The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The President Won’t Stop Steering Himself Directly into Controversy

The theme for today’s Jolt: You can’t save everybody.

Donald Trump’s astonishing second meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-20.

You can’t save a president from himself.

The White House official said Mr. Trump spoke with many leaders during the dinner [at the G20 summit] and said the president “spoke briefly” with Mr. Putin, who was seated next to first lady Melania Trump, toward the end of the evening.

Mr. Bremmer said the two spoke for about an hour, joined by Mr. Putin’s translator.

The White House official said Messrs. Trump and Putin used the Russian translator because the American translator accompanying Mr. Trump spoke only English and Japanese. Mr. Trump had been seated next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“The insinuation that the White House has tried to ‘hide’ a second meeting is false, malicious and absurd,” the White House official said. “It is not merely perfectly normal, it is part of a president’s duties, to interact with world leaders.”

It is indeed normal and dutiful to have those conversations. But it’s also normal and dutiful to rely on an American translator. This is to protect the president’s interests, to ensure nothing he says is accidentally mistranslated as, “I think your occupation of Crimea is fine and dandy.” The presence of another American is a firewall in case the Russians start offering an inaccurate account of their conversation.

Also, we already have one case of Trump allegedly disclosing classified information to Russian officials during a meeting. With no other U.S. official present, there’s no way to ensure that doesn’t happen again — or to even know if it happens again. Much like Jared Kushner’s alleged interest in using a Russian Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF), this is a case of the Russian government knowing things that the president or a member of his family is saying and the rest of the American government not knowing.

It’s also normal and dutiful to inform the American public about these conversations — particularly if the conversation was, as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insists, just “pleasantries and small talk.”

Think about it — if you wanted to throw gasoline on the fire of collusion talk, and to undermine the public’s faith in the president’s ability to stand up to Putin when necessary, isn’t this exactly what you would do? Have as much conversation between Trump and Putin, with no other U.S. officials present, as possible?

They Fear Responsibility for Change More Than They Fear the Status Quo

You can’t save a party from itself.

I like Ohio senator Rob Portman quite a bit. But there’s no getting around the fact that his campaign website in 2016 said this . . . 

Senator Rob Portman believes that Obamacare must be repealed and replaced with reforms that will actually lower costs and improve the quality of our health care. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the health care law the Democrats shoved through Congress in 2009 will slow economic growth over the next decade, cost 2.5 million jobs, and contribute a trillion dollars to the deficit.

There are alternatives to Obamacare that would actually reduce the costs in health care. Ohio Senator Rob Portman believes that we should allow companies to sell insurance across state lines, pass tort reform to reduce the extra costs due to frivolous lawsuits, and allow smaller businesses to band together and get the same tax benefits that larger businesses have when providing health care to their employees.

Other proposals include establishing well-funded high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions and providing tax credits for people to purchase insurance on the individual market.

Together, we can repeal Obamacare and replace it with common-sense reforms to lower costs and improve our health care system.

The Senate version of the Obamacare replacement bill was far from perfect, but it was a giant step in the direction that Portman claimed he wanted back in 2016. There wasn’t much wiggle room in his rhetoric on the trail; Obamacare “must be repealed and replaced.” Now the senator prefers the status quo to the GOP alternative.

Back in 2015, when Obama was president and sure to veto it, Portman voted for a repeal-only proposal. His tune this week:

“If it is a bill that simply repeals (Obamacare), I believe that will add to more uncertainty and the potential for Ohioans to pay even higher premiums, higher deductibles,” the Ohio Republican told MSNBC on Tuesday.

“The circumstances have changed altogether for Ohio,” Portman said. “We’ve gone from a situation in Ohio where [we] had a lot of competition [and] multiple insurance companies” offering plans to a situation where 19 counties in the state have no insurer offering coverage on the individual market for the next enrollment period.

Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski also voted to repeal in 2015, and she, too, says repeal-only is now unacceptable.

So yes, blame the senators for changing their tune as soon as there was a Republican president who might actually sign their ideas into law. But don’t let the president off the hook; his interest in using the bully pulpit to get this bill passed was intermittent at best.

Imagine a world where Trump tweeted to his Alaskan supporters to call Murkowski’s office and urge her to support the bill. He won the state by 15 points. Imagine a world where Trump held a rally in West Virginia, telling all of his supporters who attend that they need to call Senator Caputo.

Instead, he’s tweeting: “As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan. Stay tuned!”

Do Reporters Want to Know More Every Day?

You can’t save the institution of journalism from itself.

Over at Hot Air, John Sexton looked back at the infamous “Journolist” e-mail listserv, wondering what, if anything, has changed in the way those increasingly prominent figures see the role of the media in the nation’s political debates.

The May 2016 New York Times profile of White House deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes and his colleagues offered a jaw-dropping portrait of the way the Obama White House spun and manipulated those covering it. That story’s revelations should have been a bigger deal, spurring a lot of internal discussion and self-examination in the nation’s “mainstream” institutions. This wasn’t the usual conservatives griping that Washington reporters were ignorant and happy to repeat the White House’s messages, this was the president’s men themselves boasting about how easy it was:

You have to have skin in the game — to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products — to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed. Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances.

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

In this environment, Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ”

“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.

Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ”

“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling.

“And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”

When members of the White House press corps complain that the Trump White House talks too much to friendly media, and refuses to take questions from less friendly media . . . do they think this was invented on January 20 of this year?

Do White House correspondents and other people covering the movers and shakers in Washington know enough about their beats? Or maybe a more relevant question is, do they care to know? One of the insidious effects of viewing modern politics through the lens of a convenient narrative — i.e., Democrats are noble, smart, and good; Republicans are corrupt, dumb, and bad — is that you disregard evidence that contradicts your pre-established narrative.

No correspondent is going to know everything. Arguably the most important quality a journalist can bring to his work is curiosity — an acknowledgement of what he doesn’t know, a desire to know more, and the ability to communicate that to an audience. A journalist should wake up every morning determined to know more by bedtime than he knew that morning — and that requires an openness to learning things that contradict his previous understanding of how the world works.

Conspiracy theories, strangely obsessive coverage of Trump handshakes, continued breathless coverage of polls that left an inaccurate perspective of the state of the 2016 race (never mind the fact that Trump won’t face the voters for another three years and change)… are these really informing the public?

ADDENDA: Want to know how quickly the year is flying by? NFL training camps open today for the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New Orleans Saints.