Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on New Year’s resolutions that would bring a welcomed change in Washington for President Donald Trump, the Congress, and the media. While I have little illusions over the chances of either such resolutions being made or kept, it is worth noting that all of the major players could do well with a modicum of self-reflection with the New Year.
For most of us, the New Year is not just a look forward but a look back at all of the things we did (and ate) that we regret. While New Year’s resolutions often have a half-life of mere hours, even the pretense of self-evaluation has a redemptive role in our lives. So here are a few suggestions for Washington.
The resolution that most White House staff would dearly love President Trump to consider is as simple as it is fruitless: Stop tweeting. Trump’s tweets are the single most damaging element to his administration. In multiple court cases, Trump effectively became a witness against his own policies. This was made worse by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who declared that all of the president’s tweets were presidential statements like those contained in executive orders. The result is that opinion after opinion cited Trump’s tweets as a basis to enjoin major policies and dismiss the arguments of the Justice Department.
In a perfect world, Trump could further resolve not to speak about pending litigation. The special counsel investigation would not have occurred absent Trump’s firing of former FBI director James Comey and his later comments about the investigation and underlying facts and personalities. While the tweets maintain Trump’s base, he cannot succeed as president with 30 percent of the voters energized by morning missives. It is said that generals fail because they always prepare to fight the last war. Twitter may have helped Trump as a candidate in 2016, but it could guarantee that he fails as a president by 2020.
The most obvious resolution for Congress could be hard for many to actually proclaim with a straight face: Stop the hypocrisy over investigations. Democratic members have been energized by the investigations of the Trump administration involving potential Russian influence and campaign improprieties. However, when asked about serious allegations against Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Democratic figures, they are entirely obstructionist. From the Russian dossier to political influence in the investigation of the Clinton campaign, members insist that “the presidential campaign is over,” except for the Trump campaign.
Republicans are no better. Members who want to reopen Clinton investigations are also calling for the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller as a way to end the Russian investigation, a move that would be stupefyingly dumb. Terminating Mueller as a logical way to end the Russian investigation is akin to viewing the Hindenburg explosion as a logical way to land a zeppelin.
Both sides could gain needed credibility by recognizing that the public is equally divided on these allegations. Recent polls show roughly the same percentages of people who believe and disbelieve the allegations against Trump and Clinton. Given the importance of these allegations, members should join together and resolve to fully investigate and disclose the facts on both sides, rather than work to manipulate the investigations to shield their party while attacking the other.
The media should not have to make a resolution of neutrality, that being the very definition of the journalistic profession. Journalists are trained to maintain objectivity as a professional touchstone. Most do, though we have seen a surprising erosion under President Trump. His continued attacks on the media have united journalists to an almost unprecedented degree. While I have criticized the media for some coverage that has become dangerously biased, I continue to view Trump’s attacks on the media as equally dangerous to our system. Nevertheless, many journalists have used Trump’s attacks as a license to openly oppose his policies and shade coverage against his administration.
The fact is that Trump is the menace that the media could not do without. Major newspapers and networks have had a reversal of fortunes under Trump. For them, after facing serious financial problems in 2016, Trump has been a bonanza for ratings and profits. The problem is that these ratings have prompted networks to become echo chambers for viewers who only want to hear attacks or accolades for Trump.
The greatest loss of objectivity has occurred with legal analysts. The past year has been most striking in how rage and ratings distorted legal analysis in continued announcements of “bombshells” and “smoking guns” that would all but guarantee the prosecution of Trump or his family. (Indeed, a search of mainstream media in the last 12 months shows almost 5,000 references to “smoking gun” discoveries in relation to Trump). For months, the public was told about the “crime of collusion” despite the fact that no such crime exists. By mid-year, commentators had switched to declaring clear existence of “conspiracy” or election violations despite the lack of any cases directly supporting these novel and virtually limitless definitions.
MSNBC legal analyst Paul Butler declared that the meeting in Trump Tower “is the smoking gun of evidence” of the crime of “soliciting a campaign contribution from a foreign national like a Russian government operative.” Former Watergate prosecutor Nick Ackerman declared the emails to be “almost a smoking cannon” and added that “there’s almost no question this is treason.” Others breathlessly described every new tweet or account to be the long-sought “bombshell” that effectively sealed the fate of the president or his family. It was as thrilling as it was misleading on the law for those desperately wanting to see an indictment.
To make matters worse, analysts have been twisting the criminal code in a virtual contest to find a way — any way — to indict Trump or his family. There has been no consideration given to how these interpretations could impact others in the future in criminalizing speech or associations. None of this means that new evidence cannot come out to support criminal charges, but the “bombshell” evidence cited in 2017 fell short of any compelling basis for an indictment. Thus, given the end of the year without a single indictment based on these legal theories, it might be time for a few additions to the standard resolutions of greater weight loss and family time in the new year.
First, I will analyze what I know to be the case as opposed to what I (or viewers) might desperately want to be the case against the president. Second, I will leave the criminal code alone and not twist or broaden crimes in a creative exercise of finding a way to “bag a Trump.” Third, I will look beyond this president at the implications of lowering the standards for impeachment or indictment for future generations. Fourth, I will consider not just potential charges but potential defenses in evaluating the significance of developments. Finally, I will not use the terms “smoking gun” or “bombshell” as an adjectival substitute for “potentially significant” changes.
The costs in 2018 could be immeasurable unless we can offer greater objectivity in the investigation and its coverage. Otherwise, we can toast to the ratings and continue to play to the rage, and as Mark Twain predicted, look to this new year as a new start on old habits.