[Above video from February, 2019]
I’m not one of those journalists who laments the news cycle as if the Washington press corps has no choice but to cover everything this president does as if everything he does were of equal importance. The Trump administration is indeed a dust devil of disaster, but some things are more important than others, and reporters should say so.
This weekend saw wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump’s attempt to reboot his bid for reelection. The setting was Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Covid-19 pandemic is surging, and where civic and business leaders said now’s the wrong time to gather 20-some thousand people in one place. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, crowed about how many people were going to show up only to be humiliated when less than half did.
If this president, or any president, is shown to have cheated to get to where he is today, that means this president, or any president, is illegitimate.
Empty seats evidently signal “vulnerabilities” heading into the election, according to the AP’s Steve Peoples and Jonathan Lemire. “Trump’s return to the campaign trail was designed to show strength and enthusiasm but instead highlighted growing vulnerabilities. It also crystallized a divisive reelection message that largely ignores broad swaths of voters, who could play a decisive role on Election Day, and the critical and dominant national issue of racial injustice. National unity was not mentioned.”
I get it. I’m as human as the next guy. The president was embarrassed. Cue the Schadenfreude. But if we’re going to talk seriously about Trump’s “vulnerabilities” in a “divisive election” in which he’s pandering to his base of support while ignoring a majority of Americans, let’s remember that that’s what the president did last time around. That’s why he had to cheat. Cheating, for this guy, is a feature, not a bug.
Indeed, cheating was confirmed Friday. The US Department of Justice released unredacted parts of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in 2016. The parts involved Roger Stone, the president’s friend and confidant. (They were redacted while Stone’s federal trial was ongoing.) Thanks to Buzzfeed, which sued for the release of the information, it’s abundantly clear there was a link between Trump and Kremlin operatives attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton. That link was Stone.
During testimony to the US Congress, Robert Mueller said the Russians waged a cyber-offensive against Clinton to benefit Trump. His report explained how hackers under the direction of Vladimir Putin gave stolen documents to Wikileaks, which timed their release for maximum impact. Unclear, however, was whether the Trump campaign knew about Putin’s efforts and more importantly, whether Trump himself knew about his campaign’s effort to obtain the information. If a link could be established, it would be clear that to win, the president colluded with the enemy.
The link was … already established? The Times and the Post, in reporting the results of Buzzfeed’s lawsuit, said there wasn’t anything new to report other than the possibility of the president having lied to Mueller’s team. Apparently, the link between Trump and Russia had already been reported! Apparently, that link was clear after Roger Stone was convicted of lying to federal investigators! I mean, OK, fine, so maybe I should’ve been paying more and better attention, but I do this stuff for a living. If I missed this link, I’m betting lots of normal people missed it, too, and if lots of normal people missed it, too, that’s probably an indicator of some sort of institutional failing, right?
It could be people didn't show up in Tulsa, because they don't want to give an illegitimate president a second chance.
Think about it. If this president, or any president, is shown to have cheated to get to where he is today, that means this president, or any president, is illegitimate. That means this president, or any president, defrauded the American people, violated national sovereignty, and seized the right to rule without the consent of the ruled. That means it doesn’t matter what this president, or any president, has done or will do from now on. The fact that this president, or any president, cheated means he has to go.
He has to, because once a cheater, always a cheater. Trump cheated again when he tried involving two foreign leaders in a scheme to interfere this year, and in doing so either betrayed Americans values (he’s willing to look away from China cracks down on Hongkongers and Uighur Muslims) or literally committed treason (with Ukraine, in my view). Cheating, in other words, isn’t a bug for this guy. It’s a permanent feature.
The Washington press corps can choose not to cover everything Trump does as if everything he does were of equal importance. When it comes to reporting a campaign rally in which half the people showed up who were supposed to show up, cheating is a news context as valid as any other. It could be the pandemic kept people away. Just as plausible, however—and plausibility is the best that reporters have to work with—is that people are not showing up to give an illegitimate president a second chance.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches. Republished with permission.