Trump, ‘emboldened’

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. This week always promised to be one of the craziest of the crazy Trump-era news cycle; still, on entry, we at least expected that the huge stories in front of us would be rationed, one per day—the Iowa caucuses Monday; the State of the Union Tuesday; Trump’s impeachment acquittal Wednesday. The news gods had other plans. Epic screw-ups involving updated caucus rules and a (literally) shadowy app meant we didn’t get any results out of Iowa on Monday night; when the first returns finally came through around 5pm Eastern yesterday, they sent (literally) breathless reporters scrambling to their election walls, just hours before the State of the Union was set to start. Even then, we only got 62 percent of the results. As of this morning, more than a quarter of precincts were yet to report anything at all. Today, it seems, will be yet another split-screen day.

Amid the madness, anchors from all the major networks found time to go to the White House for lunch with the president, a SOTU-day tradition. All the major networks, that is, except for CNN, which was barred. The network’s competitors didn’t so much as criticize the exclusion, at least not publicly; they certainly didn’t boycott the lunch in solidarity. (On Monday, British journalists had offered a precedent for doing so, but it went untaken.) The lunch is supposed to be off the record, but details always leak out. Kaitlan Collins—of CNN, ironically—learned that Trump mulled awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, the firebrand right-wing radio host who recently received a cancer diagnosis. (Limbaugh received the medal during the SOTU.) Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times, heard that Trump is planning to do the election debates in the fall, following some speculation to the contrary. When the Times asked Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, about these tidbits, she replied that she wouldn’t be commenting on an off-the-record event because “I actually have ethics.” Later, she fumed, on Fox News, that the leaks had made her “very, very angry,” and that they would affect reporters’ “off-the-record opportunities” in the future. (Recent “off-the-record opportunities” under this administration have included the secretary of state yelling at an NPR reporter while challenging her to pinpoint Ukraine on a map; Grisham’s office, for its part, has been known to insist that its talking points remain unattributed in stories, despite Trump’s habit of trashing unnamed sourcing.)

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In the months prior to last year’s State of the Union, we saw a lively debate in media circles about the adequacy of networks’ fact-checking efforts when Trump speaks live to the nation. (Erik Wemple, of the Washington Post, even suggested that the address not be carried live at all.) The pace of the news cycle since then seems to have killed that conversation. Last night, that showed. As was the case last year, there were some sterling fact-checking efforts online, but on TV, no network that I saw offered a similar service on-screen during the speech. (This clip of Trump hooked up to a lie detector while talking is from Jimmy Kimmel, not CNN.)

As I wrote last year, when it comes to Trump, fact-checking isn’t sufficient if it’s relegated to the margins. Responding, in real time, via chyron needn’t be so hard. As Daniel Dale, CNN’s fact-checking maven, noted last night, Trump regularly shuffles through the same pack of lies. “Fact-checking Trump is a lotta copying and pasting,” he tweeted.

Much coverage of last night’s address dwelled on its most viral “moment”: after Trump finished speaking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been seated, generally impassively, behind him, picked up a copy of his speech and ripped it up, in full view of all those watching. Trump’s earlier apparent refusal to shake Pelosi’s hand also got a lot of attention; both slights bolstered the framing, ubiquitous right now, that impeachment has triggered a “partisan brawl.” (The Times wrote that last night “underscored the bitterness” impeachment “has caused.” So what did Trump’s actions cause, then?) Trump didn’t mention impeachment in his address, but it loomed over coverage regardless. Any number of stories—not to mention the front page of the Times—informed us that Trump feels “emboldened” right now, given the Democratic mess in Iowa and his impending acquittal. The Post said he arrived last night “radiating a sense of vindication.” CNN called his speech “dazzling and divisive… If elections are won by defiant showmanship alone, Donald Trump, the grand political illusionist, will waltz to a second term in November.”

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The problem with such pronouncements isn’t necessarily that they are wrong. Rather, they reinforce the view that political dynamics are best understood as two sides of a set of scales: one can’t go down without the other going up, and Trump is “up” right now. Moral clarity seems a secondary consideration; even those who say the press should do no more than tell people what’s happening must surely concede that the language of “vindication” and “triumph” projects virtue on Trump’s behalf. Trump’s “emboldenment” will have consequences, of course—not least for press freedom, which Trump has assailed boldly enough already—yet the rules of the game must still be observed. As long as those rules involve a free lunch, who’s complaining?

Below, more on Iowa, the State of the Union, and impeachment:

  • The state of play: The Times—and its infamous “needle”—has the latest results out of Iowa. At time of writing, Pete Buttigieg had a slight state-delegate lead over Bernie Sanders, with 71 percent of precincts having reported. (Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar were further back in third, fourth, and fifth, respectively.) The popular vote count—which Iowa is reporting for the first time this year—has Sanders ahead.
  • Shadow boxing: Yesterday, more information came to light about the app that caused havoc on Monday. It was developed by Shadow, an unfortunately-named firm with links to ACRONYM—a group, The Intercept’s Lee Fang reports, that has close ties to the Democratic Party establishment. ACRONYM was founded by Tara McGowan, a former journalist at 60 Minutes who subsequently worked on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign; among its other ventures, the firm is behind a network of online local “newspapers” with a pro-Democrat spin. In the wake of the Iowa debacle, ACRONYM seemed to downplay its involvement with Shadow. Still, conspiracy theories abound.
  • Buckle up: The app hasn’t been the only magnet for conspiracists. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that, on Monday night, social media was a “cesspool” of speculation about the delayed results. (At one point, “MayorCheat,” a reference to Buttigieg, was trending on Twitter.) The mess, Sullivan writes, “isn’t about to stop with Iowa.”
  • Prompt discovery: Ahead of the State of the Union, Politico’s Meridith McGraw profiled Gabe Perez, “Trump’s teleprompter man.” In 2016, the Trump campaign hired Perez by chance after it Googled “teleprompters.” Since then, he’s had to handle “what some describe as one of the White House’s toughest jobs”—trying to keep an “arrhythmic president” on message.
  • What we’ve been reading: Impeachment and Iowa may have felt like all-consuming stories, but according to data from NewsWhip, over the past week, stories about the deaths of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna “generated 208 million interactions on social media—more than coronavirus, impeachment, the Super Bowl, the Iowa caucuses and the Grammys combined.” Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer have more for Axios.


Other notable stories:

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