John Dean: The Gutless Press Is Still Giving Trump a Free Pass

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

Predictions about the mercurial Donald Trump are risky. Nonetheless, I cannot hesitate from making two, which some may view as rants but both are fact based.

First Prediction: Trump and the White House Press Corps

Trump has announced his core White House communications team: Sean Spicer, who has long been a spokesman at the Republican National Committee, will become White House press secretary.

Hope Hicks and Jason Miller, who have served as spokespersons for the campaign and transition, will become strategic communications director and communications director respectively at the White House—nondescript positions having something to do with communications.

Dan Scavino will be social media director—a post I’ve never heard of at the White House, but Twitter is important to Trump.

Finally, Kellyanne Conway, who served as Trump’s last campaign manager and as a senior adviser to the president-elect, will serve in the White House as a counselor. Presidential counselors typically have no line authority in the White House and rather float about doing what the president wants them to do in their area of expertise.

Related: Robert Reich: Four ways Trump undermines the free press

This media-relations team has been with Trump since the final days of his campaign and during the transition. No real staffing surprises, although rumor had Conway—the mother of four—not wanting to take on full-time work in Washington rather work for the nonprofit PAC being set up to push Trump policies outside of the government structure.

Kellyanne could have undoubtedly earned more money and had greater flexibility not being on the White House staff. Her post at the White House appears a win for Rebecka Mercer, the daughter of the billionaire hedge fund operator, who brought Kellyanne and Stephen Bannon into the final days of the Trump campaign—pushing their candidate across the winning finish line.

Before turning to my first prediction, allow me to note that notwithstanding Trump’s complaints about his negative press-coverage (“The lyin’ press”), in fact, given the circumstances, Trump has received undeservedly favorable press coverage.

Donald Trump at a press conference in North Dakota Donald Trump at a rare news conference in Bismarck, North Dakota, on May 26. Progressives must avoid falling into the five stages of liberal denial in order to combat populism, writes Cas Mudde. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

With a few exceptions, the news media has given him a pass on his failure to produce his tax returns and disclose the nature of his many businesses; he was given a pass on his self-confessed sexual assault of countless women; the press largely ignored his long-standing connections with well-known New York area drug dealers and organized crime figures and on and on and on.

In breaking with norm after norm that have sunk other presidential candidates, the news media has allowed Donald Trump to get away with criminally outrageous behavior, setting a new low for national leadership.

But my biggest complaint about the news coverage of Donald Trump, the politician, the presidential candidate, now the president-elect and soon to be the president of the United States, is his conspicuous and remarkable incompetence for the job.

The news media—less a few outspoken commentators and columnists—is pretending like anyone can be the president of the United States, no prior experience necessary.

News people seem to love his bellicose counterpunching, hurling attacks at anyone who pinches his thin skin. They excuse his ignorance, and when he doubles down to hide it, they are confident he is developing a new and carefully considered policy.

By any standard, the news media’s failure to address his utter lack of skills and knowledge to serve as president, the refusal to warn Americans and foreign nations that we are about to install a man who is totally unprepared for the job is breathtaking.

It was Leslie Moonves, executive chairman and CEO of CBS Television, who said of a potential Trump presidential campaign, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” But after he was elected, the mantra of the news business has not changed.

It appears Trump’s outrageous and democracy-threatening behavior is all about what is good for news organizations—and the end of democracy as we cherish it will be televised.

I really did believe that after he won the election the news business would get serious with Trump if he did not get serious about the business of governing this country, yet the news coverage of the transition of the most unqualified man ever elected to the White House is as weak and wishy-washy as it was at the outset of his campaign.

Given the license afforded the news business under the First Amendment, their collective conduct is approaching criminal negligence, standing by while Trump destroys the country so they can report the fall of America.

Of course, Trump’s election is not the first time Americans have chosen a president who knows little to nothing about the ways and means of Washington, not to mention the nation’s highest executive office: the presidency. To the contrary, it is something of a regular practice.

For example, in varying degrees Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all required on-the-job training, initially relying heavily on their Washington-seasoned vice presidents to assist them in getting their presidencies up and running.

While Donald Trump cannot hold a candle to any of these men as far as their interest in government, their prior experience at governing and their interest in performing well as president of the United States (a president-elect who is too smart to take the president’s daily intelligence briefing is not only too dumb to be president, but is not interested in the job), yet the news media examined the past presidents-elect far more intently than they are examining Trump.

While they are reporting on Trump, it is fluff stuff. It is information he wants reported. In the past, however, reporters were digging into who was doing what to get ready.

I scanned dozens upon dozens of transition stories all the way back to Jimmy Carter. For example, by August 9, 1976—some three months before the election—Laurence Stern had an in-depth story for The Washington Post, “Transition Unit at Work for Carter: Low-Profile Carter Group Working on Transition Plan.”

It was one of many such accounts, and the same occurred with Carter’s successor. Reporters Lee Lescaze and T.R. Reid began tracking Ronald Reagan right after his election, reporting the details of his plans for The Washington Post and never letting up.

James Perry, writing for The Wall Street Journal on November 18, 1992, explained that “Early Symbolic Acts of Administrations Have Lasting Effect” as he probed the transition of president-elect Bill Clinton, comparing it to predecessors.

Robert Pear reported “Behind the Scenes, Teams for Both Candidates Plan for a Presidential Transition” in the September 21, 2008, New York Times, about the work of both candidate John McCain and Barack Obama. To mention only a few.

News accounts, television reports and when they arrived blogs dug far deeper into past transitions than is now occurring with Trump.

My perusal of this material along with historical accounts after the fact reveal that pundits, historians and political reporters largely agreed that rookie presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama relied on their vice presidents (Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Joe Biden) most heavily at the outset, but after they devoted countless hours of study to learning about their new jobs, they relatively quickly came to understand the workings of the high office they held and became adept presidents.

Trump has made it clear he does not like briefing books, nor does he read history. This puts him alongside Reagan and Bush II, both of whom enjoyed the pomp of being heads of government, but they never stopped relying heavily on their vice presidents (George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney) for the daily grind of being head of the executive branch of government.

Watching the formation of Donald Trump’s presidency, the press coverage is disappointingly weak and thin. As president, he is clearly going to govern much like Reagan and Bush II, where someone else does the heavy lifting. But this conspicuous fact is being totally ignored in the transition news coverage.

Who is doing that lifting now: Vice President-elect Mike Pence? Chief-of-staff-designate Stephen Bannon? Son-in-law Jared Kushner? Daughter Ivanka? Outsider Rebekah Mercer?

And why are reporters unable to learn what is really going on in the Trump Tower transition operation?

The answer to these questions is clear. Transition coverage has been much like Trump campaign coverage, and it does not bode well for coverage of the Trump White House. The news media is so fixated with Trump himself, along with his endless need to consume all the oxygen in any room where they are all together, that they are totally ignoring how he is preparing for his presidency. This is what sells.

In addition, much of the mainstream press is afraid of Trump, fearful he will cut them off from all access. In fact, I predict he will do just that. Nixon did it. He occasionally banned reporters from the White House. He went around the White House press corps to state and local news organizations.

It has been almost 150 days since Trump held a press conference. Nixon used to go as long as he could, and unlike Trump, he was good at press conferences because he studied for days for them.

Trump is not good at press conferences because he does not have good answers for the questions he will likely be asked, not to mention he is not inclined to study and prepare, so he knows he will likely embarrass himself. Just as during the campaign, Trump is conspicuously unprepared to answer questions.

Trump is going to be much harder on the press than Nixon. He has seen their weakness and knows his core followers are with him. If the press was not collectively gutless, they would be yelling that we are watching a train wreck, but the news media is pretending this is not happening. Rather they are pretending that this is a normal presidential transition. Which brings me to my second prediction.

Second Prediction: Trump Will Breach His Oath of Office

It appears that at noon on January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

This will, of course, make him the president of the United States. I doubt, however, that Trump will honor his oath. My reason is rather simple, Donald Trump is far worse than Richard Nixon—a fact about which I will have more to say about in the future.

John W. Dean is a former counsel to President Richard Nixon.

Join the Discussion