The Daily 202: Stepped Up Attacks On The Press Reflect Trump’s Bunker Mentality

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

Principled conservatives are recoiling at Donald Trump's threats against the free press. "Mr. President: Words spoken by the President of the United States matter," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement Wednesday night. "Are you . . . recanting . . . the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?"

-- NBC's story this week that Trump asked his national security team about increasing the size of the nuclear arsenal 10-fold prompted more than just an angry denial:

Trump tweeted: "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"

During a photo opportunity with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office, Trump elaborated: "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it."

He circled back to the theme again late Wednesday night, tweeting:

"Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!"

-- This wasn't just a one-day temper tantrum. Trump has increasingly trained his fire on the media. The president called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate U.S. news outlets last week, and he proposed reinstituting the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" over the weekend. (A government-mandated "fairness doctrine" is a profoundly unconservative idea, and its repeal in 1987 - championed by the Reagan administration - helped allow for the proliferation of conservative media outlets in the 1990s.) The White House press secretary also suggested last month that ESPN should fire anchor Jemele Hill for calling Trump a white supremacist.

-- Much will be written about how Trump's diatribe highlights his lack of respect for the Constitution and the institutions that make America great, including but not limited to the fourth estate, but the comments also add fresh data points to the cementing narrative that the brooding president has become increasingly isolated and angry. Feeling under siege, whether from special counsel Robert Mueller or Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the president has adopted a bunker mentality that prompts him to lash out at any perceived enemy.

Like Elvis shot up his TV, Trump is shooting the messenger because he doesn't like stories that reflect poorly on his leadership abilities. The conservative base distrusts the mainstream media, so it's always been politically useful for the president to use the press as a foil. But it's created a vicious cycle. The more that gets revealed about Trump's struggles and White House dysfunction, the angrier and more distracted he becomes.

Three stories this week offer insight into the president's state of mind:

-- "Trump's anger over Iran deal forced aides to scramble for a compromise," by The Post's Anne Gearan: "President Trump was livid. Why, he asked his advisers in mid-July, should he go along with what he considered the failed Obama-era policy toward Iran and prop up an international nuclear deal he saw as disastrous? He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. He did not want to certify to Congress that the agreement remained in the vital U.S. national security interest and that Iran was meeting its obligations. He did not think either was true. 'He threw a fit,' said one person familiar with the meeting. 'He was furious. Really furious. It's clear he felt jammed.' So White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan - one aimed at accommodating Trump's loathing of the Iran deal as 'an embarrassment' without killing it outright. To get Trump, in other words, to compromise."

--Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman reports the White House is in crisis as aides struggle to contain an unfocused - and increasingly irate - Trump. Comments by Corker that Trump could start World War III "brought into the open what several people close to the president have recently told me in private: that Trump is 'unstable,' 'losing a step,' and 'unraveling,'" Sherman writes. Here are four eye-popping nuggets:

--"Even before Corker's remarks, some West Wing advisers were worried that Trump's behavior could cause the Cabinet to take extraordinary Constitutional measures to remove him from office. Several months ago, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversation, former chief strategist Steve Bannon told Trump that the risk to his presidency wasn't impeachment, but the 25th Amendment - the provision by which a majority of the Cabinet can vote to remove the president. When Bannon mentioned the 25th Amendment, Trump said, 'What's that?' According to a source, Bannon has told people he thinks Trump has only a 30 percent chance of making it the full term.

--"In recent days, I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods . . . 'Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,' a person close to Trump said. 'He saw the cult of personality was broken.'

--"According to two sources familiar with the conversation, Trump vented to his longtime security chief, Keith Schiller, 'I hate everyone in the White House! There are a few exceptions, but I hate them!' (A White House official denies this.)

--"Two senior Republican officials said Chief of Staff John Kelly is miserable in his job and is remaining out of a sense of duty to keep Trump from making some sort of disastrous decision. One former official even speculated that Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have discussed what they would do in the event Trump ordered a nuclear first strike. 'Would they tackle him?' the person said."


-- "Trump in recent days has shown flashes of fury and left his aides . . . scrambling to manage his outbursts," The Post's Robert Costa, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker reported on Monday, based on interviews with 18 White House officials, outside advisers and other associates of the president. "One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam, he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. 'I think we are in pressure cooker territory,' said this person . . . (Another) Trump loyalist - noting that Corker has many more friends in the Senate than Trump does - said the rift could dash chances for a tax law overhaul or other meaningful legislation. 'His presidency could be doomed,' said this person. . ."


From the host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and a former Republican congressman from Florida:

Joe Scarborough tweeted, "The MOST protected form of speech under by US Constitution is political speech. Donald Trump's statement is unambiguously un-American."

From the politics editor of the Fox News Channel:

Chris Stirewalt tweeted: "If you believe that the Constitution relies on the whims of the executive, then you already don't believe we live in a republic anyway."

Finally, consider this juxtaposition:

The Post's Ruth Marcus tweeted: "Jefferson: Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

"Trump: It's frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write"


With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve


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The Daily 202: Stepped-up attacks on the press reflect Trump's bunker mentality