On a cold, Groundhog Day afternoon, President Donald Trump skulked out of the White House, dragging his knuckles and waving at the press while ignoring our questions as he boarded Air Force One. Since he fired James Comey as his FBI director in May 2017, his administration has adopted a bunker mentality that has worsened in the past two months.
The president hasn’t held a press conference in a year. His administration hasn’t held a press briefing in the last 10 days. His press office routinely ignores emails, his wranglers hassle reporters and he himself just tweets his thoughts, shooing reporters in and out of the Oval Office for brief visits while occasionally taking a question on the South Lawn.
The president is a fan of transparency. We know this because this is what he tells us, even when he refuses to answer our questions. We also know this because Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell—the stray dogs Trump has leashed and defanged—told us this from a retreat in West Virginia on Thursday. Finally, we know this because the Honorable Devin Nunes, a man destined to wear orange and the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released a classified memo he penned and then got declassified by Donald Trump. The memo, according to them, demonstrates how the Justice Department is biased against the president.
By releasing The Memo, the administration and its lapdogs (Mitch and Paul, woof) are showing us just how outstandingly transparent they truly are. Forget the fact that we still don’t know who’s logged visits to the White House, or the names of Trump’s foreign investors, or what’s in his tax returns. But by golly, our president is on the side of law and order. Truth and the American Way. Jingoism and shallow promises. You get the idea.
Legal scholars point out The Memo does not contain any information that proves the FBI acted illegally to gain warrants.
The Memo has been the subject of discussion all week in D.C. “I feel dirty covering this story,” an international reporter lamented Friday afternoon after the president declassified The Memo. “I feel like we’ve been played. He told us three days ago he was going to release it. We keep asking, when? When? He does it. We do another story. And the real issues we ignore.”
Some have referred to The Memo as a “nothing burger.” The most notable line, marked in bold face, is a comment supposedly by Christopher Steele, the former British agent responsible for writing a compromising dossier on the president, about how he was desperate for Trump to lose the election.
The Memo’s biggest claim is that then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe told the House Intelligence Committee a surveillance warrant wouldn’t have been issued for one-time Trump campaign adviser Carter Page without Steele’s dossier. The rub is that The Memo alleges that Steele had been paid by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to produce his dossier.
For those in the president’s camp, that’s enough to prove a Deep State conspiracy. “The memorandum raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the Government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Friday afternoon.” The rest of The Memo contained little that hadn’t already reported and, as many legal scholars have pointed out, it does not contain any information that proves the FBI acted illegally to gain warrants. It also doesn’t mention that Page had been under investigation since 2013, years before he joined the Trump Brigade.
The Memo has rankled even the GOP. “The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests—no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain tweeted. “Hahahahaha this is the whole memo? The big deep state scandal to take down Trump was about surveillance of Carter Page who had been an FBI target for years before the dossier?” former Jeb Bush staffer and Republican operative Tim Miller tweeted.
While Trump said top leadership at the FBI and Justice Department politicized the “sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans,” the GOP leaders who’ve stood up to the president dispute it and believe it is the president who’s politicizing. “No, Mr. President it’s worse than that. The country’s top elected leader has agreed to selectively and misleadingly release classified info to attack the FBI—that’s what would have been unthinkable a short time ago,” Democrat Adam Schiff replied.
The truth? Well, that rarely comes into play in a White House that is insecure, vindictive, conniving and humorless.
Hunter S. Thompson once said of Richard Nixon that he could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. Trump? He doesn’t bother shaking your hand. If you’re not “on his team” with fealty, the knife comes out quick and dirty like a New Jersey Mafia don who garrotes snitches and stabs pimps.
The president is plotting to remove everyone from the Justice Department who believes in independence.
In the past, the president’s broadsides have been reserved mostly for the Democrats, but Comey, Christopher Wray, Robert Mueller, Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein are all Republicans. The simple fact is that the president is slowly but surely plotting to remove everyone from the Justice Department who believes in independence and the rule of law. It’s the move of a despot, and a desperate one at that.
Nothing brings that home more than Trump skulking away on Air Force One on Friday. There in the cold, the assembled members of the press tried to stay warm. Next to me was a young reporter from The Examiner. I was prepared to ask the president two questions as he left the Oval Office. And I did. I asked him if he was going to fire Rosenstein and when he was going to have a real news conference. He smiled, waved and said little else.
Then, the reporter from The Examiner asked, “Did you have sex with the porn star?”
There is no such thing as a bad question—only bad answers. So I couldn’t help but laugh. What if he had said yes?
Shortly after, our press-wrangling escort showed up to walk us back into the press room. It was the makeup lady Katie Price again, the same woman who had yelled at me in the Rose Garden less than two weeks ago about my questioning technique.
This time, as CNN’s Jim Acosta and I walked back into the White House, she went after Acosta. He reminded her in a calm tone that she shouldn’t touch him. She said she didn’t grab him. He agreed. But, “You shouldn’t touch me,” he reminded her.
She went off and began screaming that the press shouldn’t ask questions, that we showed no respect. “It’s called democracy,” a photographer shouted as a small group of us pressed back into the building.
“It’s rude. You should show respect,” she shouted. “It’s called the First Amendment,” I replied. “It’s our job.” “Learn some respect,” she shouted again. “You all didn’t do this to anybody else!” “We’ve been doing it the last 200 years. It’s our job!” the photographer yelled back.
Acosta and I moved quietly, both shaking our heads. We walked in the back door of the press room, convinced that a woman hired to do makeup should never be involved in wrangling the press. Again, I wondered what we had to do to get a few civics classes under her belt.
The behavior of this makeup artist turned press wrangler is indicative of the entire administration: unfit for the job, arrogant, defensive and intent on spreading ignorance far and wide while feigning indignation, especially when those of us educated in democratic processes react strongly against totalitarianism.
For all his blustering, Trump remains as Thompson once described Nixon: “For years I’ve regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”