Happy Presidents Day.
Watching the opening interview of Sunday’s edition of CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” it was almost impossible not to feel a little sorry for White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Of course, no one forced Priebus to sign up as Trump’s right-hand man. And he surely understood that the gig would require him to sink even deeper into bull slinging than had his previous gig as chair of the Republican National Committee. And certainly, anyone in a top White House position is required to parrot the president’s line.
But parroting the line of Donald Trump means committing yourself to lying constantly. And on this particular Sunday it required poor Priebus to lie about alleged lies about his lying boss. So, as I said, I almost felt sorry for him.
Here’s the thing. President Trump has long since taken to calling others liars (remember “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz), but that’s only the tip of the iceberg because …
Trump was so upset about the recent New York Times piece suggesting a huge amount of pre-election contact between Trump hirelings and Russian intelligence agents — which obviously reinforced the narrative that Russians helped engineer Trump’s win — that Trump decided to escalate his press bashing and state (or, more precisely, to tweet) that the “fake news media” is not so much his enemy as it is “the enemy of the American People!”
“Face the Nation” moderator John Dickerson kicked off Sunday’s interview by quoting that tweet and specifically asking poor Priebus whether the American people are supposed to take that “enemy of the American People” silliness seriously.
So, before he had a chance to talk about anything else, poor Priebus had to choose between conserving whatever credibility he had when he walked into the studio, and saving his job. He chose the latter.
PRIEBUS: I think you should take [the “enemy of the people” silliness] seriously.
I think that the problem we have got is that we are talking about bogus stories like the one in The New York Times that we have had constant contact with Russian officials. The next day, The Wall Street Journal had a story that the intel community was not giving the president a full intelligence briefing, both stories grossly inaccurate, overstated, overblown.
And it is total garbage. So we spend, you know, 48 hours on bogus stories, and the American people suffer. So I do think it is a problem. And I think that the media needs to, in some cases, not every case, John, but, in some cases, really needs to get its act together.
DICKERSON: The enemy?
PRIEBUS: Well, if you’re not — if the theory is, is that the press is supposed to be a free forum of information to — to speak to the American people, I think it ought to be accurate.
And I think that we have gotten to a place, John, where the media is willing to run with unnamed sources, apparently false leaked documents, to create stories. I mean, we deal with one after the next.
I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff, put names on a piece of paper and print it. If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed, period.
Call me an old softie, but I had a little pity for Priebus. Below I’ll take the liberty of constructing a better answer that might have gotten him through with a shred of dignity. But first, three problems with what did come not only out of his mouth but also onto videotape for the rest of time.
- You can have an argument about whether unnamed sources should ever be quoted. The practice has a long history. And papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have tough policies about when such quotes can be used. It goes through a lot of vetting in the newsroom. Major papers have reasonable standards that have to do with how many sources are confirming the information, how reliable the sources are considered to be, and how certain the reporter and editor are that this is an important story that cannot be published without agreeing to anonymity for one or more of the sources.
- I would bet a couple of non-vital organs that poor Priebus has cut many a deal with journalists to quote him anonymously. And I would bet you a couple of fingers and toes that poor Priebus has never complained about blind quotes when they were damaging to Democrats.
- And this is the beaut: Poor Priebus works for Donald Trump, who lies constantly, instinctively, reflexively, both on and off the record, with what the law would call “reckless disregard for the truth,” and about matters both important and unimportant. He lies about stupid things like whether his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, lies that are easily disproven, and even after the lies have been reliably proven, he pretty much never retracts them. Sometimes he stops telling them, and sometimes he keeps telling them after they’ve been proven false, but he pretty much never takes responsibility for telling a lie and I can’t recall very many that he has even retracted.
I’ve managed to make a living in the scribbler’s game for 40-some years. I’ve seldom relied on anonymous quotes and when I did it was both important and necessary and every precaution was taken. I’ve also gotten a few things factually wrong, and I know the pain of having to agree to a correction, but I also know – in a way that Mr. Trump obviously doesn’t – how important it is to correct the record when you say or write something that is false. So the real reason I feel so bad for Priebus is that whatever part of a person’s soul tells him that it’s important to tell the truth, he has had to have it removed.
Oh, and lastly, even if poor Priebus is right and the Times and the Journal got taken in by lying sources, Priebus sold whatever was left of his honor and dignity in this case not to set the record straight, not to make the reasonable argument that you have to be careful about believing information that comes from unnamed sources, but because only to defend his boss’ ridiculous hyperbole that hard-working reporters were “enemies of the American People.”
So, as promised above, here’s my suggestion of a better answer poor that Priebus could’ve used:
“Enemy of the People? Of course not. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but if you put up with the amount of negative press that President Trump does, you might get pretty annoyed too. Still, those stories were wrong and you might notice that they relied very heavily on unnamed sources. I recommend that people bear that in mind when assessing the veracity of statements from people who aren’t willing to put their names to them.”
Of course, who knows what consequences a Trump subordinate might face for acknowledging that the boss occasionally engages in a bit of hyperbole.