’ t-shirt—or any t-shirt—I am asking you to give everything you’ve got to support chairman Perez,” Ellison told the room. Afterward, they switched campaign pins in a show of solidarity.
In the run up to the vote, some Ellison backers argued that there was no real case for a Perez chairmanship—that he was running as a check on Sanders’ influence and little more. But DNC members I spoke with seemed to understand Perez’s pitch quite clearly: he was a turnaround artist who had retooled complex bureaucracies toward progressive ends, first at the Maryland Department of Labor, then at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and finally as President Barack Obama’s Labor Secretary. If progressives had forgotten what they liked about Perez, they needed to look no farther than the conservative Breitbart News, which once heralded Perez “the most radical cabinet secretary since Henry Wallace,” the New Dealer who eventually bolted the Democrats to mount a third party challenge in 1948.
The fights that Perez has waged over the course of his career track closely with those Ellison cut his teeth on in Minneapolis—housing discrimination, voter suppression, and living wages. Neo-liberal stooges still have a place in the Democratic party. But the DNC chair isn’t one of them.
Beyond their shared political priorities, Perez even offered a similar diagnosis as Ellison. The party had become top-heavy, focusing too much on the presidential race, and had neglected to compete on a county-by-county level. He advocated something resembling a restoration of former chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, and proposed to spend more time knocking on doors in off-year elections. There was no talk of compromising with President Donald Trump; Perez dubbed him “the worst president in the history of the United States.”
Ellison sought to win the same way he always has, through a mastery of coalition politics. His backers included American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Rep. John Lewis, and Sanders—many of whom found themselves on opposing sides during the president primary. The threat by OJ Simpson counsel and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz< to leave the party if Ellison won did not appear to have a substantial effect on voters. (Maybe they were waiting to hear from F. Lee Bailey.) He ran not as Sanders 2.0, but as a restoration of an even older form of Democratic progressivism, one evoked by the spruce-green colors on his t-shirts and tote bags—the campaign colors of his political idol, the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Just a few hours before the election, there was an indication Ellison might come up short when the committee members voted on a resolution that would reinstate the party’s ban on corporate donations. The ban, which was first implemented by president-elect Barack Obama in 2008, had been dropped last year by the previous party chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Ellison had supported the reinstatement of the ban and envisioned a party’s fundraising model in the mold of Sanders’ small-dollar campaign. Perez never committed to reinstating the contribution ban.
The resolution brought on the most contentious 10 minutes of a weekend that, up until then, had been a love-fest. Bob Mulholland of California, the leading critic of the ban, chided critics as naive. He cited corporate opposition to ousted North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory as proof that corporations aren’t all evil. Supporters of the ban, some of the new party leaders whom had been recently elected to their posts with the backing of Sanders’s supporters, implicitly tied the resolution to the senator’s one-time candidacy, warning that the party risked alienating voters who cared about money in politics. Jessica Sell Chambers, a Sanders backer and the newly minted national committeewoman from Wyoming, offered a succinct appraisal: “I belong to the party of the people and the last time I checked corporations aren’t people.”
Inside the Westin, where Democrats began assembling on Thursday, the notion that the chair candidates were engaged in a rancorous, existential fight seemed far-fetched. Perez, who was hoarse from two days of lobbying as he made a last-minute push Friday night, had taken to calling the event “Unity Saturday.” Even the most die-hard Ellison supporters were optimistic that the party would be in good hands win or lose. Each of the leading candidates devoted portions of their stump speech to a call for unity no matter who won.
“I really just want to like put at least four of them together,” said Dolly Strazar from Hawaii, a Sanders supporter who ended up backing Perez. Another voting member, Aleita Huguenin of California, predicted that the fight would quickly simmer down. “I’ve been through too many of them,” she said. “People are a little disappointed, they have two dinners, and will be back together.”
In reality, the contentious fight over the future of the party never really described the DNC race—but there is such a battle playing out across the country. Already, Sanders supporters, both organically and with the support of the Senator’s non-profit Our Revolution, have begun targeting the party’s apparatus at state, county, and local levels. They are poised to take over the California Democratic party in May, after winning a majority of delegates to the state convention in January. The Sanders wing is ascendant in Nebraska and Wyoming, and setting its sights on Florida and Michigan. Beyond party positions, re-energized Sanders supporters are talking openly about primary challenges to Democratic officeholders who support Donald Trump’s policies.
Less than a year after only 39 of 447 DNC members endorsed Sanders’ presidential campaign, his chosen candidate came about 15 votes short of taking over the whole thing. The numbers reflect Sanders’ forces growing strength in the party, a gradual upheaval that may only be sped along by Perez’s victory. DNC members from Wyoming—where the Vermont senator notched a huge caucus victory but due to party rules emerged with few delegates—who are not on board are feeling the heat. When Bruce Palmer, the party’s vice chair, told me he was supporting Tom Perez, he conceded that it may be to his own detriment. After all, he’s got an election next month.
Town Hall Advice — Former Rep. Steve Israel has some thoughts for his GOP colleagues facing their constituents.
Unruly crowds at town halls are taking members of Congress by surprise. Many are so intimidated that they are refusing to show up. President Trump recently tweeted, “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!”
They are not sad, Mr. President, but mad. Not long ago, I was on the receiving end.
Until last month, I represented a fairly quiet district on Long Island. For the first nine years of my time in Congress, my town halls could barely fill a closet. We held them in firehouses and libraries. The events were civil and sleepy, and my interns usually outnumbered the constituents. I’d show up in my gleaming congressional lapel pin and requisite red tie, ready for that Rockwellian view of a citizenry’s public discourse with a national leader. Then, my heart would drop when I saw mostly empty metal folding chairs.
All of that changed when the Tea Party rolled in.
In 2009, my Democratic colleagues began reporting that their town meetings were being disrupted. Civil discourse was being replaced by brawls. In some cases, police officers were brought in to protect the politicians.
Not in my district, I thought. I couldn’t even bribe my constituents into coming with free bagels and coffee.
Then it began: an avalanche of calls demanding to know when and where I’d conduct a town hall. Some of the voices had decidedly Southern accents (and I don’t mean the South Shore of Long Island). My interns usually took callers’ names and addresses, but strangely, many of the people who said they needed to attend a town hall didn’t want to leave a phone number so we could tell them when and where they could satisfy that urge.
We set an evening and searched for a site big enough to accommodate the crowd, settling on the theater at a community college. When I arrived, I saw so many people that I thought the college had scheduled a sporting event at the same time. That’s when I realized that I was the sporting event.
People were tailgating. Yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were hoisted everywhere. The Suffolk County Police Department was out in force.
Perhaps the lowest point of the town hall was when one member of my staff was taunted as being a socialist. She happens to be an Army veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had arranged for the League of Women Voters to moderate the meeting so I couldn’t be accused of selecting favorable questions. That worked out fine until someone in the audience accused the League of Women Voters of being socialists, too.
Almost immediately I noticed something unusual. Every couple of minutes, people at the end of every few rows of seats would spring to their feet, then turn to the rows immediately behind them and urge others to stand — like orchestrating a wave at a baseball game. It was the first time I’d witnessed syncopated booing.
For two hours, I was called more names and booed at more times than I thought possible. At the merciful end, my politician’s instincts took hold and I approached the edge of the stage to shake hands with a group that swelled against it. Then I felt a tug on my arm. It was a police officer, surrounded by three colleagues, who said: “We think it would be a good idea to leave. Now.”
Later I saw a memo by the Tea Party Patriots giving instructions to crowds like this across the nation. It was essentially a manual for what their strategy should be at a town-hall meeting: Scream loudly, be disruptive and make clear that a significant portion of the audience does not support the agenda.
The night of my town hall, I knew the crowd was effectively stage-managed and that many people there didn’t live in my district. But I didn’t make an issue of that, as President Trump does now. It was my obligation — my job — to listen to disagreement. The people there were Americans expressing their anger and anxiety; exercising a constitutional principle to petition their grievances to government. It wasn’t a pleasant night, but it was a patriotic one.
So my advice to those members of Congress who are hiding out or delaying is this: You can run for re-election, but you can’t hide from the American people.
The longer you wait, the louder it will get.
Doonesbury — Just the guy for the job.