The Media Today

The White House wages war on transparency

May 21, 2019

Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, was supposed to testify before Congress today. Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee were supposed to grill McGahn on revelations contained in the Mueller report—for which McGahn was a key witness—around Donald Trump’s work to curtail the probe, including his efforts to have Mueller fired. The hearing was supposed to have a galvanizing effect on public opinion, cutting through the contentious reaction to Mueller’s findings—or so Democrats hoped.

None of this is going to happen—at least, not today—because McGahn isn’t going to show. Yesterday, his attorney confirmed that the White House has instructed McGahn not to comply with Congress’s subpoena: current and former presidential aides, administration lawyers argue, have “absolute immunity” from such demands. Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, does not agree. “We’re gonna have to hold McGahn in contempt,” Nadler told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last night.

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If the McGahn story feels like déjà vu, it’s because we have seen it before. Repeatedly. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has waged all-out war on Congressional oversight. This isn’t even the first fight to involve McGahn, who already refused to hand over documents related to the Mueller probe. William Barr, the attorney general, did likewise, failing to furnish a full, unredacted copy of the report. (The House Judiciary Committee subsequently voted to hold Barr in contempt.) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he would not hand over six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns; Mnuchin argued that the request, from the House Ways and Means Committee, lacked a “legitimate legislative purpose.” Trump invoked similar logic when he sued to block private firms, including Deutsche Bank and Capital One, from handing other personal financial documents to the House Intelligence and Financial Services committees. The administration blocked current and former staffers from testifying, respectively, about the US census and White House security clearances, and rejected requests for details of Trump’s conversations with Vladimir Putin. As of 10 days ago, Trump and his administration were wholly or partly blocking more than 20 separate investigations, The Washington Post found.

Trump’s stone wall is built, in large part, on political strategy. The president, the thinking goes, is girding his narrative of “presidential harassment”—delegitimizing legitimate requests for disclosure and firing up his base while he’s at it. But something deeper is at work here, too. Yesterday, Trump told reporters that his instruction to McGahn was about “the office of the presidency, for future presidents. I think it’s a very important precedent.” The administration’s obstructionism, in other words, is part of a longer-term ploy to limit what the executive branch is required to disclose to Congress, and thus (in many cases) to the public. Barr, a long-time advocate of aggressive executive authority, is bolstering this strategy. Yesterday, he confirmed as much in an interview with Sadie Gurman, of The Wall Street Journal. “If you destroy the presidency and make it an errand boy for Congress, we’re going to be a much weaker and more divided nation,” he said.

Trump’s war on transparency is not limited to his relationship with Congress; the media, too, has felt its effects. Yesterday was the 70th consecutive day without an on-camera White House press briefing; last week, CNN’s Maegan Vazquez shared a picture of the podium literally gathering dust. Seventy days is a record for White House briefings. Across this administration, however, it doesn’t even come close: the Pentagon hasn’t held an on-camera briefing with its chief spokesperson in nearly a year. The State Department is doing better, but briefings are far from daily, like they used to be. There are plenty more examples and they’re all part of the same broader play: dodge scrutiny, then impugn the motives of those who complain about it.

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Yesterday, transparency did score a victory: a federal judge ruled that Trump’s accounting firm must comply with a Congressional subpoena for some of the president’s financial records. (Trump plans to appeal.) The McGahn fight could also end up in court. But the legal battles are part of Trump’s strategy—even when they enforce disclosure, they slow it way down. The press shouldn’t wait for the courts. It should demand the release of information that is in the public interest. And it should paint a clear, cohesive picture of what Trump is trying to do.

Below, more on Trump and transparency:

  • Democrats debate impeachment (again): On Sunday, Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told Face the Nation that Democrats could initiate impeachment proceedings as a “tool” to wring information from the administration. As Schiff recognized, however, Democrats remain divided on impeachment, with some arguing that such a move would play into Trump’s hands. (Either way, it has little chance of success.) In internal discussions yesterday, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, rejected the strategy, Politico reports.
  • Meanwhile, across the aisle: Democrats aren’t the only ones worried about Trump’s obstructionism. Several Republican lawmakers told Politico that it could set a dangerous precedent for Congressional oversight. For the most part, those lawmakers still back Trump in his battle with the Democrats. One who does not is Justin Amash, the independent-minded Congressman who broke ranks with colleagues over the weekend by calling for Trump to be impeached. Right-wing media figures were not impressed.
  • Kiss of death: Two figures have stood at the Pentagon podium in the past year: Gerard Butler, the actor, and Gene Simmons, the frontman of Kiss. Simmons addressed personnel on a visit to the Defense Department last week, CNN’s Tom Kludt reports.
  • It’s not just in Washington: Last week, the US army banned a West Hawaii Today reporter from covering a meeting, the AP reports. The paper insists the meeting—on military plans to manage historic resources—was open to the public.

Other notable stories:

  • Today, in San Francisco, a judge will hear motions respectively seeking to quash and unseal the search warrants police used to raid the home of Bryan Carmody, a freelance journalist and stringer who obtained a police report into the death of a local official and sold it on to local news outlets. Yesterday, George Gascón, the city’s district attorney, said he “can’t imagine a situation in which a search warrant would be appropriate,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Evan Sernoffsky reports.
  • The fallout from Pete Buttigieg’s Sunday town hall on Fox News continues. Buttigieg’s camp is still defending the move and Trump is still sore about it; the Post’s Erik Wemple, meanwhile, notes that Chris Wallace, who moderated the event, did not defend Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham when Buttigieg called them out. Politico’s Elena Schneider notes that the Should Democrats do Fox? question has split the primary field “along the lines of who wants or needs the most press attention—but especially based on how the candidates envision their path to the presidency: appealing to Obama-Trump voters who may watch the network, or activating Democratic base supporters.”
  • If Trump carries plans to pardon US servicemen accused and convicted of war crimes through, Pete Hegseth, a veteran who now co-hosts Fox & Friends, will have played a major part in the decision, The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, Sam Brodey, and Andrew Kirell report. According to the Beast, Hegseth has been lobbying the president in private for months, but hasn’t disclosed that fact when addressing the issue on the air.
  • For CJR, Tony Rehagen profiles Chad Millman, who, in 2017, left a senior editorial role at ESPN to help found the Action Network, an outlet that aims to make sports betting “accessible to the masses.” The following year, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that states could legalize the practice. The Action Network helps bettors “understand why the pros are betting a certain way, why sports books are posting certain odds, what’s going on with the legalization of sports betting across the country, and… to revel in a culture that has almost become a sport in itself.”
  • McClatchy—the newspaper chain whose titles include The Miami Herald, The Charlotte Observer, and The Fresno Bee—posted first-quarter losses of $42 million, a worse figure than the same period last year. The company reported a 60-percent increase in digital-only subscribers, to a total of 179,000, but saw a 15-percent dip in ad revenue. The Sacramento Bee’s Michael Finch II has more details.
  • Last week, Swedish authorities announced that they would reopen a rape investigation into Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks; yesterday, they requested a detention order, setting up “a possible future tug-of-war between Sweden and the United States over any extradition of Assange from Britain,” the AP reports. Also yesterday, at the behest of US prosecutors, authorities from Ecuador conducted an “inventory” of the possessions Assange left in its London embassy when he was arrested—including his computers.
  • Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, is now a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Emanuel, who has written for the magazine in the past, will contribute frequent essays to its Ideas section. Emanuel’s successor as mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was sworn in yesterday.
  • For CJR, Cinnamon Janzer looks at the increasingly obstructive work of public information officers, whose job it is to control journalistic access to many public officials. “PIO-approved comments shape the narratives of their news coverage across the country on matters that range from the mundane to the extremely consequential,” Janzer writes. Experts say reporters should push back, including by printing details of obstruction.
  • And in the UK, Conrad Black, the disgraced media mogul recently pardoned by Trump, sold his shares in the Catholic Herald to Brooks Newmark, a former lawmaker who stood down from Parliament after sending sexually explicit text messages to a journalist posing as a Conservative Party activist. The Daily Mail has more.

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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.