There is a lot to worry about with regard to Donald Trump’s posture toward Russia. In a campaign where he has flipped and flopped on nearly every policy issue around, he’s been stridently consistent on his support for Russia. He has praised Vladimir Putin repeatedly. He got the Republican Party to change their platform positions challenging Russia’s treatment of Ukraine.
Trump says he wouldn’t honor our NATO obligations, a position Russia has advanced. He would honor Russia’s seizure of Crimea, rejects criticisms of Russia’s targeted assassinations of journalists, and so on and so forth. Apart from these policy positions, conservatives have been sounding the alarm about possible Russian involvement in the election for months.
Support for Russia may be one of the few consistent policy positions Trump holds, and he holds it strongly.
The media should be on top of this, as Americans might have legitimate concern with his friendliness to the hostile state actor. But their collective freakout over his press conference earlier today shows how ill-suited they are to handling this topic.
In his press conference, during which he spoke at length with the media, he said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Immediately the press responded with outrage, saying he had “called on Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email, in an unprecedented request for a rival power to influence a presidential election though cyber attacks.”
Afterwards he doubled down on his message, “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
1) Hitting The Fainting Couch Too Quickly
The media all agreed Trump was calling on Russia to commit espionage in order to influence a U.S. election.
Here’s how the New York Times blared out the news:
The top story at the Washington Post right now is headlined, “Trump urges Russia to hack Clinton’s emails and release them publicly.” CNN went with, “Donald Trump encourages Russia to hack Hillary Clinton.”
Here’s what he said after the original mention of the 30,000 emails that Hillary Clinton deleted from the server she set up to avoid the U.S. government’s secure email system. Clinton has previously said the emails were about yoga, wedding planning, and other unimportant matters:
‘They probably have them. I’d like to have them released. It gives me no pause, if they have them, they have them,’ Trump added later when asked if his comments were inappropriate. ‘If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.’
Trump’s communication style is one that works well on many voters, and is not known in any way, shape, or form for its specificity. First he says he hopes Russia finds the emails. Then he says “they probably have them” and “if they have them, they have them.”
What too few journalists covering this man understand is that his style is to throw something out there and not really stand behind it. See if it floats. It is entirely legitimate to read his words as saying he’d like Vladimir Putin to personally go out there and hack Hillary’s server, except that can’t be exactly what he’s saying, since that server is now not in a hackable situation. Sure, Hillary Clinton exposed national interests to such hacking for years upon years, but that’s not the real threat now. They either have them or they don’t. At this point, what difference does it make, amiright?
But the point is that his jokey highlighting of Hillary Clinton’s claim that she deleted 30,000 personal emails about yoga is not really the same thing as calling on Russia to currently hack information that they in all likelihood took years ago. Perhaps a tempering of the headlines and framing is in order. This is particularly a good idea when Trump — and voters who support him or lean toward supporting him — find it so easy to dismiss breathless reports when they seem overwrought.
Missing the Actual Message(s) Trump Conveyed
By focusing on this idea that Trump wants Russia to spend the next few days hunting down 30,000 personal emails with no national security implications, the media are missing what is actually going on.
Most media are immune to it, but Trump is actually pretty good at sending out top-level messaging. Here’s some of what an average listener might hear today while the media heard Trump asking for Russian control of the country:
It’s not safe for Hillary Clinton to be briefed on national security. That’s actually exactly what Trump said in this press conference: “I don’t think that it’s safe to have Hillary Clinton…be briefed on national security.” She is not secure with her information. Then her own people went out and elevated the idea that 30,000 emails about yoga weren’t really about yoga but that her mismanagement of same constitutes a national security threat. What a bunch of amateurs! That so plays into Trump’s message, it’s not even funny.
The system is rigged to favor Hillary Clinton. When FBI Director James Comey laid out a detailed case for how Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information and then announced he was going to let her get away with it, many people thought he’d done her a favor. He may have sealed her fate, though. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe Clinton acted unethically and 56 percent say she broke the law. And she got away with it. The media may be fine with that, but Americans are not. This topline message serves Trump, not Clinton.
How bad are the things Hillary Clinton is hiding, exactly? Comey showed that everything Clinton had said about her private server was false. Sean Trende noted that average Americans listening to the press conference would have their curiosity piqued. As he put it, “What lots of people heard: “Don’t *you* want to know what are in those e-mails/If Russians hacked her here, where else?” The freakout by those on the Left only confirms people’s suspicion that Clinton didn’t delete yoga emails, but emails that contained far more sensitive information. Otherwise, why would they care so much if Russia released them?
Man, does Hillary Clinton have bad judgment. A freakout about 30,000 yoga emails only highlights all the time that has to be wasted to cover up for Clinton’s legendarily bad-decision making processes. If she can’t handle emails about yoga — if they are even about yoga — what else can’t she handle? She sure can’t handle the Russian Reset.
Media Too Partisan, Unevenly Outraged
During his press conference, Trump called out Katy Tur of MSNBC. Here’s how Politico described the scene:
Tur asked Trump whether he has ‘any qualms about asking a foreign government … to hack into a system of anybody’s in this country’ after Trump said he hoped Russia would find more emails from Hillary Clinton or the DNC.
‘Hey, you know what gives me more pause, that a person in our government, crooked Hillary Clinton — here’s what gives me more pause,’ Trump said, as Tur tried to ask follow-ups. ‘Be quiet, I know you want to, you know, save her. That a person in our government, Katy, would delete or get rid of 33,000 emails. That gives me a big problem. After she gets a subpoena. She gets subpoenaed, and she gets rid of 33,000 emails. That gives me a problem.’
Even apart from the fact that trust in media is at historic lows, this is what happens after decades of hyperpartisan coverage. The reason saying “I know you want to save Hillary Clinton” stings is because everyone knows it’s true. It’s not just true of Clinton, it’s true of nearly every Democratic officeholder in the land. There are consequences to unfair coverage, and one of them is that it’s hard to take media freakouts seriously anymore.
The media have spent the better part of the last 40 years crying wolf about every single conservative office seeker in the land, painting them as “successors to George Wallace.” The dog doesn’t hunt anymore, and just at the time it might be needed.
If the media had been even a fraction as outraged by Hillary Clinton’s server, her shady lies, her foundation’s solicitation of funds from oligarchs and dictatorships while she served as secretary of State, the revelation that foreign governments had almost certainly hacked her information, this freakout by the media would come off very differently.
If the media had not spent 2012 mocking Mitt Romney for his “gaffe” of saying that Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat, if they had cared when Ted Kennedy asked the Soviets to intervene in the 1984 Democratic primary, if they briefly interrupted worship at Barack Obama’s feet when he made hot-mic promises to Russians, and so on and so forth, this would be a different story.
The media may be more outraged by calls for Russia to release emails about yoga, but for many people it’s just a reminder of how Hillary Clinton’s willful mishandling of classified information threatened national security.