As a former White House correspondent, I watched this week’s news conference with President Donald Trump in complete dismay. I covered a similar news conference in the East Room in November 2010, when Barack Obama took questions the day after the Democrats got trounced in the midterms, losing control of the House of Representatives amid historical GOP gains. He was certainly visibly annoyed when asked, repeatedly, whether he was to blame. He managed not to go spectacularly off the rails in the face of those difficult questions.
What a difference eight years make.
Anyone who regularly watches the interactions between Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta, as I do, knows they are confrontational. Acosta, in my opinion, too often debates the president rather than just asking questions (and eating into the time of other reporters who have a limited amount of time to get their own queries in). News conferences are different than interviews, and so, out of respect to your fellow journalists, you generally ask your question, perhaps a challenging followup or two, and sit down. The point is to put the president’s views on the record. In the subsequent story you’re writing or the segment you’re putting together, you make mention then that the answer was dishonest or inaccurate.
Nevertheless, what happened to Acosta on Wednesday was outrageous and defamatory.
Acosta had his White House hard pass rescinded for pressing Trump on his comments about the so-called migrant caravan and refusing to hand the microphone over to a White House intern who tried to wrest it from him at Trump’s behest. He didn’t lay a finger on her. That didn’t stop the Trump White House from resorting to tactics familiar to dictators around the world: It released a doctored version of the video, made to look as though Acosta had assaulted the intern.
That’s right. The Trump administration released an altered video to support an egregious lie. It’s also a particularly preposterous falsehood -- the world can easily watch the actual footage of the interaction between Acosta and the intern that aired live.
It should rightfully result in a defamation lawsuit against the White House and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As a federal official, however, Sanders is immune from defamation claims that arise from her professional duties.
From a comms perspective, it’s hard to fathom what discussions went on behind the scenes that resulted in a “what a great idea!” consensus. Who signed off on such a Stalinist response to Jim Acosta? Regardless, it was expertly executed by Sanders, who has proven herself a skilled spin doctor and truth-bender who specializes in seemingly genuine moral indignation.
It’s nothing new that the United States is currently enduring some dark times. This Acosta debacle just underscores that the next two years, with Trump in an even angrier lather as the presidential election approaches and congressional Democrats close in on him on Russia, are going to be particularly brutal for the media, for freedom of the press -- and possibly for Americans themselves.
And will it all lead to a new style of political communications, here in Canada too, in which audacious lies are regarded as a better strategy than transparency and accountability? With our own federal election less than a year away, stay tuned.