Michelle Wolf, comedienne, Daily Show alum, and writer, hosted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You, ahem, may have heard about it.
Wolf, delivering her routine with a wry sort of smile that often belied a caustic tone, was an equal opportunity joke teller, hurling insults mostly at President Donald Trump, but not sparing members of his administration either. Nor were other media and political figures off limits, as Wolf also assailed the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Christie, Harvey Weinstein, Hillary Clinton, Michael Cohen, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and the stars of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among others. On top of this, she took the news media community to task for their part in propping up Trump for the sake of their profits and at the nation’s expense.
Before we get to the myriad responses to Wolf’s monologue, which tidily ran under 20 minutes in length, let’s first go over some of the highlights of her speech, as identified by yours truly:
Michelle Wolf began by asserting that her role was to tell jokes, and that she had no agenda or wasn’t “trying to get anything accomplished.” You can question the merits of her statement if you will, but if she came with any “agenda,” it wasn’t apparent by virtue of her barbs aimed in all directions.
Wolf did not dwell on the Trump-Russia situation, except at one point suggesting #45 is in some way compromised by this connection. Otherwise, she professed that she didn’t want to titillate the liberal media among the audience by going on about it, and seemed to express frustration at how this story has dominated headlines and has encouraged discussion panels reminiscent of a bad family argument at Thanksgiving dinner.
That said, Wolf went after Trump. Hard. She called him a “pussy” for not attending the Dinner, and rather than harping on his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia—though not letting him off the hook about these qualities either—she made a series of jokes designed to eat away at a key part of his image and truly gall him: that he’s not as rich as he says he is.
Wolf also referenced Trump’s pandering to white nationalists, and surmises the term “white nationalist” itself is a cop out. As she said during her monologue: “Calling a Nazi a ‘white nationalist’ is like calling a pedophile a ‘kid friend,’ or Harvey Weinstein a ‘ladies’ man’.”
Wolf expressed the belief that Trump shouldn’t be impeached, if only because Mike Pence is waiting in the wings.
Wolf also mentioned Trump’s Cabinet, and joked she had specific comments for its members, but that they keep changing. She quipped, “You guys have gone through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”
As mentioned earlier, if Wolf wrote her routine with any sort of agenda, it was political—especially in the feminist sense—but not partisan. She took Hillary Clinton’s campaign to task for abandoning Midwest states like Michigan, and more broadly chided Democrats for their strategic miscues in races up and down tickets.
Indeed, for all her (deserved) criticism of Trump, her particular disdain for women in positions of relative prominence was apparent. She identified Kellyanne Conway as an out-and-out liar who has no business appearing on news channels, she characterized Ivanka Trump, self-professed advocate for women, as “as helpful to [them] as an empty box of tampons,” likened Sarah Sanders to the character of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, a brutal authoritarian figure and spreader of propaganda. Last but not least, she took a shot at Megyn Kelly and NBC’s handling of her contract: “Megyn Kelly got paid $23 million by NBC, and NBC didn’t let Megan go to the Winter Olympics. Why not? She’s so white, cold, and expensive, she might as well be the Winter Olympics.”
Wolf’s harshest words perhaps were aimed at the media, and specifically for the way they’ve taken advantage of Donald Trump’s rise within the sphere of U.S. politics. Comparing their attitude toward Trump like a woman who professes to hate her ex-boyfriend but secretly loves him, she uttered, point blank, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.” For Wolf, this point was one that she sees that members of the media are loath to acknowledge, but bears discussing and repeating.
Wolf’s closing words, underscoring the seriousness of her commentary and serving as a reminder in case anyone forgot (or chose to ignore it): “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” As far as responses to emergency situations are concerned, I’m sure there are those in, say, Puerto Rico who would nod their heads and add their own situations to the mix.
Reactions to the speech have been fairly predictable. Pres. Trump, of course, hated it, calling it “a very big, boring bust.” Takes one to know one, Donald. Sean Spicer called it a “disgrace.” Ditto. Other conservative publications and sites panned Michelle Wolf’s performance, highlighting the opinion she “bombed.” One tends to wonder if they actually watched her performance or simply formed their opinion based on snippets from blogs and their own kneejerk reactions in defense of the President, but this apparently is the state of critical political analysis in our country today.
To be fair, Wolf has had her detractors outside the political right, too. The media, perhaps likewise predictably, have balked at the idea they have helped create the “monster” that is Trump. As someone like Chris Cillizza of CNN and formerly of The Washington Post would aver, he and other reporters have covered Trump to the extent that he has done and said things that no other president/candidate has done, but that Trump, as the “angry id of the GOP,” was on the rise whether the mainstream media gave him the attention or not. That is, while sites like CNN have indeed profited off of Trump’s increased exposure, Cillizza believes this is different from “creating” him.
Other criticisms seem directed at Wolf’s perceived mean streak, particularly in her take-down of Trump administration officials like Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, and Sarah Sanders. In addressing the media and telling various outlets not to book Conway, she joked, “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?” She immediately qualified that she wouldn’t want Conway hurt or killed by the falling tree, just stuck, but the image was enough for some people.
In assailing Pence and his anti-abortion views, a sore spot for many women and people concerned with personal rights, she riffed, “Don’t knock it ’til you try it, and when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” Abortion jokes, even for the pro-choice crowd, are always a questionable choice. As for Sanders, Wolf’s comments about her make-up and her resemblance to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale have been branded as unfair and tantamount to bullying, though Wolf professes she was not making fun of Sarah’s looks, but merely her propensity to lie and spin as a buffer between Trump and the press corps. Despite not having an “agenda,” Wolf was clearly not playing to the room, or for that matter, playing nice.
The bilateral backlash to Wolf’s routine has been such that even White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev publicly distanced herself from the content of the monologue, putting forth the notion that Wolf’s remarks were not “in the spirit” of what the WHCA tries to accomplish, that the occasion should be one of civility, and of defending a free press and celebrating great reporting, and not intentionally divisive. In making this statement to fellow Association members, Talev seemed to be indicating a bit of buyer’s remorse, and at one point, after making an off-color joke about her own anatomy, Wolf herself followed it with the perhaps-too-on-the-nose line, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” Touché, Ms. Wolf. Touché.
At the same time, however, Michelle Wolf has her defenders, especially among her comedian brethren. As they contend, Wolf did the job she was asked to do, and if she ruffled a few proverbial feathers, so be it. Their sentiments echo the feelings of some people that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the problem, not Wolf or her “speak truth to power” mindset. For years, critics of this annual tradition have highlighted the oddity of an event designed to champion fearless reporting and freedom of the press and yet encourage reporters and political or otherwise public figures to coalesce with one another.
The mere suggestion that members of the press are in some way complicit in Trump’s political rise or in downplaying his administration’s dangerous propensity to lie is therefore bound to be uncomfortable. To put this another way, and to sympathize with the views of chief New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, maybe the WHCA should just not hire a comedian if they want less controversy, and as he puts it, “send the cameras away [and] have a nice dinner in peace.” After all, there’s nothing obligating the Association to hire a stand-up performer. Why do it if you’re unable to handle criticism in your own right?
Michelle Wolf, for her part, has responded to criticism of her speech by indicating she wouldn’t change a word of it, and that the backlash she’s received from her comments means she was actually in the right. Poniewozik, in his closing remarks, also defended Wolf to the extent that the White House Correspondents’ Association did not:
The irony of the association’s disavowing Ms. Wolf is that her routine, whether you agree with it or not, was ultimately about defending the mission of the White House press: sticking up for the truth. Michelle Wolf had the W.H.C.A.’s back Saturday night, even if it didn’t have hers the day after.
As Margaret Talev has made evident by distancing Wolf and her jokes from the Association and its purported mission, she is a comedian and not a member of the press. From where Wolf stands, this is probably a good thing, in that it frees her from any conventions which might prevent her from calling a spade a spade. Still, that the WHCA would publicly disavow the contents of Wolf’s monologue and risk chumming the waters for conservative trolls seems like a questionable stance to take.
It’s reminiscent of when Donald Trump, shortly after the contents of the Steele dossier started becoming public news, shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference, calling Acosta and his employer “fake news.” Looking at this situation retrospectively, it’s not so surprising that Trump would verbally attack a member of the media given his frequent angry Tweets lobbed at the “liberal media.”
At the time, however, it was unnerving to see Acosta shut down by the President and have none of his colleagues come to his defense. Sure, Neil Cavuto and others at FOX News may have been glad to smirk and sneer at CNN for what they perceived as their comeuppance for biased reporting and an overall snobby elitist attitude. But this confrontation foreshadowed the all-out assault Trump has levied upon the mainstream media, and it has ominous implications for the future of news media given Trump’s authoritarian streak and the proliferation of genuine fake news—if that makes any sense.
In other words, if individual members of the press don’t stand in solidarity when freedom of the press/freedom of speech is challenged, it stands to become that much easier to pick them off in the future. Wolf, in laughingly referring to print news as an “endangered species,” punctuated her joke by saying, “Buy more newspapers.” Much as she might disagree with their model, and to stress James Poniewozik’s insights, Michelle Wolf, a comedian with no agenda and not trying to get anything accomplished, recognizes the importance of investigative journalism. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and such explains why FOX News personalities came to CNN’s defense when their rival was besieged by Trump early in 2017. Over a year later, though, it already feels like members of the media/press are less inclined to cross Trump, or in the case of FOX News, are unabashedly biased in his favor. Gulp.
It’s anyone’s guess what Wolf’s performance will mean for the future of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, if anything. Chances are good that the furor over her routine will die down by the time next year rolls around and we’ll be reacting with the usual outrage again, having all but forgotten that dinner’s predecessor. For the media outlets implicated in her speech, meanwhile, it might behoove them to look at themselves in the mirror before putting this episode in the rear view. Given the public’s flagging confidence in the news media, an institution that won’t confront its own accountability may just end up hastening its own decline.
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On Monday, January 9, the underdog Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in a thrilling upset and game overall. Of course, if you were a fan of the pure spectacle and sport of the proceedings, including the notion Clemson overcame a 14-point deficit to score the winning touchdown with a second left on the game clock, you, in all likelihood, enjoyed the experience. (If you are an Alabama fan or had money riding on the game, um, you, in all likelihood, did not.) As noted, the Tigers were an underdog—by as much as six or six-and-a-half points prior to the game—which is not insignificant by football odds standards. The Crimson Tide, after all, were the consensus #1 team in the country, topping both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls as well as the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision rankings. Undaunted, the Clemson Tigers proved victorious.
From my standpoint, I was glad to see Clemson win, even if it aligned with my brother’s amateur prognostications of the Tigers’ victory and thereby fed the notion of his self-professed expertise, for it, if only temporarily, put aside notions of an Alabama dynasty in college football. For better or for worse, though, what I’ll remember most from the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship was not an instance from the game itself, but a moment from the hoopla afterwards. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney—great name, by the by—during the post-game press conference referenced a comment made in November by Colin Cowherd, former ESPN personality and current Fox Sports radio and television host. Back then, Cowherd had this to say about Clemson’s relative talent level:
“Clemson’s a fraud. Clemson is going to get their ears boxed by whoever they play. They should have three losses, maybe four. I don’t buy into Clemson. They’re the New York Giants of college football. I don’t care what their record is. I don’t buy into them. And I had Clemson in the final four, so I should be rooting for them. I got no dog in the fight here. I think USC is the second-best team in the country and Vegas agrees.”
Strong words. After all, Colin could’ve merely said they were overrated or lucky or what-have-you, but calling someone a fraud seems a bit personal, as if to go for the jugular. This is perhaps why Swinney didn’t take the criticism lightly, and fired back thusly during the post-game presser:
At the end of the day, we left no doubt tonight. We wanted to play Alabama because now y’all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up. The guy that called us a fraud? Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Was the name Colin Cowherd? I don’t know him, never met him. Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we’re a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we’re a fraud. The only fraud is that guy, because he didn’t do his homework. I hope y’all print that.
As the kids would say, “Oh, snap!” In faith, I don’t think either of these men are “frauds.” Retrospectively speaking, I’m not sure whether or not Clemson benefited from a particularly weak schedule, but regardless, they proved their mettle and that they weren’t the, ahem, paper tiger Colin Cowherd made them out to be. Cowherd himself is a radio show host who is paid to give his opinions, and I begrudgingly acknowledge he was right about the Giants. To call someone a “fraud,” literally speaking, is to find him or her intentionally doing something wrong with a design to deceive. Barring any evidence of malfeasance on Clemson’s coaching staff’s part or some financial misappropriation perpetrated by Cowherd, neither is the dictionary definition of a fraud.
Why do I include this anecdote about Clemson, Colin Cowherd, Dabo Swinney, and the indiscriminate hurling around of the word “fraud”? Perhaps it is indicative of the current zeitgeist in which the public’s trust in institutions like news media and voting is being challenged, if not eroded, and allegations of electoral fraud and unsubstantiated reports are seemingly rampant. Leading up to the presidential election, President-Elect Trump was quick to suggest that if he didn’t win enough electoral votes, it was due to some sort of collusion or electoral fraud. Then, he won the electoral vote, but he lost the popular vote, and stuck with the whole fraud angle—despite any actual evidence of this. Accordingly, it made for an intriguing bit of theater when Trump challenged the integrity of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and his organization during his Wednesday press conference for all to see and hear.
First, let’s back up a bit and discuss the press conference at large, which, as you might imagine, was in it of itself quite the intriguing spectacle. Feel free to watch the video and read the New York Times transcript for yourself to get the full effect, but here are some “highlights,” if you want to call them that:
1. First, before we get to the aforementioned first, let’s discuss what already had Donald Trump, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and other Trump Train riders all in a tizzy. CNN reported on Tuesday that U.S. government officials had made Trump aware of an intelligence report indicating that Russian agents had claimed to possess compromising information about him. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, published its own report claiming to offer the contents of the larger 35-page memo on which this alleged intelligence report was based, but the claims for this material were unverified, explaining why CNN worked the following day to distance itself from the BuzzFeed report. Which was a prudent thing to do, even though a lot of Americans deep down wanted it to be true. I mean, lurid tales of Donald Trump paying prostitutes to perform “golden showers”? No wonder #GoldenShowers was trending on Twitter! It was worth it for all the piss jokes!
2. Trump, after a lead-in from Spicer which more or less harangued CNN and BuzzFeed as partners in crime—even though the content of their reports were very different—and a short introduction by Mike Pence, which also lashed out at the media and its “bias,” began by further attacking the two media outlets and praising the rest of the providers/publications present, essentially for just not being either BuzzFeed or CNN. Then, he launched into his usual rambling, semi-coherent, self-congratulatory blather. Trump’s mish-mosh began with more praise, in this case, for Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors for saying they would be keeping jobs in the United States. This is the same Fiat Chrysler which later on in the week would be accused by the EPA as utilizing software to bypass emissions standards much in the way Volkswagen did, and which already is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegations of securities fraud based on inflated sales numbers, but that’s another story.
3. President-Elect Trump (still hurts to say) next spoke about the need to orchestrate deals to win back the pharmaceutical industry and the military aircraft industry. I believe the emphasis here is on saving American jobs. Well, I mean, it should be. After all, if you’re asking us to feel bad for the industries themselves, it would seem misplaced, as they don’t seem to be hurting with the kind of revenues they’ve generated in recent years.
4. Donald Trump then talked about—huge surprise!—the fact that he won the election. In doing so, he took potshots at the pollsters who incorrectly predicted he would lose. He also seemed to intimate that those states which helped him win would benefit in terms of jobs and security, once again conforming to his habit of playing favorites with those who brown-nose and curry his favor. Not that I would’ve encouraged New Jerseyans to kowtow to Trump for this reason, but it appears we are SOL for voting blue in 2016. Oh, well.
5. Following a reiteration of his pick-and-choose mentality—i.e. let’s “make America great again,” but only those portions of the country which don’t piss me off—Trump casually dropped the day’s appointment: David Shulkin as head secretary of the Veterans Administration. You know, a non-veteran. Makes total sense. Why is blood dripping from my nose? That’s right—this is Trump’s America now. Thinking too hard only encourages pain.
6. Then, we got to the meat of the press conference: the actual “press” portion. The floor was opened up to the gates of Hell, and President-Elect Trump revealed his true demonic form. Kidding! It was simply opened to questions from the reporters and writers in attendance. Here are some of the queries and responses realized in this segment:
When asked about the two-page summary of the allegations that Russia had dirt on him, as well as the theoretical consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Vladimir Putin ordered the DNC hack and the attempted hack of the RNC, Trump first deferred and went on a diatribe about the unsubstantiated “crap” that people had reported. Once that was dispensed with, Trump then said he thinks it was Russia who hacked us—but come on!—who hasn’t tried to hack us? Oh, by the way, the Democratic National Committee, for allowing themselves to get hacked, were idiots. Not like the Republican National Committee. What an organization! Also, aren’t Hillary Clinton and John Podesta just awful? Next!
The press, apparently still not done asking questions about the Russian hacks—you know, only because it’s a HUGE F**KING DEAL—then queried Donald Trump about whether he accepts the notion Putin orchestrated these hacks to help him win the election, and whether he would touch the sanctions President Obama authorized based on the findings of U.S. intelligence. On the first count, Trump said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey! So Putin likes me! Big whoop! Isn’t it good that he likes me? We can have slumber parties together, making popcorn, watching movies, and discussing how to dismantle ISIS.” On the second count, Trump, um, didn’t really answer, but basically symbolically whipped his junk out and asked, “Does this look like I wouldn’t be tougher on Putin than Hillary would?” (Side note: if Donald Trump actually did this, I think people would be interested to see, if only to verify: 1) whether his member is as orange as the rest of him would suggest, and 2) if visible, whether or not his pubic hair looks as ridiculous as the hair on top of his head does.)
Trump was asked again about those unsubstantiated BuzzFeed memos and whether or not he could be a target of blackmail by the Russians. His response? Bizarre, man. First, he insisted he is, like, the careful-est when he travels abroad and in the public purview. Second, he touted the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—you know, the competition which judges women on their physical features and only occasionally on their brains. Lastly, he said he was a bit of a germophobe, presumably making a funny about the whole “golden showers” bit. Golden showers, golden showers, golden showers. There—I think I’ve gotten it out of my system.
Here was, if not the most stupefying portion of the program, a close second. President-Elect Trump was asked if he thought the Russian hacking—boy, these reporters are persistent buggers, aren’t they?—was justified, how he planned to untangle his business entanglements, and whether he would do us the courtesy of releasing his tax returns to prove he had no conflict of interests. Here’s where it gets stupid: when Trump answered. According to Donald J. Trump:
He has no deals or debt with Russia, and “as a real estate developer, he has very little debt.” As if by mere virtue of working in real estate, the idea of debt is mutually exclusive. This is, in case you haven’t guessed, balderdash, hogwash, and pure poppycock. Trump had estimated his debt at $315 million (so little), but more conservative (read: more accurate) estimates place the figure closer to $1 billion. That’s a shit-ton of debt for someone who professes he’ll do wonders for the U.S. economy and help us reduce our own mounting obligations.
He has a no conflict of interest provision as President. Um, not a thing. Not even close to being a thing. Being President of the United States does not magically permit you to run the country and your business at the same time. In fact, it should compel you to divest yourself of all your business entanglements. There’s no way you could be more wrong in what you just said, Mr. Trump.
He can’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit. Also not a thing. The IRS themselves debunked this notion months ago, and so I wonder if his stubborn adherence to this explanation means he thinks we all believe it, or that he really doesn’t give two shits what we believe. Speaking of not giving two shits what we believe, Trump made the bold claim only reporters care about what’s on his tax returns (which, according to him, don’t tell you all that much anyway), and that we, the people, don’t. Hey, President-Elect Trump, thanks for personally not asking me what I care about, but as it turns out, I do care about what’s on your tax returns. A lot of us do. Release them.
Finally, he says he will be ceding control of his company to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric. No conflict of interest here. They certainly won’t be talking business with their pops, right? Not at all. These men are “professionals,” after all.
7. Donald Trump then turned over control of the press conference to Sheri Dillon, tax lawyer for the firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, to explain how his turning over of his business to his sons was OK. Because he sure as shit didn’t make the case. Dillon’s speech within the speech was pretty lengthy and detailed, and included a lot of tax and legal mumbo-jumbo, apparently about how what the Trump family is doing is totes kewl. Sec. 18 USC 202 doesn’t apply to POTUS, OK? Anyhoo, since Donald Trump is too legit to quit, first of all, he’s putting his ish in a trust. Believe that. Also, his sons and a guy named Allen Weisselberg are running the Trump Organization now, with no interference from the main man himself, y’heard? Also Part Two, we’ve got an ethics adviser on board. Ethics, son! Have some! Plus, Ivanka’s got nothing to do with this whole enterprise. That just happened! Still not satisfied? Peep these deets: only liquid assets in the trust, no new foreign deals, he will only received consolidated profit-and-loss statements, and we’re going to have a chief compliance counsel. He didn’t even have to do that last one, but he did—FOR ALL OF YOU. Dude’s like Jesus up in this piece. Now, before a lot of you bustas start mouthing off, I know what you’re thinking—what about a blind trust? First of all, what about your blind trust? Dude’s President, and he loves America. Loves it. Second of all, eff that blind trust business. I mean, Mr. Trump just can’t unknow his businesses, can he? That would just be some dumb shit right there. Speaking of dumb, what trustee would know better than his sons how to run his interests? No trustee—that’s who. Or some of you might be saying, “What about the Emoluments Clause?” What about the Emoluments Clause? What is an emolument anyway? Do you know? No, you don’t. No one does. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Last but not least, all foreign government payments to his new hotel are going straight to the United States Treasury. You’re welcome. I would drop the mic, but this press conference is still happening! Dillon out!
Sounds all good and fancy and convoluted, right? Too bad, according to Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Per Shaub’s remarks on Wednesday at the Brookings Institute:
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal. It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close. I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump Tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.
Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are. I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.
The President-elect’s attorney justified the decision not to use a blind trust by saying that you can’t put operating businesses in a blind trust. She’s right about that. That’s why the decision to set up this strange new kind of trust is so perplexing. The attorney also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time. Unlike the President, they have to run the gauntlet of a rigorous Senate confirmation process where the legitimacy of their divestiture plans can be closely scrutinized. These individuals get through the nomination process by carefully ensuring that the valuation of their companies is done according to accepted industry standards. There’s nothing unusual about that. For these reasons, the plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years. This isn’t the way the Presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds, which are exempt under the conflict of interest law.
Now, before anyone is too critical of the plan the President-elect announced, let’s all remember there’s still time to build on that plan and come up with something that will resolve his conflicts of interest. In developing the current plan, the President-elect did not have the benefit of OGE’s guidance. So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.
While it lacks of the panache of my urbanized version of Sheri Dillon’s defense of the Trump’s position, Shaub’s explanation makes up for it with being vastly more correct than the statement which preceded it. So much for all that ethics junk.
8. Back to the Q & A. Donald Trump was asked about having a Cabinet and administration full of conflicts of interest, including but not limited to his own. Trump then proceeded to take out a pistol slowly from his jacket coat, and fired several times, killing the correspondent dead on the spot. OK, so that didn’t happen, but you know he totally would if he thought he could get away with it. I could tell you what he actually said, but it started with Rex Tillerson and disintegrated into some gibberish about bad trade deals. Next!
9. Finally, a question about ObamaCare! You know, the thing the Republicans are trying to dismantle without anything to replace it. Mr. Trump was asked what the GOP would do in place of the “disaster” that is the Affordable Care Act. More gibberish. No substantive answer. There, I saved you the trouble.
10. The question was about whether Donald Trump planned to involve himself in all these individual deals with companies (e.g. Carrier) and when we would see the program on capital repatriation and corporate tax cuts. Simplified answer from Trump-speech: those companies who want to leave for Mexico are going to pay a hefty border tax. Unless, you know, they work out a highly-visible sweetheart deal with the U.S. government and I get to talk about how many jobs I save—even though those numbers probably don’t tell the whole story.
11. The next question was a three-part question with three very different parts, so bear with me. On (1) the status of the Mexican border wall, uh, still evidently happening. There appears to be some sort of reimbursement aspect now involved with it, though to be fair, he could’ve just made that up on the spot. On (2) the status of his Supreme Court pick, that’s evidently coming in the fortnight after Inauguration. And on (3)that bizarre Tweet about us living in Nazi Germany, more griping about the unsubstantiated BuzzFeed reports. Because that’s what happened in Nazi Germany. And, um, just the attempted extermination of the Jews. Other than that, though, exactly like it.
12. Trump was asked if President Obama went too far with his sanctions on Russia, and what he thought of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to send him a bill for tougher sanctions. Succinctly, he said no, Obama didn’t go too far, and then proceeded to belittle Graham’s presidential aspirations. Classy, Mr. Trump. Classy.
14. President-Elect Trump was asked once again about all this “false news” business and what reforms he might suggest for the news industry, pray tell. This is literally what he said: “Well, I don’t recommend reforms. I recommend people that are—that have some moral compass.” Spoken by the pussy-grabber himself.
15. The rest of the press conference was devoted to more about Russia, hacking, and Russian hacking, so let’s breeze through this, shall we? Yes, Donald Trump trusts his intelligence community, but only the people he’s appointed and they’ve got a great hacking defense strategy coming—just you wait and see. Wait, does Trump believe Russia was behind the hacks? Probably, but maybe not. (Writer’s Note: Ugh.) What is his message to Vladimir Putin, if, indeed, he was behind the hacks? Mr. Putin, you will respect America. Same goes for you, China. Japan, Mexico, everyone else, you too. And Don and Eric, you better do a good job, or I’ll say, “You’re fired!” No, seriously, he said his catch phrase. At the end of a presidential press conference. Hmm, it appears that that bleeding coming from my nose has intensified. Could someone grab a box of tissues, please? I think my brain may be in the process of complete liquefaction. Remember me as I was prior to Donald Trump being sworn in, I beg of you.
You may have noticed a number was missing from the ordered list comprising my extensive breakdown of Trump’s Wednesday press conference. Hey, it’s called triskaidekaphobia, and I’m sensitive about it! Seriously, though, I’ve had enough of bullshit explanations from the man himself, so let’s get to it. At a point in the press conference, Donald Trump, in his usual delicate style, referred to BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” and went on to say that CNN “went out of their way to build it up,” as if to suggest that CNN piled on to the pile of garbage that BuzzFeed had created. In reality, though, CNN’s report preceded BuzzFeed’s, and was appreciably different, with the latter’s being of a salacious and irresponsible manner, prompting a rebuke from Chuck Todd of MSNBC for willingly publishing “fake news.”
Naturally, when impugned by name, you may wish to defend yourself, or at least have a chance to speak, which is what CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to do, asking, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question, Mr. President-elect?” Simple, respectful, no? This was Trump’s response: “Your organization is terrible.” He then proceeded to move onto another questioner, and when Acosta pressed him for a chance to defend his organization, Trump fired back by telling him “don’t be rude” and eventually admonishing him by saying “you are fake news.” And he refused to grant Jim Acosta a question. Just like that. Acosta’s question would actually be asked and answered in the waning minutes of the press conference, but the damage was already done, and furthermore, according to Acosta’s account, he was approached by Sean Spicer and told that if he were to “do that again,” he was going to be thrown out of the press conference. So much for freedom of the press.
Predictably, self-appointed enemies of the left and the “liberal media” loved this result, with numerous conservative “news” sites cheering Donald Trump’s “beatdown” of Jim Acosta. Spicer himself insisted Acosta was behaving inappropriately and rudely, and both he and Newt Gingrich called on him to apologize to Trump. Not the other way around. What’s most striking to me and numerous others, I’m sure, though, is how pretty much everyone else in the press just sat or stood by and let Trump efface Acosta from the press conference, metaphorically stepping over his carcass to get a place at the dinner table. Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America has an even starker comparison for it: “Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta in the Middle of Fifth Avenue and the Press Didn’t Blink.” Referencing a boast from the campaign trail of Trump’s that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose voters, Gertz pointed out a trend of Donald Trump lashing out at criticism of him and his campaign, banning members of the press and whole news organizations, and the rest of the press corps not doing shit about it:
This is a pattern. Members of the press have repeatedly refused to stand together as Trump has lashed out at their colleagues. Trump banned The Des Moines Register from covering his campaign after it printed a critical editorial. There was no collective response from the press. So he banned more outlets when he didn’t like their coverage. His campaign threw a New York Times reporter out of an event. No response from the press. He confined the reporters to press pens where he could mock them by name to the glee of his supporters, putting them in physical danger. And into the pens they went, day after day. His campaign manager allegedly manhandled a reporter. CNN hired the campaign manager! Trump treats reporters like conquered foes who he can manhandle at will. If they can’t figure out a way to stand up together and for one another, he will pick them off one by one and grind the free press into the dirt.
Even if people in the news community came to Jim Acosta’s and CNN’s defense after the fact, that they were content to remain silent during Trump’s finger-wagging illustrates the point: the news media generally isn’t willing to stand up for one of its own when that isolated target gets attacked. Case in point FOX News, which, prior to the rise of Trump, Breitbart, the alt-right, and fake news sites which specifically target audiences on social media feeds, more or less had the market covered on fake and misleading coverage. On one hand, correspondent Shepard Smith came to CNN’s defense with journalistic principles in mind, saying as much Wednesday following the press conference:
CNN’s exclusive reporting on the Russian matter was separate and different from the document dump executed by an online news property. Though we at FOX News cannot confirm CNN’s report, it is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards, and that neither they nor any other journalist should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.
FOX News, whose personalities—notably Megyn Kelly while still in the network’s employ—are no stranger to Donald Trump’s wrath, and so it at least makes sense that someone like Shepard Smith would support CNN and Jim Acosta in this way. On the other hand, Neil Cavuto, fellow FOX News talking head, couldn’t help but put a smirk on his face and stick it to the network’s cable news rival a day later. On Your World with Neil Cavuto—at least, I think it was Your World with Neil Cavuto; I don’t really give a shit about any of the programs he hosts—the program’s namesake had this to say about Trump’s rough handling of CNN in this instance:
How does it feel to be dismissed, or worse, ignored? How does it feel when your feelings are hurt, when your reporters are singled out, and you’re treated unfairly and unkindly, even rudely?
Later on in the segment, Cavuto closed with this mean-spirited jab at CNN:
Isn’t it obnoxious and unfair how some celebrate your plight? Kind of feels like the way you celebrated ours, doesn’t it? They say payback’s a bitch. If only you would take a moment to rewind the tape and see the shoe was on the other foot. Or am I confusing it with the one now kicking you in the ass?
My, my, Neil, aren’t you the tough guy? In Neil Cavuto’s defense, President Obama’s relationship with the press corps was far from sterling, as numerous outlets criticized the lack of transparency with which his administration dealt with the press as a subset of his administration’s larger failings in this regard. Moreover, Cavuto is mostly right that other members of the mainstream media didn’t come to FOX News’ defense when Obama singled them out, though interestingly enough, Jake Tapper of, ahem, CNN, has. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Cavuto is expecting an apology because FOX News has become popular by pandering to liberal-bashers and Obama-haters and because Donald Trump won the election, he’s got a long wait on his hands. Besides, today it’s CNN, but what’s to prevent FOX News from being next on Trump’s hit list or on it at some point in the future? Will Neil Cavuto be quite so smug then? What if CNN comes (again) to his network’s defense?
For any number of reasons, Donald Trump’s press conference in advance of his inauguration is frightening stuff. His persistent refusal to blame Russia for anything, his failure to provide substantive answers to anything related to policy decisions, his and his administration’s questionable ethical standards and conflicts—you name it. But Trump’s refusal to field a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta with the justification that his organization is “terrible” and “fake news” should concern all Americans and members of the press, and not just those on the left. Barack Obama wasn’t exactly a saint, but Trump has displayed signs of being a tyrannical leader well before formally being sworn in. In an age in which fake news is threatening our knowledge of the facts, and political leaders are trying to make us believe truth is not as relevant as opinion and how much we feel something should be true, the failure to hear real news is even worse than the fake article.