Why Trump’s shamelessness hasn’t ended his presidency

Who needs secret government sources when you have Donald Trump? Yesterday, a reporter on the White House driveway asked Trump what he hoped Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, would do after Trump asked him to investigate the Bidens. “I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer,” Trump responded. He continued, unprompted: “They should investigate the Bidens, because how does a company that’s newly formed, and all these companies, if you look—and by the way, likewise, China”—he paused briefly for effect—“should start an investigation into the Bidens.” Just like that, Trump had publicly admitted the offense House Democrats are planning to impeach him for: that he pressured a foreign leader for dirt on an electoral rival. He also volunteered another piece of the puzzle, China, that we didn’t have yet. He didn’t say the unspeakable so much as he roared it over the whirring of his helicopter.

If the case against Trump hadn’t been closed already, it should be now. But it isn’t; or rather, there’s no consensus that it is. That the president’s damning words still don’t feel sufficient to damn him is a reflection, in part, of a counterintuitive truth about how we report the news. James Poniewozik, of the New York Times, summed it up well. “One endemic problem in the media is that it finds it easier to cover a ‘scandal’ in a minor act that’s kept secret (or that’s just purported to be secret) than in a major, egregious act that’s done right out in the open,” he wrote on Twitter. “There are a lot of factors in this, but I think a big one is that covering an out-in-the-open scandal requires saying: ‘This thing that we all saw, in broad daylight, is actually scandalous,’ and that makes people nervous that it sounds like ‘taking sides.’”

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Many news outlets, in fairness, tried their best to communicate the outrageousness of what Trump said. HuffPost ran the banner headline “CONFESSION ON CAMERA: TRUMP BLURTS IT OUT!” Yesterday afternoon, Politico’s influential Playbook newsletter also led with all caps: “TRUMP TO THE WORLD: INVESTIGATE MY POLITICAL RIVAL! THIS IS WHAT REPUBLICANS SAID HE DIDN’T/SHOULDN’T DO!” On MSNBC, Chris Hayes shouted, in between spliced-up clips of Trump owning up to pressuring world leaders, “The president does it again… and again… and AGAIN!” On Meet the Press Daily, Chuck Todd was quieter, but no less sharp. “I don’t say this lightly,” he said, and took an agonized breath, “but let’s be frank: a national nightmare is upon us. The basic rules of our democracy are under attack, from the president.”

Poniewozik is right, though. The press, on the whole, does not consistently use language commensurate with overt wrongdoing. (The Times’s print headline this morning, calling Trump’s admission a “brash public move,” is a case in point; so was Jonathan Karl’s claim, on ABC, that “this is becoming less a question of what the president did than a debate over what is right and what is wrong.”) As journalists, we’ve been taught to believe that the biggest scandals are those that require intense, meticulous digging; as human beings, we’ve been taught to believe that no right-minded person would own up to wrongdoing in such a haphazard way. And so, as ever with Trump, we seek rationality in the irrational. The effect, as the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker wrote recently, is that “Trump’s penchant for reading the stage directions almost seems to inoculate him from the kind of political damage that would devastate other politicians.”

As ever, we should be careful not to assume that this is a stroke of maverick Trumpian genius. He does seem to have figured out that being held accountable by the press is an opt-in proposition. But his shamelessness only protects him because a network of equally shameless politicians and media boosters has chosen to go along with it. The right-wing mediasphere has turned blatant evidence about Trump and Ukraine into a torrent of propaganda and false equivalence: Trump isn’t a crook, Biden is. There’s no evidence Trump pressured foreign leaders; OK, so there’s evidence, but he did nothing wrong—the president is supposed to fight corruption. Look, 2020 is irrelevant, we still have to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016. (Yesterday, Ron Johnson, the Republican senator for Wisconsin, made the latter argument. Many of his GOP colleagues stayed silent.)

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When it comes to Trump and his media supporters, shamelessness and misinformation are two sides of the same coin. The more shameless Trump is, the less we can see the boundaries between right and wrong, between believable and unbelievable. If you’ll say anything, nothing is implausible, which, in turn, makes a wild conspiracy sound just as plausible as the truth. Someday, the house of cards might collapse. But not today.

Below, more on Trump, disinformation, and shamelessness:

  • Ad nauseam: Yesterday, CNN announced that it will not carry two commercials for Trump’s reelection bid. One calls the impeachment inquiry a “coup”; the other assails Biden for corruption and takes direct aim at CNN’s Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo, and Jim Acosta, as well as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. CNN said the ads contain clear fabrications and mischaracterize legal constitutional processes.
  • “Digital human centipede”: NBC’s Ben Collins explains how the “CrowdStrike” conspiracy theory—named for a cybersecurity firm that, the theory goes, framed Russia for hacking Democratic Party servers in 2016—spread from an anonymous post on 4chan to the Oval Office. (Along with the unsubstantiated allegations against Biden, the theory was a key driver of Trump’s outreach to Ukraine.) BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick speculates that the president actually believes the conspiracies; Trump “is part of a digital human centipede of his own making,” Broderick writes.
  • America’s mayor: BuzzFeed’s Matt Berman writes that Rudy Giuliani is finally America’s mayor. “He may have gotten the title in 2001, but Rudy Giuliani is truly America’s mayor in 2019,” Berman argues. Giuliani “is everywhere at once, inexhaustible, our scattershot attention made lifelike.”
  • Remember Mueller?: Yesterday, a judge ruled in favor of CNN and BuzzFeed, which sued to obtain witness memos related to the Mueller probe under the Freedom of Information Act. The judge ordered the Justice Department to release 500 of the memos by November 1; more will likely follow, but the timeline is uncertain.


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.