Politics & Policy

Obama Downplayed Terror More than the Media

But that doesn’t mean Trump’s attacks on journalists aren’t smart politics.

President Trump did his opponents in the media a favor earlier this week when he claimed that “the very dishonest press doesn’t want to report” about Islamist terror attacks. Or so most of them thought as they gleefully compiled lists of stories that proved his assertion wrong. But while they were right to point out that his charge was patently false, they may be missing the larger argument behind his travel-ban executive order.

In attacking his favorite targets in the press along with the judge who ruled favorably on a legal challenge to the order, Trump was, as is his wont, fast and loose with the truth. But he appears also to have goaded the media into more behavior that demonstrates they are acting, as he and advisor Steve Bannon have claimed, as the “opposition party” in a way that helps him politically.

For someone who supposedly watches a lot of television, it’s hard to believe Trump really thinks the cable-news and broadcast channels under-report terrorism. His bête noire CNN thrives on events such as the San Bernardino and Orlando terror attacks. Like the rest of the press, it operates under the principle of “if it bleeds, it leads,” devoting itself wholeheartedly to coverage of any shooting or terror incident.

Indeed, President Obama often lamented that what he considered the media’s obsessive coverage of terror unreasonably inflated American fears. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist with unique access to the West Wing during the Obama years, wrote that the president, “frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs, do.” Obama saw terror as a law-enforcement problem more than a genuine strategic danger to the American people or the West. Yet while his loyal media cheerleaders may have sympathized with this point of view, not even the New York Times or CNN were prepared to bury stories of terrorist bloodshed.

So when, hours after Trump’s claim about the media, the White House issued a list of 78 incidents that the “very dishonest press” underplayed, what they came up with didn’t prove his point about the media even if it did serve as a reminder that terrorism is not, as Obama claimed, less dangerous than slippery bathtubs. Yet while the incident may be filed away as just more evidence of Trump’s willingness to say anything about anyone he doesn’t like, his critics shouldn’t think his allergy to the truth works to their advantage here.

The crux of the argument isn’t whether the press over- or under-reports terrorism. It’s whether Americans view questions about immigration, refugees, and border control through the prism of human-interest stories about those who have been inconvenienced by Trump’s travel ban or the prism of an ongoing war between the West and Islamist terrorism. In that sense, his target isn’t the media so much as it is a pre-9/11 mentality in which terrorism was something that happened in faraway places to other people rather than to Americans in the United States.

Trump’s real object here isn’t so much to pursue a feud with his media tormentors as it is to refocus the public on the threat of Islamist terror.

President Obama’s foreign policy was in many respects predicated on such a point of view. His main goals were to extricate the U.S. from conflicts in the Middle East and to achieve a rapprochement with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. He was dragged reluctantly into the conflict with ISIS and resented the way the group’s attacks riveted the attentions of Americans to the terrorist threat.

Though his comments in large measure reflect his intolerance for either criticism or opposition, Trump’s real object here isn’t so much to pursue a feud with his media tormentors as it is to refocus the public on the threat of Islamist terror. The White House knows that so long as the debate revolves around sympathy for those caught up in a dysfunctional immigration system thrown off kilter by Trump’s orders, the president’s critics will win. But if it centers on whether or not the countries named in his order represent a credible threat of terror and whether or not visa seekers from those countries can be properly vetted, he wins.

It’s true that the press pushback on Trump’s claims proved him wrong, but it also served to highlight the fact that terrorism is a serious problem that rightly worries Americans. Though the real culprit in the effort to downplay terror is happily kite-surfing in presidential retirement, the media provides a more inviting target for Trump. To the extent that the press took his bait, they not only proved his point but also vindicated once again Trump’s and Bannon’s that they are an “opposition party.” Though Trump’s unpresidential behavior and willingness to say things that are clearly untrue undermine his arguments, so long as his battle with the press is about whether or not Americans should fear terrorism, he is bound to win in the end.

— Jonathan S. Tobin is a contributor to National Review Online.


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