President Donald Trump fends off criticism with a simple tactic: He dismisses anyone who disagrees with him, often linking the person to prominent Democrats. During an interview on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked the president about his portrayal of “the fake-news media” as “the enemy of the American people.” Wallace tried to bring up a quote on that subject from retired Admiral William McRaven, the Navy SEAL and special-operations commander who led the operation that captured Osama bin Laden.
Trump interrupted. “Hillary Clinton fan,” he said, as if that should end the conversation. Wallace tried to continue. “Excuse me,” Trump interrupted again, bouncing his head to emphasize each word: “Hillary. Clinton. Fan.”
McRaven had warned last year that the demonization of a free press “may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.” Then, in August, after Trump revoked the security clearance of the former CIA Director John Brennan, a fierce critic, McRaven asked Trump to revoke his clearance so that he could join the ranks of those who have spoken out against Trump’s presidency. In an open letter to Trump published in The Washington Post, McRaven wrote:
Like most Americans, I had hoped that when you became president, you would rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs.
A good leader tries to embody the best qualities of his or her organization. A good leader sets the example for others to follow. A good leader always puts the welfare of others before himself or herself.
Your leadership, however, has shown little of these qualities. Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.
If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.
After Wallace brought up McRaven’s quote about demonizing the media, Trump dismissed the widely respected flag officer through guilt by association and abruptly pivoted to question his achievements. While many politicians deploy abrupt pivots, “whataboutism” is one of the most important devices in Trump’s rhetorical toolbox.
“He’s a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer. Frankly, wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” The president complained that elements of the government in Pakistan, an ostensible U.S. ally, likely helped hide the terrorist leader within a mile of the national military academy. He used that common complaint to ask why the hunt for bin Laden took 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, seeming to question McRaven’s competence. But the most damning thing, the reason to disregard anything McRaven said, was his alleged allegiance to Democrats.
In fact, the admiral never endorsed any presidential candidate in 2016, unlike many other retired military leaders who signed letters of support for Trump or Clinton. His name was on a long list of possible vice-presidential nominees that Clinton’s campaign chairman sent in an email, which was hacked by Russia and published by WikiLeaks. While they were both top national-security officials in 2012, he had introduced Clinton, then secretary of state, to a Florida conference as “without a doubt one of the finest public servants ever to serve this great nation.” Though this praise doesn’t sound extraordinary for a top military officer introducing a Cabinet secretary, conservatives such as the Tea Party group Empower Texans have seized on it as evidence of McRaven’s partisanship.
As for the charge that the admiral was “an Obama backer,” it seems that simply working for the federal government during the time Obama was president is enough to paint someone as a die-hard Democrat. McRaven responded to Trump later on Sunday in an interview with CNN: “I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else. I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for. I admire all presidents, regardless of their political party, who uphold the dignity of the office and who use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times.”
McRaven said he stood by his comment that “the president’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime. When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.”
Another example of Trumpian denigration: the special counsel investigating possible collusion between his 2016 campaign and the Russians, whom he described in a tweet last week as “the highly conflicted Bob Mueller, who worked for Obama for 8 years.” Mueller, who was a registered Republican, served as FBI director from his 2001 appointment by President George W. Bush until 2013—which adds up to four years while Obama was president, not the eight years Trump claimed. Inherent in Trump’s argument is the idea that a top law-enforcement leader is untrustworthy if he worked in government while a Democrat was president.
Fox’s Wallace was cognizant of this loyalty test, opening his questions on media attacks by pointing out that Trump himself had appointed the judge who last week blocked his effort to strip CNN’s Jim Acosta of a White House press pass, as if any Obama-appointed judge would have been suspect. In their interview, taped Friday at the White House, Wallace said of the president’s “fake news” denunciations, “A lot of times it’s just news you don’t like.” Trump looked down and shook his head. “Nope, nope,” he said. “I don’t mind getting bad news if I’m wrong.”
The president rarely backs down or admits error, so it follows that he thinks there should rarely be critical news coverage. Except for rare occasions—in the interview with Wallace, he said he should have visited Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day—he deflects. He takes the politician’s art of blaming others to an extreme, faulting Democrats for legislative failures such as the unsuccessful Obamacare repeal, even though the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress. When asked last month on 60 Minutes whether he had any regrets, he answered, “I regret that the press treats me so badly.”
When pressed to point to a possible mistake, he said only that he might have moved faster on his renegotiation of the NAFTA trade pact. In this week’s interview, when Wallace asked him to compare his presidency to those of Lincoln and other historical leaders, Trump gave himself an A-plus.
“Is that enough?” he asked. “Can I go higher than that?”
“I’m totally in favor of free press,” Trump told Wallace. “It’s gotta be a fair press.” The Fox News anchor tried to push the idea of independent journalism: “[Does] the president get to decide what’s fair and what’s not?” The president responded, “I can tell what’s fair and what’s not.”
The right-wing-media ecosystem has expanded in the Trump era, partly because some supporters view even Fox News as too critical of the president. Outlets such as One America News Network and Right Side Broadcasting Network offer a cozy cocoon of cheerleading coverage, seeking to broadcast live from all of Trump’s many campaign rallies leading up to the midterms, allowing fans to circumvent the mainstream media.
Americans today can construct their own reality based on the partisan news sources they follow. In Trump’s world, the merit of an idea appears to matter less than the perceived ideology—or political affiliation, or closeness to Hillary Clinton—of its source.