You can teach old journalists the occasional new trick, but two? Forget it.
The 2016 election persuaded the press to avoid publicly presuming that Donald Trump will lose and the Democrat will win. The very cautious news coverage about Joe Biden’s chances, despite his formidable advantage in polls, makes this plain.
But even though reporters are loath to say that the president is a serious underdog, they are repeating another 2016 error. Trump is getting off easy for a series of recent scandals, most likely because press outlets have concluded that he is doomed and that coverage is largely pointless. From a radical reorganization of the civil service to sketchy Chinese bank accounts, the president has faced little scrutiny on what should be major topics of concern for voters.
Four years ago, the number of scandals swirling around the Republican nominee was too great for the average reporter, much less the average voter, to track. Yet with the possible exception of the October surprise of the Access Hollywood tape, few of them gained any lasting purchase. Observers who assumed that voters would never accept Trump’s past didn’t reckon with the fact that it would get such short shrift. Meanwhile, in the closing days of the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s emails were extensively covered. In part, that was because many reporters and editors assumed that she would soon be president, and that questions about her term as secretary of state would remain relevant for months or years to come.
Instead, Clinton lost the election—the late-breaking email story may have played a large role in that—and Trump waltzed into office. (The emails quickly moved off front pages, although the president continues to try to make them a topic of conversation.) It became clear within weeks that the same questions about Trump that had been broadly overlooked during the campaign, on his shaky company, for example, and his foreign financial entanglements, would be major issues during his presidency, and indeed, they have been.
In 2020, it’s clear that most of the press is trying to be careful not to count the ballots before they’re cast. That has resulted in more sophisticated horse-race coverage over the closing weeks, even in places where the race doesn’t seem to be particularly close. But as outlets focus on that coverage (as well as the coronavirus pandemic), they are giving insufficient attention to the continued flow of important news coming from the Trump administration.
Last week, for example, Trump issued an executive order that would radically reshape the federal workforce. As The Washington Post explains, the order “strips long-held civil service protections from employees whose work involves policymaking, allowing them to be dismissed with little cause or recourse, much like the political appointees who come and go with each administration.” This sounds dull, but it’s hugely consequential (and, historically, even lethal). Trump has already sought to make the executive branch his wholly owned political subsidiary, and this would extend his control. If you enjoyed the sidelining of Environmental Protection Agency scientists and the extortion of Ukraine via the State Department, you’ll love this.
The order requires agencies to determine which jobs are subject to the new rule by January 19, but as the Post dryly notes, “That’s a day before the next presidential inauguration. An administration under Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be unlikely to allow the changes to proceed.” If Biden doesn’t win, however? It will be a massive reorganization that voters hardly heard about before casting their ballot.
The president’s personal finances continue to be an elephant in the room that, somehow, gets ignored. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Trump has directed $8.1 million from U.S. taxpayers and from political donors into his own coffers. That’s the latest in a string of astonishing figures turned up by David Fahrenthold and several colleagues, which have gone largely unremarked. The New York Times has produced a series of huge scoops on Trump’s taxes, including the revelation on October 20 that the president possesses a bank account in China and has paid substantially more taxes there than he has in the United States.
Yet despite the dogged reporting from these outlets, these stories have failed to catch much attention elsewhere. During the last presidential debate, Biden challenged Trump to release his tax returns. “First of all, I called my accountants, underwrote it; I’m going to release them as soon as we can. I want to do it,” Trump said.
This is laughable: Trump said this repeatedly during the 2016 race, and he still hasn’t followed through; as usual, he blames the fact that he is under audit, though that is not a legal impediment to their release. (Most likely, he doesn’t want to release them for the same reason he is under audit: Something in there isn’t kosher.) Reporters laughed at his promise, and then moved on. They know it’s nonsense, but who cares? For close watchers, it’s just Trump being Trump (although most people are not regular Trump watchers). Pundits have concluded that nothing will change opinions about the president, and besides, if Trump loses the election, as expected, this will mostly be a dead issue.
But then again, what if he doesn’t? Then the president has more than $400 million in loans, many of them personally guaranteed, hanging over his head in his next term. He has no obvious way to pay them off. If he’s a private citizen, that’s a personal financial catastrophe. If he’s the president, it’s a national-security catastrophe. Would any bank dare crack down on a sitting president? What would it mean if it cut him favors instead?
There are plenty of other examples of scandals that have gotten too little attention, such as Trump’s continued railroading of the Justice Department, his near rejection of disaster-relief funds to California, his attempts to punish blue states for policy choices, and his efforts to convert Voice of America and its siblings into a pro-Trump propaganda network. Even his impeachment has been all but forgotten.
The skimpy coverage isn’t due to the media’s fear of being seen as biased against Trump. Coverage of how the administration botched the coronavirus pandemic has generally been strong and consistent. The disastrous federal response will, however, remain a live story long after the current presidential term ends.
Paradoxically, the press has arguably also been too easy on Biden at times. Trump’s allies overreached with attempted hit jobs on his son Hunter Biden, trying to claim without evidence that Joe Biden was involved in unsavory business schemes. This, along with a fear of overemphasizing the issue, as it did with Clinton’s emails in 2016, has kept the mainstream press far from the story. But as Ross Douthat argues, the business entanglements of a potential first son are not a nonstory, nor are those of Biden’s brother. Biden is plainly not as vigorous as he once was, an issue that has gone largely unexplored. That’s partly due to old-fashioned notions of propriety that have prevented more frank grappling with Trump’s obvious mental unfitness for the presidency, and partly because Trump claimed that Biden was too senile to even run for president, a bar the Democrat easily cleared.
These are real failings by the press, but this is not a question of seeking some false balance: Trump is getting away with more, and receiving less scrutiny, than Biden is. If it is true that he’s getting that pass because the media presume he is an underdog, they are playing a risky game. Glossing over some of Trump’s more dangerous issues on the assumption that he will lose could itself affect the course of the election, and make his winning more likely. It’s happened before.