John Dean: Trump's Suicidal War with the Press

Charlie Rose speaks with Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, at the Economic Club of New York on October 27, 2016. John Dean writes that, just like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump is actively creating a deep reservoir of ill will with the political media. If he thinks they are being hard on him now, Dean says, he has no idea how it will be if he finds himself in trouble. They will end his presidency for him. Drew Angerer/Getty

This article first appeared on the Verdict's site.

Donald Trump has been dealing with the news media most of his adult life, which is much more than the average person who has become president of the United States.

As The New York Times recently explained, with time Trump learned how to control and manipulate the tabloid press of New York. Sometimes he used off-the-record sessions with reporters, a carrot and stick approach, and other times he actually became his own press spokesman, calling himself John Baron or John Miller, to spread rumors he wanted out, often relating to his sexual prowess. These guises, however, were an open secret in New York, but they worked for everyone involved.

The political press corps is much different from the tabloids, for they are interested in issues like a politician's character and policies, not merely gossip and the antics of a celebrity. Trump has not adjusted well to dealing with the political press. Indeed, his rocky relationship during his presidential primary campaign, and then the general election, were openly hostile, where he placed the news media in a small pen at the back of his rallies and often encouraged his supporters to boo them. But this relationship has become even worse now that he is president.

For example, Trump's 77-minute press conference at the White House on February 17 hit a historic low for the decorum at these events, with Trump exhibiting a mix of aggression and faux humor unlike anything previously witnessed.

It became clear at this event, if it was not already, that Trump has literally declared war on the mainstream news media, not merely calling them liars and purveyors of "fake news" but declaring them to be "enemies of the American people."

Related: John Dean: The gutless press is still giving Trump a free pass

As president, Trump is seeking to discredit and undercut the credibility of America's mainstream news media. He is not only calling them names but is denying them access at the White House while favoring a few conservative partisan media outlets, like the website Breitbart News—outlets that write only nice things about him, his staff and his policies.

This effort to manipulate media coverage is going to fail—and ultimately at the expense of the Trump presidency. Allow me to explain the three reasons: the existence of endless leaks, the First Amendment does work and the ill will Trump is creating for himself.

Endless Leaks

Before Trump was inaugurated, I tweeted that as president he would be confronted with unprecedented leaks. This was obvious for several reasons.

First, he treated the men and women who have made careers working for the federal government as fools and stupid during his anti-Washington presidential campaign, and during his transition he did absolutely nothing to repair the damage he had done. Running against Washington was popular with his low-information voter base, but offending hundreds of thousands of federal employees has created an extremely hostile atmosphere in Washington for the Trump administration.

In particular, there were Trump's attacks on the credibility of the intelligence departments and agencies that had determined that the Russian government had hacked Hillary Clinton's campaign—specifically Democratic National Committee and her manager John Podesta—and then leaked that information to WikiLeaks and others. Trump's refusal to acknowledge their findings had to be difficult for these professionals, some of whom literally risk their lives to get such information.

Trump made political hacks of men and women who have sacrificed high-paying private sector work for public service. For months, Trump refused to accept the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions regarding Russia's attack on our democracy and the efforts of one of our long-understood foreign adversaries to hurt Hillary and help him.

Add into the equation Trump's over-the-top embrace of Vladimir Putin and pro-Russia policies like dismantling NATO; surely these realities made the intelligence community appropriately suspicious of Trump and his team. Not only did Trump create a powerful adversary in his attacks on the intelligence community, but these are institutions that are essential to any president effectively dealing with national security matters once in the Oval Office. Now these institutions are leaking because they remain leery of Trump, who has done nothing to dispel suspicion.

In short, the federal bureaucracy in general, and the intelligence community in particular, is clearly hostile to Trump & Company personally, as well as their policies. They will continue to leak. It is also reported they are withholding information from Trump and his aides because they do not feel they can trust him with such intelligence.

Members of Congress, like Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, report that career federal employees are privately coming to Congress to provide information about the administration out of fear that Trump may destroy our democratic institutions. Trump has pushed his fight with the bureaucracy so far, most recently threatening to jail leakers, that it is difficult to see how he can repair the breach.

Given that he has been extraordinarily slow in filling political appointee jobs at the top of the executive branch, some 4,000 jobs, the bureaucracy only knows what it reads in the news, which has not been good.

Trump may want to drain the swamp, but he has created an information sieve for the executive branch. The leaks will be ongoing, and more difficult to deal with, as time passes.

The First Amendment

There is no provision of our Constitution that is more important and fundamental to our democracy than the freedom of the press and speech, as embodied in the First Amendment. Nor is there any element of our democracy that can cause Americans to turn on a politician more harshly than secrecy and the realization he is deceiving or manipulating them.

Consistently, polls of Americans show they overwhelmingly embrace the First Amendment and view the news media as a "watchdog" and check on government. Typical polls show about three-quarters of Americans consistently support the First Amendment's guarantees for freedom of speech and the press.

Trump's efforts to turn Americans against the mainstream media appear to be based on the fact that collectively the major news media is viewed less favorably than him.

Trump is starting his presidency with a remarkably low approval rating, ranging from 36 to 44 percent. The media is currently lower, with an approval rating in the 32 to 40 percent range. Newspapers and television news organizations are also in a transition phase, seeking a business model that works in the internet age, while the public is only slowly adjusting to the fact that they need to pay to get quality information.

It seems Trump feels that with his attacks on news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC, CNN, NBC and MSNBC—which have been aggressive in calling out his conspicuous lying as president and keeping the story about Russia's influence on the 2016 election very alive—he can bully them into submission.

Hopefully, he is wrong. It is not clear that he realizes that, in fact, he may be strengthening these news organizations.

While I have only anecdotal evidence at this time, based on conversations with friends, including some in the news business—and my own behavior—Trump's actions have caused many to deepen and broaden their news consumption and become willing to pay for it.

While I dropped my subscription to The Wall Street Journal when its editor said the paper would not call out Trump's lies for what they are, I have added several subscriptions elsewhere. And when I encouraged others to do likewise, I learned they are way ahead of me and have already done so.

In short, rather than turning people away from the solid journalism of our best news organizations, Trump may be reviving them. Friends in the news business tell me subscriptions are up, as are TV audiences, for good journalism.

I would bet that Americans will overwhelmingly opt for their First Amendment freedoms—which promote an independent press rather that journalism that is little more than a propaganda outlet for Trump—becoming the norm. As the leaks continue, an even stronger news media will broadcast or publish them after verifying that they are well-based factual information.

Creating Ill Will

Beating up on the American news media played well with Trump's core supporters, as did his campaign against "political correctness," which is better understood as civility, and his ugly campaign got him elected. But his escalated war over the reporting of stories he does not like by major news organizations will not help him govern. To the contrary, in the end it will hurt his presidency.

Trump lost the popular vote by some 3 million votes. His win was far more narrow than he likes to portray it. Members of Congress from seemingly safe Republican districts, not to mention Republicans from districts that Hillary Clinton won or lost by only a few percentage points, are finding themselves confronted by constituents who have never before spoken out about, or protested, their representation in Congress.

Trump's presidency has provoked widespread local activism against him and his policies. This activism is largely unorganized. But Democrats and progressives are getting their act together and organizing at the local, statewide and national levels to protest against Trump's presidency. This fact has not escaped the attention of Republicans in Congress.

Trump is not a creature of Republican politics, and he did more for the GOP than they did for him in winning the presidency. He and the congressional leaders are going to have differences, given the "economic nationalists" he has gathered on his White House staff and the few core beliefs that he had before becoming president.

These differences are most likely to develop later this year, and there are a number of 2017 elections, such as Virginia's. If the anti-Trump activism translates into Democratic victories in the elections this year, members of Congress will start to distance themselves from Trump. If any of the investigations that are just commencing into Russia's role in the election show collusion with the Trump campaign, or Trump's bromance with Putin is based on more than ignorance, or Trump's financial interests prove to be deeply entangled in Russian money—well, his presidency may quickly unravel.

Just like Richard Nixon, Trump is actively creating a deep reservoir of ill will with the political media. If he thinks they are being hard on him now, he has no idea how it will be if he finds himself in trouble. They will end his presidency for him.

He will find the supposed "enemies of the American people" are actually their friend, not his.

John W. Dean was a counsel to President Richard Nixon.