Daily Trump #9, May 31, 2016. “You’re a sleaze.”
How do we put in perspective Donald Trump’s angry criticism of reporters, collectively and by individual name, at his press conference today? The clip below begins with one notable early moment. The final 10 minutes of the conference are more or less all in that same vein.
When I compare today’s performance with others I have seen myself or have heard of, the closest matches are discouraging. One is to the only vice president ever forced to resign because of corruption, Spiro Agnew. (John C. Calhoun also resigned as VP, but that was over policy differences.) The other is to the only president ever forced to resign, Agnew’s ticket-mate Richard Nixon.
Every politician, above all every president, gets angry at the press. I had a whole chapter to this effect in Breaking the News. In essence the point was: every politician can list all the things he does that aren’t strictly posturing, favor-trading, dissembling, or compromising. But the posturing and dissembling inevitably dominate the news.
At the same time, many politicians also enjoy hanging out with, sparring with, and picking up intel from reporters. It’s always a complex relationship.
From time to time politicians let the anger out. But those in-public outbursts, especially by presidents or major-party candidates, have been treated as exceptions, memorable precisely because they are rare. The two most famous cases illustrate the point.
One was a speech by then-VP Spiro Agnew in Houston in 1970, lamenting the media’s tendency to oversimplify. In retrospect, it’s an argument carried out at a very high level. For instance: “Subtlety is lost, and fine distinctions based on acute reasoning are carelessly ignored in a headlong jump to a predetermined conclusion. Life is visceral rather than intellectual.”
If you spoke this way at a current political rally, someone in the crowd would yell, “Booorrrr-innng!” [More from the speech below.] And yet even this formally phrased critique was remarkable enough that it still stands out, 46 years later, as a prominent case of a politician really letting it rip against the press.
The other was a breathtakingly bitter crack by then-President Richard Nixon, already standing on the banana peel of Watergate, at a White House press conference soon after the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973. (The person at whom Nixon snaps in this clip is Robert Pierpoint of CBS, whom I happened to know.)
So, this Nixon was remarkably angry, and let it show. But to put it in perspective: this was one of the most famously bitter moments in the entire public career of a famously bitter man, at a time of near-existential personal crisis for him. (Another was “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more,” when he thought his public life was over after he lost the race for governor of California to Pat Brown in 1962.)
Yet even these Nixon and Agnew moments, still notable many decades later, pale in their anger and crudity compared with a string of comments Donald Trump reeled off today, when the only pressure on him was not real crisis but the routine annoyance of press questions.
So we know that the best temperamental comparisons for Trump are to two people eventually forced from office — and we know that Nixon, in particular, made these cracks under vastly greater pressure than anything being applied to Trump right now. We know this about Trump, at the moment when much of the Republican party is deciding to line up behind him — and the lining-up goes on.
Near the end of today’s conference, Trump was asked whether the snarling at the press conference was a fair sample of how he’d deal with the press if he were president.
“Yes, it is going to be like this,” he said.