Seeing past Trump’s empty threats

The news cycle could have looked very different this morning. Today was to be the day that President Trump slapped an initial tariff of 5 percent on Mexican goods—with the potential for further escalation—to pressure that country’s government to curb the flow of migrants making its way toward the US. The tariff would have been a huge news story, not least because of the costs it would have imposed on American consumers. In the end, however, Trump did not levy it. On Friday, his negotiators reached an agreement with Mexico, which will now avoid the tariff in exchange for expanded efforts on migration—or so the Trump administration claims. The president hailed the deal as a win.

Was it actually a win? In our polarized information ecosystem, the answer, as ever, depends on which news universe you inhabit. In a weekend fundraising email to supporters, Trump invoked the “art of the deal” as he claimed Mexico had bent to his will; right-wing commentators echoed the point. Several news outlets, however, countered that the deal was limited and that its art was dubious. Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Nancy Cook argued that the tariff threat fit an “eerily familiar” pattern: Trump sparked a crisis by demanding ill-defined concessions, then claimed, at the last minute, that they had been granted, without offering much proof. Peter Baker, in a news analysis for The New York Times, called the episode a “case study” of Trump as “threatener-in-chief.”

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On Saturday, Baker’s Times colleagues poured further cold water on the president’s victory lap. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman reported that Trump’s deal was based, in large part, on pledges Mexico already made—to allow asylum seekers to remain on its territory while the US processes their claims (an agreement reached in December), and to mobilize its National Guard to its border with Guatemala (an agreement reached in March). The Times story drove a news cycle on TV and online—on Fox News, Bret Baier asked Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, how much of the new agreement was actually new—and enraged the president. In a pair of tweets 10 hours apart, Trump assailed the “failing” New York Times and its “false” story. On both occasions, the Times defended its reporters; “Our stories stand up over time and the president’s denials of them do not,” it wrote (twice). In between his broadsides, Trump tweeted that the Mexico deal contained further, secret details that will be announced “at the appropriate time.” Nonetheless, as of yesterday morning, a narrative was settling that Trump “agreed to a deal with used concessions,” as Politico’s Playbook authors put it. They pointed to the Times report as well as a story by Bloomberg refuting another Trump claim: that Mexico had agreed to buy “large quantities of agricultural product from our great patriot farmers!”

In some coverage of the deal, an important question followed: has Trump’s negotiating hand been weakened by his frequent failures to follow through on his threats? Politico’s Johnson and Cook suggested that it has been, citing as evidence Trump’s prior threat—also unrealized—to close the US–Mexico border. Baker added further examples of Trump’s threats remaining empty: the president has not rewritten libel laws, nor stripped a license from NBC, nor pulled troops from South Korea, nor locked up Hillary Clinton; the list goes on. Baker also noted, however, that Trump’s conduct remains highly unpredictable. In hindsight, his failure to levy the Mexico tariff seems unsurprising. Last week, however, his proposal provoked genuine alarm among business leaders, senior Republicans, and Trump’s own advisers, and drove a busy news cycle, with more than a handful of headlines about the tariff written in the future—not the conditional—tense.

As Baker wrote, Trump’s threats—successful or not on their own terms—usually do succeed in training media and political focus on an issue he wants to centralize. The presidency comes with agenda-setting power, of course. But we’ve seen many times before that Trump uses immigration rhetoric to excite his base without taking concrete policy steps. We should take his threats seriously, but we should also look beyond them. The immigration story is immense and ongoing. It should sustain our attention in its own right, and not just in the midst of Trump’s political storms.

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Below, more on Trump, Mexico, and the border:

  • Concrete consequences: While the full effects of Trump’s proposed tariff have clearly been averted, the threats alone have real-world effects, including some we can’t immediately see. The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer tweeted over the weekend that “The President’s constant threats of sweeping action at the border (closing it/ending asylum/imposing tariffs/cutting aid) play right into the sales pitch of smugglers in region: *go to US now, before it’s too late.*”
  • South of the border: In US coverage of migration, public opinion in Mexico is often overlooked, despite its important effects on the policy of the Mexican government. According to The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan and Kevin Sieff, polls in Mexico have shown that “blocking migrants” is a more popular option than “confronting Trump.”
  • Enemy lines: Yesterday, Trump called the Times and CNN “truly The Enemy of the People!”, renewing a familiar line of attack on outlets and reporting that contradict his preferred narratives. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, Trump has used the refrain more than 30 times since taking office.

Other notable stories:

  • In Friday’s newsletter, I reported that over 300 Vox Media employees walked off the job on Thursday after management failed to agree a union contract with union representatives. On Friday, after 29 straight hours of talks, the union announced that it had reached a “tentative agreement” with Vox Media. As the agreement has yet to be ratified, details are scarce; according to Alex Kirshner, a member of the bargaining committee, it includes “guaranteed raises,” “salary minimums,” and “strong severance.” Also on Friday, staffers at Fast Company ratified their first union contract with the Writers Guild of America, East.
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan lays out the differing institutional contexts framing Watergate and the Mueller report’s conclusions about Trump: “As the anniversary of the Watergate scandal’s beginning comes around again—the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters was on June 17, 1972—investigative journalism’s effectiveness is weakened. The reporting may be every bit as skilled, but the results are greatly diluted because so much has changed in the nation, including its media.”
  • The Times’s Kevin Roose charts how Caleb Cain, a liberal college dropout in West Virginia, fell down a far-right rabbit hole on YouTube and was radicalized as a result. “I’ve heard countless versions of Mr. Cain’s story: an aimless young man—usually white, frequently interested in video games—visits YouTube looking for direction or distraction and is seduced by a community of far-right creators,” Roose, who analyzed Cain’s entire YouTube history, writes. “The common thread is… its recommendation algorithm.”
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Michael Edison Hayden has a guide to open source intelligence, or OSINT: “Every time we go online, we give up part of our identity. Sometimes, it comes in the form of an email used to make a Twitter account. Other times, it’s a phone number for two-factor authentication, or days’ and weeks’ worth of timestamps suggesting when a user is awake and asleep. Journalists can piece together clues like this and use them to tell stories which are of interest to the public.”
  • Heshmat Alavi, an “Iranian activist,” has written articles for Forbes, The Hill, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, and other outlets; one of his pieces was cited by the White House as a justification for scrapping the Iran nuclear deal. But, according to The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain, Alavi is not a real person: a propaganda campaign run by the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group, is behind his online persona. “The MEK has over the past decade turned its attention to English-language audiences—especially in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK, whose foreign policies are crucial nodes in the MEK’s central goal of overthrowing the Iranian regime.”
  • Last week, Russian police arrested Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist with Meduza, on drugs charges. Golunov and Meduza claim that he is innocent; the authorities, they say, are going after him over his reporting on government corruption. On Saturday, following protests, Golunov, who was beaten by police, was moved to house arrest. Russian journalists have vowed to keep the pressure on officials. This morning, three prominent newspapers—Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBK—jointly ran the headline “I/We Are Ivan Golunov.”
  • For CJR, the Chinese Storytellers, a collective of Chinese journalists, explain what some international outlets got wrong in their coverage, last week, of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Some news organizations “sent reporters to approach pedestrians in China and show them the iconic photograph of the protest,” they write. “In the footage that was published, many of the pedestrians didn’t recognize the image, some clumsily denied their recognition of it, and others physically ran away.” This approach put Chinese citizens in “needless danger.”
  • Ahead of the Tiananmen Square anniversary, China’s internet censors went into overdrive. The websites of the Post and The Guardian—which were “among the last few major English-language outlets that were still regularly accessible from mainland China without the use of virtual private networking software”—now appear to be blocked in the country. The Post’s Gerry Shih has more.
  • And Saturday was the anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s death. A year ago, CJR’s Pete Vernon paid tribute to Bourdain the “world-class journalist.” On social media, Vernon “saw people from Hawaii, South Africa, Vietnam, and Louisiana credit Bourdain with ‘getting’ their part of the world right. If that’s not the mark of a good journalist, I don’t know what is.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.