There are few pithier ways to broach the strange story of the rise and fall of Monica Crowley’s career in the White House than the title of her 2012 book, What the (Bleep) Just Happened?
Here is what the bleep just happened: Crowley was busted for plagiarizing, from a variety of sources, in dozens of cases in that book. A few days later, she was busted for plagiarizing in her 2000 Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University. A few days after that, CNN’s KFile, which found the original thefts, revealed that the dissertation pilfering was even more extensive. And on Monday, Crowley announced she would not take a job on the National Security Council in the Trump administration.
Crowley is the first bonafide scalp for Trump’s critics, although a relatively minor (if amusingly amateurish) one. But the brief episode is potentially instructive. It comes at a time when the Trump administration is escalating its feud with the press, portraying it as entirely irrelevant to the president-elect, but it shows the ways the White House-in-waiting is susceptible to media pressure.
Though Trump has been dismissive of the media throughout his brief political career, he has been particularly bellicose in recent days, since reports emerged about an intelligence dossier full of lurid allegations of both the personal and political varieties about him. His first press conference as president-elect, which he did not hold until nine days before his inauguration, kicked off with stern scoldings from spokesman Sean Spicer, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and then Trump himself. During the press conference, he dismissed a request to release his tax returns, saying, “You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, OK? They’re the only who ask.” This is false—polls show a majority of voter want him to produce the documents—but he insisted his electoral victory invalidated the request. Since he’d won, Trump argued, the press was irrelevant.
Over the weekend, another tiff broke out after incoming Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said the new administration might evict the White House press corps from its lodgings in the West Wing, perhaps to the Old Executive Office Building next door, which also includes administration offices. Priebus and other Trump aides said no decision has been made yet, though the White House Correspondents Association moved to condemn even the idea.
“I made clear that the WHCA would view it as unacceptable if the incoming administration sought to move White House reporters out of the press work space behind the press briefing room,” WHCA President Jeff Mason told Politico. “Access in the West Wing to senior administration officials, including the press secretary, is critical to transparency and to journalists’ ability to do their jobs.”
The Trump transition team was also initially dismissive of the stories about Crowley. “HarperCollins—one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world—published her book which has become a national best-seller,” a spokesperson told CNN. “Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.” That was the party line right up until the moment when Crowley announced she would not take the job. “After much reflection, I have decided to remain in New York to pursue other opportunities and will not be taking a position in the incoming administration,” she said.
In some ways, Crowley’s demise seemed inevitable. The transition team’s borrowing of HarperCollins’ credibility evaporated as soon as the publisher announced it was yanking Crowley’s book while it assessed the content. And since Crowley’s resume was built on her Ph.D. and her career as a pundit— she has little in the way of government national-security experience—there was no real justification for her job once those pillars were knocked out.
Or rather, it would have seemed inevitable in what used to be thought of as normal times. But given the extent to which Trump defied standard procedure, surviving a range of moments during the campaign that almost certainly would have been fatal for any other candidate, and given his defiance of the press, it wasn’t inconceivable that Crowley would try ride out the storm.
There are a few possible lessons to be drawn from this. One is that when you’re caught with hands as red as Crowley’s, there’s simply no good comeback. A second, related one is that Trump was far more willing to jettison a minor figure like Crowley than he would be a closer confidant or a Cabinet candidate, and indeed stories about other nominees, from Rex Tillerson to Tom Price to Scott Pruitt, have not derailed them so far.
There are more structural lessons as well. The White House press corps has been the subject of a long string of critiques in recent years. The reporters in the Brady Briefing Room are squeezed on two sides—by successive administrations that have worked to close off their access to the president as much as possible, and by the impression (not unrelated) that few big stories come out of the White House beat anyway. In a column over the weekend, Jack Shafer celebrated Trump’s rise as the logical end of this process:
Reporters must treat Inauguration Day as a kind of Liberation Day to explore news outside the usual Washington circles. He has been explicit in his disdain for the press and his dislike for press conferences, prickly to the nth degree about being challenged and known for his vindictive way with those who cross him. So, forget about the White House press room. It’s time to circle behind enemy lines.
That means focusing in other directions, from executive-branch agencies to Congress, Shafer wrote. The Crowley stories are one example of that, and it’s a juicy slab of poetic justice that they were spearheaded by CNN—the very network Trump ignored and berated as “fake news” during his press conference.
But Trump’s repeated claims that the press was irrelevant and powerless should never have been taken at face value, and Crowley’s withdrawal underscores this. Trump’s political genius was not in steering away from the press. It was recognizing how important the press was and figured out ways to marshal it to his own ends. When he blasted the press as powerless early in the campaign, it was disingenuous posturing. Throughout his career as a businessman, Trump grasped the power of using the media to his own ends, and that may be the most important lesson he brings to Washington. (By the end of the campaign, his attacks on the media seemed to become personal, as he got angrier and angrier at the stories about him.) The Crowley affair shows that while the president-elect may be unusually skilled at manipulating the press, he is not omnipotent.