Politico recently broke the story that Trump is currently using an unsecured phone, having decided that the monthly security check-up and phone replacement was “too inconvenient.” This is a pretty big deal because a smartphone is a prime target for foreign espionage. Trump carries a couple of unsecured phones, one for calls and one equipped with Twitter.
It’s not tough to imagine a scenario where someone gains access to his Twitter account and uses it for nefarious purposes to tweet that a nuclear war just started or to tweet something that sends the stock market into a panic for the benefit of some dirty trickster. But he also frequently talks with his friends and has been pretty cavalier about sharing classified information. Additionally, the call-enabled phone has a camera and microphone, which could be activated surreptitiously to listen into private meetings or gather blackmail material. It would almost be stupid for, let’s say, North Korea to not try to hack Trump’s phone.
In some ways it’s similar to Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Being presented with the inconvenience of not being able to connect her phone to the State Department server, Clinton opted to conduct her official business on a private—and secured—email server in her home.
In the grand scheme of things, Clinton’s mistake was fairly minor and there’s been no evidence (despite the breathless exhortations of Republicans during the 2016 election) that her server was hacked. But that didn’t stop the reality-warping right-wing outrage machine from spinning the story into a full-blown scandal and declaring Clinton not only unfit for office, but a criminal who deserved to be “locked up.”
But the worst part of this story is that the GOP and their allies in right-wing media found a willing accomplice to their Big Lie in the mainstream press.
As Jonathan Chait writes, “Clinton’s sloppy info-sec story blossomed into a narrative that overwhelmed every other aspect of her campaign. In 2016, Gallup surveyed voters and found the email story crowding out every other thing they had heard about Clinton:”
Brian Beutler tackled the same subject today, writing,
“It has been largely airbrushed out of popular lore, replaced with gauzy platitudes about populism, but the 2016 election turned to a comical degree on a fabricated consensus of Republicans and the political media that strict adherence to information security protocols was a central qualification not just for the presidency but for the liberty of public officials. Specifically, Republicans pretended to believe Hillary Clinton had committed a disqualifying and imprisonable crime by using a personal email server to do work when she was secretary of state, and reporters pretended to believe that these infosec concerns were offered up in good faith.
The notion that Republicans didn’t actually care about infosec practices, and that reporters knew they didn’t care, isn’t just bitter gloss on bygone reporting decisions. It is a fact reporters themselves have let on in their collective response to serial Trump-era infosec lapses. It is so taken for granted in the halls of power that Republicans don’t actually care about this issue, and never did, that nobody even bothers to ask them to square their hair-on-fire behavior in 2016 with their insouciance today. Two years ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly and publicly requested that Clinton be stripped of her security clearance because of her email practices. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Trump phone-breach story broke, he held a routine Capitol briefing for reporters and fielded zero questions about it.”
This stunning double standard presents a real, persistent problem for the press and it’s one that could get worse before it gets better. Trump’s presidency has few popular accomplishments for his allies in the right-wing media to crow about. The GOP tax cut, Trump’s signature legislative achievement, remains woefully unpopular. The Obama-era regulations he’s wiping out don’t move the needle with voters either. While ICE is working overtime to make misery in immigrant communities across the country, Trump’s wall remains unbuilt.
Additionally, Trump is currently mired in so many shockingly indefensible scandals that the only recourse for his allies in Congress and right-wing media is to deflect attention elsewhere and project Trump’s own shady dealings on his perceived opponents. That’s why Hannity leads off every night with the latest in… Hillary Clinton scandals.
This dynamic is also why they’re all desperately trying to sling mud at the Mueller investigation. To Fox News and the Freedom Caucus, Mueller is the lawless one and the REAL threat to democracy. The GOP and right-wing media are criminalizing normal behavior and normalizing criminal behavior, and they’re being rewarded for it.
Trump’s lack of accomplishments and shameless corruption reinforce this poisonous dynamic, but his utter mendacity is what throws it into overdrive. Because consumers of right-wing news are cloistered in their rage bubble, sealed off from non-partisan sources of information, Trump figured out he could just lie without repercussion, sending his boosters scrambling to back him up. That’s how we got Devin Nunes’ phony “unmasking” scandal after Trump tweeted that Obama wiretapped him.
Right-wing media has taken the cue from Dear Leader, and—unfettered by any notion of reporting objective truth—has been busy concocting phony scandals of their own. That’s why Hannity harped on the conspiracy theory DNC employee Seth Rich was murdered for leaking information to Wikileaks until the whole thing fell apart and Rich’s family sued Fox for defamation. Even low-level grifters like Diamond & Silk have gotten in on the fake scandal game, baselessly accusing Facebook of “censoring” their page with a heavy assist from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
The incentives for Trump and the right-wing outrage industrial complex to feign offense, muddy the waters, and outright lie are stronger than they were in 2016 while any disincentives have all but vanished. Caught in the middle of these transparent attacks on objective truth is the non-partisan news media tasked with informing the electorate of the current state of affairs in the country and what’s at stake in the next election.
So far, the mainstream media seems ill-equipped to deal with the new task of sorting through—and reporting on—right-wing subterfuge. As Beutler puts it,
“If the standard journalists set for themselves is that anything Republicans claim to be outraged about must be treated as a live controversy, then journalists disclaim a major potential point of failure, and become conduits for propaganda. This insulates media organizations from accountability for their handling of the email server matter, but also guarantees that the patterns of the past years will repeat themselves.”
Jonathan Chait offers a similarly grim conclusion,
“Maintaining one’s intellectual and moral standards is difficult in a political system in which one party operates without either. America elected a president in large part on a platform of demanding adherence to Executive branch information security so rigorous that a violator ought to be locked up. What do we do when we obtain retroactive proof that that entire claim, endorsed without reservation even by Republicans who blanched at other aspects of his platform, was a lie? Just walk away?”
This toxic feedback loop puts those on the left, who value a free and impartial press, in a bind. In some ways, piling on the media for playing Trump’s game—especially at a time when faith in the press as an institution is low—is ALSO playing Trump’s game. He wins either way.
The only solution is for the media to adapt to the new landscape and shed their traditional “both sides” coverage, where partisan actors are treated as equal and opposite players in the same game, with the same rules, and call out Trump and the right-wing media for what they are—liars.