The White House wages war on transparency: impeachment edition

Yesterday, at 12:30am, Gordon Sondland—the US ambassador to the European Union who has emerged as a key character in the ongoing Trump/Ukraine scandal—received a voicemail from an administration official telling him not to appear at a House hearing scheduled for yesterday morning. Sondland duly failed to show. (His lawyer said Sondland was “disappointed,” but obligated to follow State Department orders.) That drama, it turned out, was only an appetizer. Later in the day, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, wrote House Democrats to let them know that, henceforth, the administration will refuse to provide witnesses, documents—anything, really—that they request during their “impeachment inquiry.” (The quote marks there are Cipollone’s.)

All day long, Trump’s boosters buttressed the stone wall. The official White House Twitter account—an underappreciated vector of Trumpian propagandaechoed Cipollone’s claim that the inquiry is unconstitutional. (The Constitution: “The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”) Rudy Giuliani compared Democrats’ efforts to the Salem witch trials and Joe McCarthy (who Giuliani seems to think was *checks notes* a Russian communist). Lowering the bar further still, Matt Gaetz, the Trump-friendly Florida Congressman, called the inquiry “a kangaroo court” and Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chair, “a malicious Captain Kangaroo.”

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An escalation in confused cultural references, yes, but there’s nothing new in administration stonewalling. The last time I addressed this topic, in May, Trump and his allies were blocking more than 20 separate investigations pertaining to the Mueller probe, Trump’s taxes, and other matters. That, I wrote, amounted to a “war on transparency.” Yesterday, the war framing was everywhere again: from Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show to Nicolle Wallace’s MSNBC show; from the homepage of the New York Times to the homepage of the Drudge Report.

The logical conclusion here is that the White House is desperate to stanch the flow of damaging evidence: the administration is “willing to risk looking like they are engaged in an active cover-up just to not let this guy tell what he knows under oath,” Chris Hayes said on MSNBC, referring to the Sondland non-hearing. “Based on that, you, dear viewer, can draw your own conclusions about what it is he does know.” But hiding wrongdoing may not be the only, or even the primary, rationale here. (As ever, we should remember that Trump already admitted to doing the thing he’s accused of.) As I wrote in May, Trump isn’t just trying to dodge scrutiny—he’s trying to flip it back on his political opponents, impugning the motives of those demanding it and firing up his base in the process. If anyone should recognize this play, it’s the press. (To give just one example: the White House ends the daily briefing, reporters rightly complain, officials call them fame-hungry performance artists.)

The impeachment inquiry is still a huge draw for the press, but already we’re seeing signs—the reaction to Trump’s troop drawdown in Syria, for example—that coverage is becoming less wall-to-wall. As Politico’s Playbook email noted yesterday, “Trump’s power to control the headlines day in and day out is a challenge for Democrats, and it’s not one they’ve quite solved yet.” Trump’s “control,” of course, is open to question. But the more the White House can make the story about the contested legitimacy of the probe, not its underlying facts, the more its apparent two-track strategy—stonewall, then counterattack—will proliferate.

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Cipollone’s reasoning is telling of the counterattack point, in particular. Part of the White House’s opposition to the impeachment probe, he says, is that, unlike in the similar investigations against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, House Democrats have not formalized proceedings via a vote of the full House. (This is not constitutionally required.) As the LA Times’s Sarah D. Wire noted in an insightful piece Monday, in both prior cases, the formal impeachment resolution granted subpoena powers to the party in the House minority. Should that precedent be followed this time, Republicans could hijack the investigation—pivoting, for example, toward the Bidens. Should it not be followed, the White House can continue to cry foul about the absence of due process.

And as I wrote in May, the stonewalling story has a strand that is less immediate than Trump’s messaging strategy, but no less important. Trump and key allies—Attorney General William Barr chief among them—are on record as advocates of untrammeled executive authority. Complying with Congressional oversight does not fit with that conception. In May, Trump told reporters that his refusal to let Don McGahn, Cipollone’s predecessor as White House counsel, testify about Mueller would set a “very important precedent” for future presidents. That had nothing directly to do with impeachment, but his argument, if anything, is more consequential now than it was back then. There is no clear constitutional roadmap to impeachment. Precedent is thus central—and, because impeachment is so rare, we don’t have much precedent to go on.

The news cycle is breathless right now, but it’s worth stepping out of it to take a longer view. Hostile acts such as the Cipollone letter could provide a future administration with a pretext to stonewall at a similar moment of national crisis. The press is immediately downstream of this durable assault on transparency; if our elected officials can’t get their hands on information of public interest, we’re less likely to, as well. We ought to communicate that fear, and not portray developments like yesterday’s as just another partisan bun fight.

Below, more on Trump and transparency:

  • Literally, not seriously?: Politico’s Daniel Lippmann reports that Trump is “obsessed” with polygraph tests, and has even suggested polygraphing every employee in the White House to find out who has been leaking information to the press. “Accounts differ,” Lippmann writes, “as to just how literally, and seriously, those requests were taken.”
  • “Wow, okay”: Twice this week, judges have rebuked the White House’s war on transparency. On Monday, Judge Victor Marrero ordered Trump to hand his tax returns to the Manhattan district attorney, calling the president’s argument that he is immune from criminal investigation “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.” Yesterday, Judge Beryl A. Howell responded to a Justice Department request that she deny Congress access to Mueller’s grand-jury materials by saying, “Wow, okay… the department is taking extraordinary positions in this case.”
  • Another Donald: Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner has a fascinating, deep look at Barr’s youth. Barr’s father, Donald, a controversial educator, had an expansive view of executive power that likely informed his son’s.
  • Meese’s pieces: Last night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow—who has made an admirable effort of late to ground the impeachment story in historical context—focused her monologue on Edwin Meese, who served as attorney general under Ronald Reagan and also had controversial positions on executive authority and oversight. Yesterday, Trump awarded Meese the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “If time is a circle, it’s a circle in the form of a snake both biting on and choking on its own tail,” Maddow said.


Other notable stories:

  • Emily Tamkin, CJR’s public editor for CNN, asks, “What actually is CNN?” The network, Tamkin writes, boasts a stable of extremely talented news reporters, but instead seems to fill prime time, in particular, with horse-race punditry and interviewees yelling at each other. “What if, for every talking heads segment, there was a reported segment?” Tamkin suggests. “What if the hosts threw their shows over to the beat reporters more often? What if guests who lied weren’t brought on again? What if people who had worked on campaigns couldn’t be brought on to spin the news unmitigated? Would more people watch? Would people feel less overwhelmed when they turned on their televisions?”
  • According to a memo obtained by Deadspin’s Laura Wagner, bosses at ESPN ordered staff to steer clear of Chinese politics when discussing the controversy stemming from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong. The edict is the latest example of ESPN’s “stick to sports” ethos. In other Hong Kong news, the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper hit Apple for hosting an app, often used by protesters, that tracks police movements in the territory.
  • Yesterday, Steve Hayes, formerly of the Weekly Standard, and Jonah Goldberg, formerly of National Review, launched The Dispatch, a digital outlet for center-right reporting that will keep a critical distance from Trump; David French is also coming on board, also from National Review. The venture, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen notes, marks a departure for Substack, a company that has focused mostly on individual newsletters but is branching out to host other types of content—including a podcast—for The Dispatch.
  • The One Herald Guild, founded last week to push for a union at the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, says McClatchy, which owns the titles, has retained the law firm Jones Day. As CJR’s Andrew McCormick reported last year, Jones Day has “become notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.”
  • Next week, the grocery giant Kroger will ax all free newspapers and magazines from its stores nationwide. The move, Sam Bloch writes for The New Food Economy, “could be a major blow to the small, independent publishing business”; grocery stores contribute a sizable share of many free papers’ distribution, and placement there attracts advertisers.
  • 8chan, the notorious forum that was dumped by web providers after three mass shooters posted murderous screeds there, is plotting a comeback, The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill reports. The platform suggested it will rename itself 8kun and tweak its logo, an apparent bid to placate firms that banned it. Such companies, Weill writes, “might not be fooled.”
  • And CBS News is the latest outlet to strike a deal with Quibi, the streaming service for smartphones founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg. The platform will host 60 in 6, a (you guessed it) six-minute spinoff of 60 Minutes aimed at a younger audience.

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