In the aftermath of a wave of political violence, bomb threats, and a grisly mass shooting, Donald Trump and his team have found their villain. And, once again, it’s the media.
The pin-it-on-the-press campaign has played out on Twitter, the airwaves and in the briefing room in recent days, morphing into various talking points and done with little apparent subtlety.
In a rare briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “the only person responsible for carrying out either of these heinous acts was the person who carried them out”—even though Trump had tweeted earlier that day that his media enemies should shoulder some blame. But Sanders didn’t spare any criticism of the press for its coverage of the moment, of course. “The very first thing the media did was to blame the president,” Trump’s top spokesperson said. Her boss all but accused the media of fomenting incivility and violence earlier in the day.
Monday’s remarks marked the latest stage in what has been a frantic attempt at deflection from a president under fire for his own lengthy history of heated rhetoric and apologia towards his white nationalists followers. Sensing that Trump was taking too much blame for the climate that led to numerous pipe bombs being sent to prominent Democratic officials and the murder of 11 congregants on Saturday, aides and allies have instead pointed the finger at the fourth estate.
“It’s been really disgraceful the people who have jumped out and lurched out and tried to blame the president and his rhetoric,” Matt Schlapp, an influential Republican lobbyist and a prominent Trump surrogate told The Daily Beast, in reference to the pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and Trump adversaries last week by a man whose van was covered in stickers supporting the president.
U.S. presidents have gone after the journalists covering them for as long, perhaps, as there has been a presidency itself. But the decision by Team Trump to blame the press for last week’s dual crises, stood out for both its swiftness and aggression. The traditional role in moments of national crisis is to step away from the partisan fracas. But none of the eight Trump administration officials contacted by The Daily Beast said they expected the president to “tone down” the rhetoric, apologize, or stop spreading nativist lies about the migrant “Caravan”—even in the wake of a mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue that the killer said was partly inspired by a seething hatred of migrants.
Instead, the current game plan and communications strategy from Team Trump leans heavily on chastising media outlets for “blaming” Trump’s rhetoric or agenda, according to numerous senior administration officials and confidants to the president. It’s a strategy—defined largely by a standard refusal to give even an inch to political enemies, and eschewing introspection—that Trump and his closest advisers and allies have decided to place front-and-center this week.
“The reason the president was talking about the caravan [right after the shooting] is because it is a clear and imminent threat to the country. It would be irresponsible for a leader to allow a crazy person to dictate the message in a time when there is an invasion attempt on the country,” Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser on the Trump re-election campaign, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “I would appreciate it if Democrats and the left, particularly their elected officials who have been inciting actual violence against the right, would tone down their rhetoric.”
Pierson clarified that she was referring to Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton, and Eric Holder, the last of whom attracted an avalanche of conservative ire for saying, “When they go low, we kick them” earlier this year.
However, Pierson underscored how she has “no problem with the president’s rhetoric,” and appeared unmoved by critics’ points regarding Trump having encouraged political violence, especially during his 2016 campaign. (She called it encouraging “self-defense” for MAGA supporters.)
“There is no corresponding anything—the left are the only ones calling for violence,” she said, adding that Team Trump is “not going to allow the media to try to silence the well-earned criticism of the media.”
It’s not just Trump’s own aides who have chosen to lash out at the media this past week. Republicans writ large have seemed to adopt the same strategy and tone in their efforts to move the conversation away from questions about the president’s culpability. In recent days, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich declared that the press had “earned” the label “enemy of the people;” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) complained that the media would use “any narrative that can be turned against President Trump;” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) stated that “The 1st Amendment protects press freedom, but it doesn’t bestow immunity from criticism;” and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), insisted that journalists were deliberately ignoring liberal provocations in their rush to tie Trump to the twin crises.
Feeding the attacks is a sense within the Republican Party that the pipe bombs and the synagogue shooting have harshly blunted the “#JobsNotMobs” messaging that the president and his allies had relentlessly pushed ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Still, all was not lost in Trumpworld, at least in terms of cold political calculations. One senior Trump aide claimed that however negative the press is for Trump this cycle, if he “survived Charlottesville,”— when the president failed to completely condemn white supremacists who marched on the Virginia city where a neo-Nazi killed Heather Heyer—he can coast through the latest crisis, with his current conduct and unapologetic stance.
To this White House, President Trump is, if anything, a mere victim of the press’s meanness and “rhetoric.”
“The kind of rhetoric that is said day in and day out about this White House, the people who work here, the president, the vice president [Mike Pence], their families,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News on Monday, “It's got to stop.”
She also accused media outlets of “making it about themselves,” called on reporters and anchors to “cut it out, and recognize that this man went in there” to murder Jews, and bizarrely condemned “late-night comedians” for allegedly fanning general “anti-religiosity.”
In the Trump era, late-night talk show hosts apparently bear more responsibility for far-right terror than the leader of the free world.