The Media Today

We know who Trump is already

February 8, 2022
Former President Donald Trump throws hats into the crowd prior to speaking at a rally, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Conroe, Texas. (Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via AP)

More than a year after Donald Trump’s presidency came to an end, the Trump news cycle seems to be speeding up again. Last Saturday night, he said that he would pardon supporters charged in connection with the insurrection should he become president again. Last Sunday night, he said in a statement that Mike Pence, his vice president, should have “overturned the Election!” Last Monday, CNN reported that Trump advisers drafted two executive orders that would have directed the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to seize voting machines in the wake of the election; the same day, the New York Times reported that Trump himself was “more directly involved than previously known” in the voting-machines plot and tried to rope in the Justice Department, too. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that a memo circulated among allies suggested that Trump have the Pentagon and National Security Agency fish through communications data for proof of supposed foreign interference in the election. On Friday, Pence told a meeting of the Federalist Society that Trump was “wrong” to say that he had the power to overturn the election. All of these stories have driven yet another breathless round of Trump commentary in the political press and on liberal cable networks.

Journalists discussing all this have sometimes explained to their audiences why they’re still talking about Trump so long after he left office, often pointing to the importance of the historical record but also his de facto ongoing leadership of the Republican Party and the intensifying Congressional probe of the insurrection. The debate as to how central Trump should remain to the news cycle has simmered since he left office—ex-presidents don’t tend to get this much attention, but they also don’t tend to behave like Trump. Last April, a Pew analysis found that roughly half of stories about the nascent Biden administration mentioned Trump; in July, Julia Ioffe spoke with White House correspondents, at least a couple of whom seemed to yearn for a return to the days of loose-lipped Trumpian intrigue. Citing both these reports in his introduction to a recent issue of CJR, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, took aim at the media’s “damned Trump fixation,” writing that “coverage of January 6 soon devolved into an excuse for the political reporting class to sustain Trump-scorn content, even as they purported to be covering his successor.” Other media critics, by contrast, have argued that major outlets are generally downplaying the urgency of the Trump story, in framing if not in quantity.

ICYMI: Cutting through the fog of war

As I see things now, the bar for centering Trump in the news should be very high; there is ample news to cover on the Biden front that is of immediate relevance to the lives of millions of people, and as I’ve written before, covering democracy necessitates engagement with such everyday issues. News organizations can cover Trump and Biden, of course—and Trump stories, including some of those I outlined above, often clear a high bar given the urgent stakes of his ongoing assault on democratic institutions. That said, a good deal of Trump coverage (or more accurately, in many cases, Trump commentary) feels less useful—so much flotsam washing back and forth, back and forth, in an endless sea of outrage. On the whole, our focus could use some sharpening.

One persistent problem in coverage of Trump and his enablers (erstwhile and ongoing) is a sort of tyranny of low expectations—the idea that Trump lowered the bar for conduct in public office to such a degree that commentators start to see behavior that clears it as praiseworthy, not so fundamental that it should pass without comment. Pence’s remarks on Friday were a case in point. Mainstream reporters cast them as an “extraordinary moment” and a “stunning rebuke,” while Trump-skeptical conservative outlets commended Pence for standing up for the constitution at a personal political cost. It is fair to say that Pence rebuked Trump. But further hype isn’t really warranted. As other commentators noted, Pence didn’t go much beyond stating the obvious fact that he lacked the constitutional power to overturn the election, and his remarks hardly represented a profile in courage. As CNN’s Abby Phillip noted on air Sunday, “more than a year has passed—and Pence has still not said anything to dispute Trump’s false claims of election fraud.”

Another persistent problem in Trump coverage is its tendency to induce whiplash. Often, this effect has been downstream of Trump’s unmoored behavior; however, news outlets often cause it themselves. In recent weeks, a media debate has played out as to whether Trump still controls the Republican Party (a question of apparently endless fascination to some political pundits and reporters), with a suggestion that he might be losing his grip driven, among other things, by polls suggesting that fewer Republicans than before support Trump above the party as a whole. This is a consequential debate. But polls are hardly foolproof. (If the GOP has been remade in Trump’s image, surely any choice between the two is, to some extent, false?) And it’s easy, here, to miss the forest for the trees. Only a handful of Congressional Republicans have meaningfully embraced the proper, zero-tolerance standard for Trump’s election lies; last week, the Republican National Committee censured two of them while declaring the events of January 6 “legitimate political discourse.” The trend is clear. Hearing one minute that Trump is stronger than ever and the next that he is getting weaker risks obscuring it.

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Whiplash can be induced, too, by news organizations simultaneously treating Trump as an existential threat to democracy and a political candidate seeking reelection within the normal rules of the game. This is related to a third problem, as I see it: punditry that continually channels surprise at things Trump has said and done, or that casts new revelations as a shocking new low when, in reality, they sometimes fall short of things we already saw him do with our own eyes. After Trump said Pence should overturn the election, various outlets concluded that he “said the quiet part out loud,” the rationale for this being that Trump, to this point, had only spoken about wanting to root out fraud. His new wording might be significant in the context of the January 6 investigation. But we shouldn’t pretend that there was ever a “quiet” part here, or that Trump’s deranged fraud lies were ever anything less than an attempt to subvert the election. On The Daily, meanwhile, Michael Barbaro described the voting-machines plot as Trump’s “most brazen attempt yet” to overturn the election, even though it happened before he incited a mob of his supporters to storm Congress. Assessing the sweep of last week’s Trump stories, the Times published a news analysis headlined “Trump’s Words, and Deeds, Reveal Depths of His Drive to Retain Power”; a news analysis in the Post led with the headline, “This was the week when Trump revealed all.” But his intentions have been clear all along.

“The media” is a big place, and a lot of these problems manifest in an aggregate that no single editor has the power to address. But all of us, by this point, should know exactly who Trump is and what he tried to do to the election result, and wide-eyed commentary about his brazenness and character is mostly hot air at this point. The full facts of his subversion attempt are not yet known, and it’s right that they be reported out with due urgency—but even here, we needn’t look for a smoking gun; we can already see a smoking armory. The most important thing we can do now is lay out clearly, and with as little extraneous noise as possible, how Trump’s actions last time might shape what he does next time. The Trump news cycle isn’t done yet.

Below, more on Trumpworld and American democracy:

  • Shred alert: Last week, the Post reported that documents from Trump’s White House that the National Archives handed to the House committee investigating the insurrection had been ripped up by Trump himself, in apparent violation of presidential-records laws. Yesterday, the same paper reported that Archives officials had to retrieve fifteen boxes of documents and trinkets from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence after he left office, even though they should all have been handed over when he left the White House. The cache reportedly included letters from Kim Jong-un and Barack Obama; per the Times, it also included the Alabama hurricane map that Trump infamously Sharpied in 2019.
  • On the subject of Alabama: Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted, five to four, to reinstate a Congressional map for the state that a lower court had thrown out on the grounds that it diluted the influence of Black voters, in likely violation of the Voting Rights Act; the Supreme Court ruling prevented the prior decision from being implemented while Alabama appeals, effectively locking in the map for the coming election cycle. The decision suggests that the court is “poised to become more skeptical of challenges to voting maps based on claims of race discrimination,” the Times reports.
  • Thiel ticket: Also for the Times, Ryan Mac and Mike Isaac report that the prominent Trump fan Peter Thiel will step down from the board of Facebook’s parent company after seventeen years to focus “on influencing November’s midterm elections.” Thiel has already donated money to two Trumpian Senate candidates: Blake Masters, in Arizona, and the author JD Vance, in Ohio. Jeff Bercovici, of the LA Times, outlined a “hot take that’s probably true: Peter Thiel finally relinquishing his Facebook board seat suggests he thinks Facebook’s influence over politics and culture is on the wane for good.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Of platforms, publishers, and responsibility

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.