On the first workday of 2018, Donald Trump proved that he’d made no New Year’s resolutions to sober up politically. He’s going to be the exact same maniac he was in 2017, on Twitter at least. CNN posted a dizzying Hollywood Squares matrix of Trump’s nine morning tweets. In just a few minutes, he attacked his own “Deep State Justice Department,” called for Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin to go to “jail,” again mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man,” savaged the “Failing New York Times,” and took credit for the fact that 2017 saw zero fatalities in domestic air crashes. There have been zero fatalities in domestic air crashes since 2009. (Thanks, Obama!)
Trump is incorrigible and still, predictably, dangerous. Over the long holiday weekend, angry progressives vented some of their fear and outrage over that at the very same New York Times Trump attacked, singling out three articles that made it look like the nation’s most important paper is bending backward to meet the president on his own terms, truth be damned. You can trace a connection between Trump’s ever-accelerating craziness and abuse and the Times’ growing trouble with its progressive readers. If you cared enough to do so, that is.
First came Michael S. Schmidt’s “impromptu” interview with the president at his Mar-a-Lago resort, also known as his faux-opulent Florida grift. It turned out Schmidt was lunching there with right-wing Trump pal Christopher Ruddy of Newsmax, and Ruddy told reporters that he helped broker the sit-down. It’s fair to call the Trump-Schmidt meeting impromptu as long as Ruddy’s role in making it happen was disclosed, but the Times was sketchy about that. Schmidt described squatting at the president’s side in a catcher’s position for 30 minutes, until his thighs began to ache. That might explain why so many balls got past him.
Trump made impossible and/or incoherent claims about taxes (“I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest CPA.”), something he called “chainlike immigration,” health care, and his relationship with China’s leaders, who he claimed “treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China.” Schmidt challenged none of it, even telling Trump his China nonsense “makes a lot of sense” and agreeing that indicted campaign manager Paul Manafort worked for Trump “for a very short period of time.”
As social media went up in flames over the lies, grandiosity, and delusion that was evident (and unchallenged) in Schmidt’s piece, Times staffers circled the wagons around Schmidt, insisting he’d done a service in just letting Trump ramble on. (This Times-writer pushback has become an increasingly troubling practice at the Times in the Trump era. Defending colleagues is laudable; circling the wagons, and insulting your critics, is not.) The Washington Post quickly found that Trump told 24 lies in 30 minutes. Not only did the Times fail to fact-check the piece when it ran; a later fact-check counted only 10 lies.
Next up was Peter Baker’s “For Trump, A Year of Reinventing the Presidency.” The piece itself wasn’t horrible, although parts of it seemed a retread of something Baker co-wrote last month with Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, which concluded that Trump “had yet to bend the presidency to his will” but was “at least wrestling it to a draw.” Both pieces interviewed an impressive range of sources and reported shocking facts, but overall took a soothing tone that served to normalize Trump’s dangerous assaults on presidential norms.
What lit up social media was the extraordinary tweet the Times used to herald Baker’s new piece:
President Trump has brought a reality-show accessibility to a once-aloof presidency, invigorating voters who felt alienated by the establishment https://t.co/arNi1F2bNr
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 31, 2017
To hail the president’s “accessibility” on the very day that wealthy friends, cabinet members, and access-seekers paid $750 to attend his Mar-a-Lago New Year’s Eve party was tone-deaf at best. (Tickets cost $600 for dues-paying club members; last year they paid $525 while their guests paid $575. The club also doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 last year.) The tweet also seemed to borrow right-wing framing of President Obama as “aloof”—widely and correctly read as either a synonym for “outsider” or “uppity.” The best Twitter retorts featured former Obama photographer Pete Souza’s shots of the first black president playing with children and comforting the family members of mass-shooting victims.
Finally, on Monday the normally excellent economics reporters Binyamin Applebaum and Jim Tankersley endorsed Trump’s claim that business is booming thanks to him, in a piece headlined “The Trump Effect: Business, Anticipating Less Regulation, Loosens Purse Strings.” The piece reported that “across the business community, there is a perception that years of increased environmental, financial and other regulatory oversight by the Obama administration dampened investment and job creation—and that Mr. Trump’s more hands-off approach has unleashed the ‘animal spirits’ of companies that had hoarded cash after the recession of 2008.”
Progressive economists pounced quickly, showing that the 6.2 percent annual investment growth the piece cited was not terribly impressive—under Obama, investment grew by 11.4 percent between the first quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of 2012, and by 9.1 percent between the third quarter of 2013 and the third quarter of 2014; it had also averaged 8.9 percent over the eight years of the Clinton administration. And most of it could reasonably be attributed to rising energy prices spurring greater investment in that sector. Once economist Dean Baker subtracted investment in the mining and oil sectors of the economy, the growth rate only sat at 3.3 percent.
Why are these Times pieces particularly troubling, when the paper still produces great reporting? All seem part of an effort to normalize not only the president, but his most outlandish claims—even, in the last case, to supply “evidence” that those claims about the economy are correct. As progressive economist Jared Bernstein notes in that piece, there is certainly a connection between business-community “confidence” in a political climate and its willingness to invest. But linking that “purse-string opening” to the age-old project of lifting hard-won regulations that make Americans safer, without more evidence, is unwise and lamentable.
Maybe more disturbing, the paper appears newly insulated from criticism, since it dispatched its last public editor and did away with the position altogether. Its political reporters are now renowned, and not in a good way, for brooking little or no criticism on social media. Most important, the paper has yet to formally account for the role it may have played in electing Trump.
Instead, executive editor Dean Baquet has been quoted saying his paper and others “absolutely” missed the story of the white working-class voters who drove Trump’s victory, especially in swing states. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that Russian meddling could have driven those victories, along with James Comey’s unprecedented and policy-violating last-minute intervention. The Times famously minimized the former—Baquet was ripped about it by his own (former) public editor—and hyped the latter. It’s possible that without the Times, there would be no need for the Times to examine the “missed” story of the Trump victory, because there would have been no victory in the first place. If Baquet feels bad about not charting the story of Trump’s ascent, he should remember one thing: He will certainly feel worse if his paper misreports the story of the president’s unprecedented abuse of power and his caping for plutocrats, and the nation’s resulting decline.