The Media Today

Trump’s whiplash economic messaging

August 26, 2019

Yesterday—at a meeting of the Group of Seven countries in Biarritz, France, and amid growing uncertainty about the long-term health of the US economy—a reporter lobbed a question at President Trump: “Do you have any second thoughts on escalating the trade war with China?” Trump, the ghost of a smirk crossing his face, replied, “Yeah. Sure. Why not?” He cut across a follow-up: “Might as well. Might as well.” A second reporter chimed in, to try and clear things up: “You have second thoughts about escalating the war with—” Trump interjected. “I have second thoughts about everything,” he said. Someone chuckled. But Trump now looked serious.

The story broke quickly in the US media. News organizations fired out Trump’s “second thoughts” remark in tweets and push notifications; The Wall Street Journal called it “the first time he has struck a tone of ambivalence on tariffs.” Somewhat less quickly, there was a course correction. Hours later, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said reporters “greatly misinterpreted” Trump’s words: “President Trump responded in the affirmative—because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher,” she said. That, The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey noted, was not the end of the confusion, but one part of the administration’s “full-throated effort to change the story.” In TV interviews, Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, said Trump misheard the question (which is not what Grisham said), while Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said Trump “has no second thoughts” (which is literally not what Trump said). Generously, several news organizations said Trump’s comments had been “clarified.”

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When it comes to the economy, yesterday’s mixed messages continued a recent pattern—as Duarte Geraldino, guest host of The Takeaway, put it Friday, “Keeping track of what the president thinks of all this has been like watching a game of ping pong.” Last weekend, as his aides toured the Sunday shows with bullish optimism, Trump told reporters, “I don’t see a recession. I mean, the world is in a recession right now. And… although that’s too big.” (Me neither.) The next day, the Post reported that the president was mulling a payroll tax cut and other stimulus measures. The White House said the report should be ignored—but on Tuesday, Trump appeared to confirm it. On Wednesday, he backed down again; “I’m not looking at a tax cut now,” he said. “We don’t need it, we have a strong economy.” (The same day, he told reporters that the trade war with China was a heavenly mission; “I am the chosen one,” he said, looking upward.) On Thursday, Kudlow said, on Fox Business Network, that the administration is considering tax relief for the middle class and small businesses. On Friday, Trump, in a string of furious tweets, vowed to hike tariffs on Chinese goods from October 1, and “hereby ordered” American companies to stop doing business in China. (Per Vox, the “order” was meaningless.) This morning—following yesterday’s “second thoughts” mess—Trump called Xi Jinping, China’s president, a “great leader” who is keen to cut a deal.

Even by Trump’s erratic standards, it was a whiplash week—fueled, aides say, by the president’s heightened anxiety that an economic downturn could cost him reelection in 2020. How are the markets supposed to keep track of all this? How is the press?

Trying to follow the administration’s economic strategy is hard enough; the president’s baseless claims—in public and in private—that members of the media are conspiring to cause a recession only compounds the difficulty. (Trump has also lashed out at the Democrats, foreign powers, and Jerome Powell, who Trump appointed to chair the Federal Reserve.) Early yesterday morning, the president blamed “the Fake and Disgusting News” for stoking diplomatic tensions, too; he continued to tweet about the media as the day progressed, in between the important business of meeting world leaders and wishing happy birthday to Sean Connery, Regis Philbin, and Vince McMahon. Trump tweeted that “the question I was asked most” by other leaders was “Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?”; at the “second thoughts” presser, he told assembled reporters, “You people want a recession coz you think, maybe that’s the way to get Trump out.” This claim, needless to say, is silly. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted, “It would be ludicrous for the press to be hoping for a recession, given that the news industry would be hit incredibly hard and scores of jobs would likely be wiped out as a result.”

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Last night, Trump tweeted again: “In France we are all laughing at how knowingly inaccurate the U.S. reporting of events and conversations at the G-7 is,” he wrote. “These Leaders, and many others, are getting a major case study of Fake News at it’s finest!” It’s worth restating—amid all the market- and poll-watching—that the joke isn’t just on us. Trump’s trade war has already had a real-world economic impact; a recession, if one does come, could hammer ordinary Americans. On The Takeaway, Geraldino asked Andria Smythe, an assistant professor at Howard University, who a recession would hit the worst. “You probably can guess what I’m gonna say,” Smythe replied, “the people who are already worse off.”

Below, more on Trump and the G7:

  • A grain of truth?: To reiterate, the media is not conspiring to cause a recession. But, as CJR’s Zainab Sultan reported last week, talk of a downturn can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The public sentiment around recession is influenced by the media,” ProPublica’s Lydia DePillis told Sultan, “and that’s a very dangerous thing to get wrong.”
  • Loon-lighting: At the end of a particularly erratic week, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan weighed how the press might balance “troubling policy” and “loony distraction” in coverage of Trump. “Some like to suggest that the distractions be all but ignored,” she wrote. “But that’s not right, because their extreme nature speaks volumes about the suitability—and maybe the mental stability—of the president of the United States.”
  • Communiqué breakdown: After last year’s G7, in Canada, Trump tweeted withdrawing his support for the communiqué agreed by those present. This year, it seems there will be no communiqué: Emmanuel Macron, the French president, joked last week that “No one reads the communiqués, let’s be honest,” but Trump is the real reason, the Post’s Adam Taylor writes. Also at the G7, Macron blindsided Trump by inviting Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who is currently under US sanctions. CNN analyst Samantha Vinograd suggested Macron was trying to play to the president’s love of made-for-TV moments—but Trump and Zarif did not meet. Trump and Macron will hold a press conference at 9:30am Eastern; the Times has a live blog.
  • Feel the Byrne: Britain’s Channel 4 accused Boris Johnson, the country’s prime minister, of canceling a planned interview at the G7 in retaliation for comments made last week by Dorothy Byrne, the broadcaster’s head of news; Byrne called Johnson a “known liar” and a “coward.” Elsewhere, English journalists in the G7’s media zone were told to keep the noise down as they raucously celebrated England’s cricket win over Australia.

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, Breitbart unearthed incriminating old tweets by Tom Wright-Piersanti, an editor at the Times. Wright-Piersanti apologized; his bosses are reviewing the matter. Yesterday, the Times reported that “a loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House” has compiled similar dossiers on “hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations.” Kenneth P. Vogel, one of the reporters on the story, called it a “new front in the war on the press.” But such tactics aren’t new—and, as the Times admits, some of the activists involved “have histories of bluster and exaggeration.” CNN’s Darcy rounded up the question marks.
  • Trump has (another) primary challenger. Yesterday, Joe Walsh, the fire-breathing Republican Congressman turned talk-radio host, announced a presidential bid on ABC’s This Week; “There needs to be an alternative,” Walsh said. “The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum—he’s a child.” George Stephanopoulos (and many others) noted that Walsh has a history of Trumpian rhetoric, including around birtherism. “I helped create Trump,” Walsh replied. “I said some ugly things about President Obama that I regret.”
  • Much later than planned, The Atlantic will finally launch a paywall sometime after Labor Day, The Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert reports. Owner Laurene Powell Jobs delayed the move to give the magazine time to staff up, improve its offering, and build an audience, but, as a result of its hiring spree, The Atlantic “recently went from making an annual profit of about $10 million to losing money, people familiar with the matter said.”
  • For CJR, AJ Naddaff profiles Muhammad Najem, a 16-year-old Syrian documentarian who chronicled the atrocities in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, for an international audience. Najem continued to report after his family’s forced evacuation to Idlib; he “turned his camera on kids his age, giving particular attention to disabled children, to let them tell their stories and ask for help in their own words,” Naddaff writes.
  • Last Wednesday, Uganda and Rwanda signed a pact de-escalating tensions between the two countries; two days later, Uganda blocked the website of New Times, a Rwandan state-owned newspaper, calling it “a hostile platform that is likely to cause insecurity in this country.” Reuters’s Elias Biryabarema has more.
  • In October, Carnegie Hall will host a concert organized by a group linked to Gazeta Polska, a right-wing Polish newspaper that recently distributed stickers with the slogan “LGBT-free zone.” The organizer, Gazeta Polska Community of America, stressed its independence from the paper’s editorial board, but a Polish academic told NBC’s Tim Fitzsimons that the group is part of a “political movement built around the newspaper.”
  • And in Friday’s newsletter, I noted that a recent edition of a Justice Department briefing email for immigration court employees linked out to a white-supremacist website. The briefings, which were prepared by a private contractor, have since been canceled.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.