Trump just lies. He doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care, about the difference between claims that are true and those that are obviously made up. (Daniel Dale, of the Toronto Star, has indefatigably cataloged Trump’s lies, at a rate of more than 100 a week.) Maybe 4,000 “terrorists” have been apprehended at the southern border? Maybe zero? Who can ever really know? Over the past week, Trump has claimed that former presidents “privately” told him they supported building his wall. All four living ex-presidents have taken the unusual step of denying that they said any such thing.
It is very hard for the press to fact-check or otherwise cope with a figure of this sort. In exposing someone’s lies, they rely on the fact that he or she would care about being caught—much as religious or ethical leaders rely on the power of the guilty conscience.
Trump doesn’t care. He can’t be shamed. The press (except for Dale) tires of detailing his lies before Trump tires of telling them.
The third is the press’ whipped-dog cringe in anticipation of criticism about any supposed bias toward the left. The simplest illustration, again, is the contrast between their handling of Obama’s recent request in 2014 and this one by Trump. After the Obama decision, news executives lost not a moment of sleep out of concern about attacks from liberal groups for “right-wing bias.” They thought about it as a news decision, and presented it that way. But the certainty of an “enemy of the people!” onslaught by Trump, Fox News, and their allies indisputably weighed on the executives’ minds yesterday.
The network executives’ position has a lot in common with that of the Senate Republicans. Each group knows with perfect clarity what Trump is actually doing. The Senate Republicans know that Trump is using the wall as a distraction and life raft. They know that because they unanimously approved, by voice vote, a plan to keep the government open, with no mention of the wall, before Trump panicked in the face of criticism from Ann Coulter and Fox News. They could pass that resolution again tomorrow—but they won’t speak up in public, so fearful do they remain of being criticized, too. For their part, the network executives know exactly what Trump will do if given air time. (Though they also realize that the formal Oval Office speech is Trump’s weakest venue. He’s not good at reading prepared texts, with his trademark ad-libs of “That’s so true” when he encounters lines he has clearly never seen before.) But they are giving it to him.
They were not afraid of criticism for turning down Obama. They are afraid about what would happen if they turned down Trump. You can think of lots of explanations. But the difference is clear.
An instructive parallel: During the 2016 campaign, James Comey’s FBI was closemouthed about the ongoing investigations of Trump and his Russian connections. To have said anything about them would have opened the bureau to criticism of playing politics. But when it came to discussing Hillary Clinton’s email situation, obviously the calculus of potential criticism was different. Again, you can think of explanations. My point for now is what military planners call the “asymmetric risk,” which warped the FBI’s behavior and that of much of the press.