Trump’s epic battle with the press
For President Donald Trump, the battle against the press is a battle that he must win. He thinks this particular battle is greater than the one in which he secured the Republican nomination and the subsequent election battle in which he trounced his opponent, Hilary Clinton capping it with his triumphant entry into the White House last month.
Trump needs to win this battle to do what he promised in his electoral campaign – to make America great again. For now he believes it is the press with its “fake news” that is slowing him down. Apparently, by now he would have completed the Mexican wall and possibly put more Americans on the moon. He wants his achievements measured in stratospheric standard but for this fake news, this nasty press.
By his own admission, no president in history ever did what he has done in just three weeks of his inauguration – signing more than two dozen executive orders. To boot, with gold pens instead of the chromed ones that his predecessors used. In one fell swoop, he ordered a travel ban on seven Muslim countries namely Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, leaving those already flying to U.S. high and dry in the air. Those who arrived their destinations were quickly clamped into detention at the airports, they had become persona non grata on the American soil. It reminds one of the movie, Terminal, in which a citizen of one of the old Soviet countries lost his identity and his country and becomes homeless and stateless because a coup d’état had taken place in his country after he had taken off for USA. The new rulers changed the name of his country. On landing, because of the extraordinary transformation that happened while he was airborne, his passport had become obsolete, so too his visa. He becomes marooned at the terminal. But Trump’s travel ban is not a movie and the mess attending to it drew generous flaks and worldwide condemnation.
Choosing the men and women to help run his administration was not immune to controversy. He has placed his close family relations, including sons-in-law, in strategic positions in the administration, violating the country’s constitution that clearly forbids nepotism and cronyism. But Trump has ready-made answers to all his critics. The American laws, he says offhandedly, don’t affect him. The legal system did a major blow to his messy travel ban but he fired back at the “so called judges.” Admitting later that he had had a bad court, he promised to rejig the travel ban and pass new executive orders to the consternation of friend and foes alike.
At home, Republicans and Democrats alike were aghast. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham drove the point home clearly about the implications of the ban. More than 16 U.S. attorneys generals from states like New York, California and Pennsylvania issued statements promising to use “all tools available to fight this unconstitutional ban order.” They made good their threat. The travel ban has suffered more than three court losses and it promises to suffer more.
Admittedly, what President Trump has done in the last one month have been unprecedented. Such an active president, such an unorthodox leader, with a grotesquely conflicted persona, is a veritable candidate for media exposure. And he is having more than his fair share of it – locally and internationally. He says he is undoing the damage Barrack Obama did to America, the “mess at home and abroad.” The first sign that his conflict with the media would spill from his campaign days into the White House was immediately after the inauguration on January 20. What started the crisis was the conflicting account of the crowd that witnessed the epoch event. The media compared the crowd with the Obama crowd at his inauguration in 2008 and concluded that Trump’s crowd was nowhere near the Obama crowd. Trump, in his addicted tweeters, dismissed the media estimate and called it a lie, emanating from fake news from CNN, the New York Times and to some extent the BBC. Trump’s version of events, according to the media, was absolute falsehood but his senior aide, Kellyanne Conway, immediately jumped into the fray, charactering Trump’s alleged falsehood as the “alternative facts.”
Thus was born a new baby, an addition to the White House’s own political lexicon. Conway’s creative coinage thus flew straight into the social media where it developed a life of its own. The epochal fight between the press and the president is represented on one hand by Fake News and on the other the Alternative Facts.
The war is fuelled by Trump’s characteristic double-speak and policy summersaults. During his campaign, he let the world know that he was not a fan of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. In office, he is singing a different tune. The organisation is fantastic, doing a wonderful job. He enjoins member nations to pay up.
While waiting to be sworn in, the United Nation Security Council passed a resolution directing Israel to suspend additional settlement in the Palestinian territory. Israel, a protégé of the United States, expected the U.S. to veto the resolution, but it abstained to the horror and chagrin of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime minister and Trump who was waiting in the wings to replace Obama. Expectedly, the president-elect fired at the Security Council and denounced the resolution, advising Israel to be patient and wait for his inauguration.
On assumption of office the Israeli prime minster was among the early callers at the White House. At the White House press conference by the two leaders, Trump urged his host to be flexible on the issue of additional settlement. When he noticed the discomfort of his guest, he quickly applied the balm on the man’s jaded nerves: “You are a fantastic guy, a wonderful negotiator. I know you will be flexible. The Palestinians too should be flexible.” But in a roundabout way, he threw away the long standing USA policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement which favours a two-state solution backed by the United Nations resolution. He said “I am looking at a two-state and a one-state and I like the one that both sides like. I can live with either of them.” Which is no option, except that it now amounts to a summersault in U.S. policy.
His handling of the nomination for cabinet members and other key appointments is characterised by chaos, sending a feeler of the White House in disarray. At the screening of key actors in his administration, what came poignantly into open was the sharp divergent position held by the nominees, positions clearly opposite his own. But Trump did not see anything amiss because they were “wonderful and fantastic” people who had a mind of their own. When after only one month in office, one of them, National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn fell foul of protocol and national security by engaging the Russian ambassador to USA in a lengthy telephone discussion, hinting on the possibility of sanctions against Russia being lifted, Trump went into a rage and fired him. The following day while talking to the press, he poured encomium on Flynn and called him a wonderful guy who fell victim of the press and their fake news. He berated the media and pronounced judicially that they have lost the confidence of the people, that indeed the people no longer believe in the media. Hear him: “The level of dishonesty in the press is out of control, we are going straight to the audience, social media or tweeter.” Ironically, he has not stopped dealing with them. He still relies on the media to get his information across to the people, tweeters or no tweeters.
It is not only the Americans that are worried by the ways and the wiles of President Donald Trump. The international community remains baffled by the goings-on in the USA. British Prime Minster Theresa May had just returned from her visit to the White House when the controversial ban was announced. She minced no words condemning it and the British, almost to a man, had urged their prime minister to cancel the invitation she had extended to President Trump. It took the British Parliament to finally rule that the visit would go ahead but parliament cannot prevent wild cat protests when he comes calling.
Even the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin who is the major beneficiary of the Trump presidency was reported this week to be feeling uncomfortable with the publicity the Russian media was giving to this celebrity president. Kremlin was even said to have ordered the media to play down Trump. Taking a cue from the ban or advice, a major newspaper said “you have to be drunk to understand Trump’s foreign policy thrust, the contradictions and the summersault.
Trump will do well to heed Richard Nixon’s advice to public officials. Don’t take on the press, he cautioned. You may win on the short run. But on the long run, the press will have the last word. And they will survive to celebrate your demise or your downfall.