Back in February, candidates for the Republican nomination for president debated each other in South Carolina. The Saturday evening discussion was raucous. Donald Trump did something downright shocking for a debate a few days before an important Republican primary. He went after the country’s last Republican president, George W. Bush. Hard. He went after the Republican Party’s general foreign policy approach. Hard.
Moderator John Dickerson asked him about his 2008 comments in favor of impeaching George W. Bush. He had said that year that Bush had “lied” to get the United States into a war in Iraq. Trump said to Dickerson:
Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? … The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake. George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East. … I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
Jeb Bush attempted to defend his brother’s honor, saying, “And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.”
Trump said, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that… That’s not keeping us safe.”
And on it went. Yes, many in the crowd booed. Yes, many Republicans opposed his conspiracy theories about George W. Bush. The media were able to report Trump’s challenges to Republican foreign policy without weighing in on the veracity of his claims. The most interesting thing of all? Trump easily won the South Carolina primary a week later with 33 percent of the vote.
Compare that little vignette with this week, when Donald Trump repeatedly said that President Obama and Hillary Clinton were founders/co-founders/MVPs of ISIS. Even though the media had more than shot their outrage wad for the week, the media doubled, tripled, even quadrupled down on their outrage for the Wednesday night-Thursday news cycle. Here are six problems with the media’s complete meltdown over the remarks.
1) Why Did This Become an Issue Now and Not 7 Months Ago?
Republicans who oppose Trump claim the media encouraged Trump when he was setting fire to Republican opponents but have fought him tooth and nail in the general. Ammunition for that claim includes the distinct ways the media have reacted to his long-standing claim that Obama and Clinton founded ISIS.
As the Washington Examiner notes, Trump said this three times in January alone:
‘They’ve created ISIS. Hillary Clinton created ISIS with Obama,’ he said during a campaign rally in Mississippi.
Trump restated the claim in an interview on CBS in July. ‘Hillary Clinton invented ISIS with her stupid policies,’ he said. ‘She is responsible for ISIS.’
He said it again during a rally in Florida one month later. ‘It was Hillary Clinton – she should take an award from them as the founder of ISIS.’
Needless to say, the media response to these comments was more bemused enabling than the abject horror they reserved for this week. The full media meltdown over something Trump has been saying all year long is at best odd and unbecoming. At worst, it suggests deep media corruption.
Listen, Trump might be an effective communicator with his core audience, but others have trouble understanding him. His speaking style couldn’t be more removed from the anodyne and cautious political rhetoric of our era. This can be a challenge for political journalists in particular. His sentences run on into paragraphs. He avoids specificity or contradicts himself when he doesn’t. His sentences trail into other sentences before they finish. He doesn’t play the usual games that the media are used to. It’s frustrating.
So the media immediately decided Trump was claiming that Obama had literally incorporated ISIS a few years back. And they treated this literal claim as a fact that needed to be debunked.
ISIS was actually founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. #factcheck
Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) August 11, 2016
"Fact-check: al-Baghdadi founded ISIS" pic.twitter.com/Df7NZMxPge
Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 11, 2016
Politifact gave the claim one of their vaunted “pants on fire” rulings:
The “fact” “check” admits that both President Barack Obama’s leadership in Iraq and Hillary Clinton’s push to change regimes in Libya led to the explosion of ISIS but says that since Trump said he really, totally, no-joke meant Obama and Clinton were co-founders, that they must give him a Pants On Fire rating.
Even ABC News had a piece headlined, “Obama Is Not the ‘Founder’ of ISIS – These Guys Are.” Nobody can be this stupid, not even our media.
As for the CNN chyron which appears to be deployed never in the case of Hillary Clinton’s many serious troubles with truth-telling, or when Joe Biden told black voters that Republicans were going to “put y’all back in chains,” but repeatedly in the case of Donald Trump speaking hyperbolically, this tweet is worth considering:
Does the media engage in this kind of autistic literalism when examining the comments of anyone but Trump? pic.twitter.com/NX3C3pMKm1
Robert Mariani (@robert_mariani) August 11, 2016
3) Failure to Do Due Diligence
On Thursday morning, Trump did a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt. The media clipped one part of his answer and used it to push a narrative that Donald Trump was super serial about Obama literally going to Baghdad, attending organizational meetings, and holding bake sales to launch his new organization ISIS.
HEWITT: I think you meant Obama created the vacuum that led to ISIS.
TRUMP: "No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS." pic.twitter.com/EMMlDXogl6
Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) August 11, 2016
Kapur’s tweet went viral but so did about eleventy billion other reporter tweets making the same point. The Guardian headline was “Trump reiterates he literally believes Barack Obama is the ‘founder of Isis’.”
You really need to listen to the interview to get the full flavor of how unjournalistic this narrative is.
Yes, Trump does reiterate over and over that Obama is the founder of ISIS. And yes, he says he really meant to say Obama founded ISIS. But that’s definitely not all. How hard is it to listen for an additional minute or read an additional few words? The relevant portion of the interview is from 15:25 to 16:53. So this is not a huge investment of your time.
First off, let’s note for our hyperliteral media that Trump says “I’m a person that doesn’t like insulting people” a few seconds before Hewitt asks about the ISIS comments. (Fact check: Pants on fire, amiright?) In this minute and a half, Trump says “I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.” Hewitt pushes back, saying that Obama is trying to kill ISIS. Trump says:
DT: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?
Here, journalists and pundits, is your first slap across the face that maybe, just maybe, Trump is not talking about articles of incorporation but, rather, something else entirely.
Hewitt says, yeah, but the way you’re saying it is opening you up to criticism. Was it a mistake? Trump says not at all. Obama is ISIS’s most valuable player. Then Trump asks Hewitt if he doesn’t like the way he’s phrasing all this! And here’s where journalists might want to put on their thinking caps and pay attention. Hewitt says he’d say that Obama and Hillary lost the peace and created a vacuum for ISIS, but he wouldn’t say they created it:
HH: I don’t. I think I would say they created, they lost the peace. They created the Libyan vacuum, they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say.
DT: Well, I disagree.
HH: All right, that’s okay.
DT: I mean, with his bad policies, that’s why ISIS came about.
DT: If he would have done things properly, you wouldn’t have had ISIS.
HH: That’s true.
DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.
HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.
DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?
Now, this is undoubtedly true. When people critique Obama’s policies as Hewitt did, the media either call the critic racist or ignore him. When Trump critiques Obama’s policies, they do talk about the way he does it. Maybe this means the message gets through to people.
No matter what, though, the media should have stuck through all 90 seconds of the discussion to avoid the idiotic claim that Trump was saying Obama was literally on the ground in Iraq running ISIS’ operations. He flat-out admits he’s speaking hyperbolically to force the media to cover it.
4) Pretending This Rhetoric Is Abnormal
People accuse their political opponents of being responsible for bad things all the time. Clinton accused Trump of being ISIS’ top recruiter. Bush’s CIA and NSA chief said Trump was a “recruiting sergeant” for ISIS. Former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani said Hillary Clinton could be considered a founding member of ISIS. Here was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, just a few weeks ago, making a completely false claim of Republican’s literal ties to ISIS:
.@ChrisMurphyCT said it right: The @SenateGOP have decided to sell weapons to ISIS.
Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 20, 2016
Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum placed blame for ISIS on Obama and Clinton. Sen. John McCain said Obama was “directly responsible” for the Orlando ISIS attack due to his failure to deal with the terror group. President Obama said he couldn’t think of a more potent recruiting tool for ISIS than Republican rhetoric in support of prioritizing help for Christians who had been targeted by the group. Last year, Vanity Fair published a piece blaming George W. Bush for ISIS. Heck, so did President Obama.
There are many other examples. This type of rhetoric may not be exemplary, but we shouldn’t pretend it’s unique to Trump.
5) Missing Actual Problems with His Comments
Huge kudos to BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski for avoiding the feigned outrage/fainting couch in favor of an important critique of Trump’s comments. He didn’t pretend to be confused by what Trump was saying. By avoiding that silliness, he noticed something much more problematic with Trump’s comments.
Trump has cited the conservative critique of President Obama’s Iraq policy — that the withdrawal of troops in 2011 led to a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to flourish — in making the claim.
‘He was the founder of ISIS, absolutely,’ Trump said on CNBC on Thursday. ‘The way he removed our troops — you shouldn’t have gone in. I was against the war in Iraq. Totally against it.’ (Trump was not against the war as he has repeatedly claimed.) ‘The way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, OK?’ Trump later said.
But lost in Trump’s immediate comments is that, for years, he pushed passionately and forcefully for the same immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq. In interview after interview in the later 2000s, Trump said American forces should be removed from Iraq.
Read the whole (brief) thing. One of the Trump quotes in the piece specifically has him acknowledging the civil unrest in Iraq that led to ISIS flourishing. It’s a devastating critique and a far smarter one than the silly hysteria on display elsewhere.
6) We’re Still Not Talking about Widespread Dissatisfaction with Our Foreign Policy
Let’s think back to the opening vignette. Trump went into the South in the middle of the Republican primary and ostentatiously micturated over George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. The voters of South Carolina rewarded him with a victory.
Here’s the real scandal in this outrage-du-jour: by pretending to think that Trump was claiming Obama had operational control over ISIS’ day-to-day decision making, the media failed to cover widespread dissatisfaction with this country’s foreign policy, whether it’s coming from George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
Many Americans are rather sick of this country’s way of fighting wars, where enemies receive decades of nation-building instead of crushing defeats, and where threats are pooh-poohed or poorly managed instead of actually dealt with.
Trump may be an uneven and erratic communicator who is unable to force that discussion in a way that a more traditional candidate might, but the media shouldn’t have to be forced into it. Crowds are cheering Trump’s hard statements about Obama and Clinton’s policies in the Middle East because they are sick and tired of losing men, women, treasure and time with impotent, misguided, aimless efforts there.
The vast majority of Americans supported invading Iraq, even if many of them deny they supported it now. Americans have lost confidence in both Republican and Democratic foreign policy approaches. No amount of media hysteria will hide that reality.