If it weren’t happening against the backdrop of a potential Constitutional crisis, it would be humorous. Well, it’s actually kind of humorous anyway. But it is also a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, as you will see.
On Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to match his boss’s classy behavior in notifying Director Comey of his firing via TV news, Sean Spicer and staff kept trying unsuccessfully to inform the press of the same news via an email statement, according to an article in the Washington Post. Finally giving up, after three hours of technical problems, Spicer stood in his office doorway and shouted an announcement to the reporters who were within shouting range. He then ducked inside and his staff locked the doors.
The White House was reportedly taken aback by the speed and harshness of the blowback, with criticism building from Republicans as well as Democrats. Having previously said there would be no more statements, Spicer and two staffers “were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox, and Fox Business,” where their reporters and camera crews did interviews with the White House itself as backdrop. Upon completing those, the intrepid press secretary was facing a conundrum.
It was now after sunset and Spicer found himself hiding in the hedges in the dark, wanting to hightail it back to his office. But between the bushes and the building were “a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI Director.”
After a few minutes, he sucked it up and emerged, telling the reporters he would answer some questions. But only with the cameras off.
“‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered. ‘We’ll take care of this. Can you just turn that light off?’ Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness…with more than a dozen reporters gathered around him.” After ten minutes of Q&A, he abruptly turned and escaped.
See what I mean? Metaphor, ready made. (If I thought the president might read this, however, I would definitely spell it out. You know what I mean if you saw the May Day interview of Trump in the Oval Office by CBS’s John Dickerson. Dickerson commented on the quote by George W. Bush regarding the office being oval and having no corners to hide in. Trump agreed that there are no corners, so the room has a certain openness and anyone outside looking in the windows would be able to see him, but of course no one could get that close. Dickerson started to explain that it was a metaphor, but gave up.)
But, back to Spicer’s metaphor. This anecdote unintentionally encapsulates the Trump administration modus operendi. Everything will be fine if we can just shed a little darkness on it. Fine for Trump. Not so much for our democracy.
Democracy Dies in Darkness
James Comey was just the most recent career law enforcement official to be fired by Trump while engaged in unwelcome investigations. Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for Southern New York, and Sally Yates, the acting US Attorney General, were let go with similarly suspicious timing. They, like Comey, had reputations for independence and integrity and were seen as threats to his independence.
An independent investigation of Russia’s influence on the Trump election by definition would shed much needed light. In spite of his erratic behavior regarding Clinton email, Comey’s FBI effort was seen as the best hope for that light and an honest report. On the other hand, the president and the Republicans on the congressional committees charged with that investigation have made their target anyone who can be found who has leaked information.
If these actions weren’t enough to prove the point, Trump tweets spell it out. With increasing stridency, he broadcasts his demands to stop the Russia investigation and find those who talk to reporters instead.
The battle lines are becoming clear. The Washington Post ran a front page article on Wednesday to give a more complete picture of all that transpired in the previous 24-48 hours. They cited 30 sources from the White House, Justice, and the FBI. Thirty. 3-0. These people don’t like what they are witnessing and want the rest of us to know about it.
Ah, yes. The press. To be fair, it is a thorn in the side, a pain in the neck (and lower) to all administrations. Their job, when they do it well, is to keep the government honest by keeping klieg lights on its activities. No one likes to be that exposed. But that is the price of democracy. And the media isn’t perfect, nor are politicians, so at times we just muddle through and count on checks and balances to keep the country on the rails.
What is brand new in 2017, totally unprecedented, is that this Oval Office occupant has declared war on the press and is waging that war daily. Consider:
- Trump used his rallies and tweets for months to repeat epithets and slogans to demonize and undermine the press. This message became gospel for his congregation.
- The ugly language and constant refrain of “fake news” aimed at the media continued and was amplified after assuming office.
- In this environment, the State Department was stripped of most of its senior officers and staff, and a Secretary of State installed who refuses to engage with the press in any meaningful way.
- The president’s spokespeople reflect his contempt in their own interactions with the “mainstream” media.
- Numerous federal departments, under Trump appointees, instituted gag rules, prohibiting staff to communicate with the press or even with Congress. Some but not all of these have been walked back.
- Access by the press to Spicer’s communications department has been restricted, at times with favorable access rewarding favorable coverage.
- Updated item on May 12:
I mentioned the Washington Post earlier. If you have read it in the past couple of months you have probably seen their masthead. Since February, they have added a motto for the first time ever. I was surprised to learn that it has been in the works for about a year, so was not a direct response to the Trump presidency. But it could have been and it resonates.
The executive branch clearly hates the glare of the light. The legislative is in the hands of a party that has shown little interest in flipping the switch yet. Fortunately the judiciary has so far shown a willingness to stand up to the challenges it has received. And the fourth estate is under attack. But, it seems that many in the press see this moment for what it is. A time to stand in the breach. A time to just turn the lights on.