Political Animal

How Steve Bannon Played the Mainstream Media

I’ve mentioned several times that Steve Bannon likes to brag about being smarter than liberals. He probably also thinks he’s smarter than the folks in our mainstream media—and he might be right about that. During the run-up to the 2016 election, he played them like a fine-tuned machine.

That is the conclusion one reaches when reading a section of the recent report by the Berkman Klien Center at Harvard titled, “Partisanship, Propaganda and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 Presidential Election.” They provide lots of interesting insights into our current media environment, like the fact that, as Kevin Drum noted, fake news is mostly a right-wing phenomenon.

To get the essence of how Bannon played the mainstream media, you have to go to page 104 of the report and read the section titled: “Dynamics of Network Propaganda: Clinton Foundation Case Study.” Here is a basic timeline of what happened:

Prior to April 2015

The Government Accountability Institute (GAI), which is run by Steve Bannon and funded by Robert Mercer, commissioned Peter Schweitzer (who works for both Breitbart and GAI) to write a book that will purport to demonstrate that the Clinton’s manipulated their foundation and Hillary’s role as Secretary of State to enrich themselves. When the book is published, its title is, “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.”

April 2015

Prior to the book’s publication in May, Bannon, Schweitzer and GAI worked with the New York Times to publish an extensive piece based on the research materials in an advance copy of the book, titled, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.” As the Berkman Klein report states:

Buried in the tenth paragraph of the story was this admission: “Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.” Needless to say, it was the clear insinuation of corruption in the headline, not the buried admission that no evidence of corruption was in fact uncovered, that made the April 2015 story one of the Times’ most tweeted stories during the summer of 2016.

For the next year, coverage of “Clinton Cash” and the NYT article are mostly limited to right wing news sites. But the Times article provided legitimacy to other claims Schweitzer made in the book.

July 2016

On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Breitbart launched the movie version of Schweitzer’s “Clinton Cash” that would be available via youtube. The report describes it as edited to appeal to supporters of Bernie Sanders.

The Breitbart story emphasized that “The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, and other Establishment Media have verified and confirmed the book’s explosive revelations that Hillary Clinton auctioned State Department policies to foreign Clinton Foundation donors and benefactors who then paid Bill Clinton tens of millions of dollars in speaking fees.” Breitbart approvingly embraced Time magazine’s report that it was “aimed at persuading liberals” and “likely to leave on-the-fence Clinton supporters who see it feeling more unsure about casting a vote for her.”

August 2016

Stories about the Clinton Foundation begin to spike across all media platforms, including the Washington Post on August 22nd and the Associated Press on the 23rd. The report documents what the WaPo article shared in common with the original “Clinton Cash” article in the NYT.

Just as the New York Times had done with the Uranium One story, the Washington Post here led with the insinuation of potential corruption—a much juicier angle—rather than with the absence of evidence of actual wrongdoing, and then it buried that truthful concession deep in the middle of the story.

They also provide this quote that pretty well sums up the AP story.

As one critic of the AP story put it the morning after the story came out: “The State Department is a big operation. So is the Clinton Foundation. The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center. It’s kind of surprising.”

Here is the report’s summary of these events:

Right-wing media must harness broader parts of the ecosystem to achieve their strategic goals. In this case, they kept the story alive with several distinct media “hits”—the release of a book while offering careful “exclusive” access to major newspapers; a film; multiple releases of email dumps; and responses by political actors to these media events. Right-wing media succeeded in pushing the Clinton Foundation to the front of the public agenda precisely at the moment when Clinton would have been anticipated to (and indeed did) receive her biggest bounce in the polls: immediately after the Democratic convention.

With that story in mind, it is interesting to go back to what Joshua Green wrote about how Steve Bannon weaponizes a story.

Time-strapped reporters squeezed for copy will gratefully accept original, fact-based research because most of what they’re inundated with is garbage. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” says Bannon. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

The reason GAI does this is because it’s the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media. [Wynton] Hall has distilled this, too, into a slogan: “Anchor left, pivot right.” It means that “weaponizing” a story onto the front page of the New York Times (“the Left”) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com…

Once that work has permeated the mainstream—once it’s found “a host body,” in David Brock’s phrase—then comes the “pivot.” Heroes and villains emerge and become grist for a juicy Breitbart News narrative.

As we all witnessed (and was documented right here at the Washington Monthly), that weaponization of the “Clinton Cash” story became the fodder for Trump’s “Corrupt Hillary” claims and was embraced by many Sanders supporters.

Following Steve Bannon’s exit from the White House, a lot of people have focused on his return to Breitbart News, and rightly so. But as we’ve already heard, he’s making plans once again with the billionaire Robert Mercer. So I’d also keep my eye on the Government Accountability Institute. Only Trump’s most die-hard supporters will buy what Bannon is selling on Breitbart. Either the mainstream media learned their lesson about getting played by Bannon in 2016 or they didn’t. To the extent it is the latter, it is very possible that he’ll be playing them again via the lesser-known GAI.

Charlottesville Did Not Impact Tax Reform’s Prospects

On the surface, Stan Collender of Forbes is on solid ground when he argues that the Republicans will not succeed in enacting a comprehensive tax reform because the president is too weak. Collender presents some of the obvious obstacles to reform, including that changing the tax code creates strong constituencies of losers who will be furious. He notes correctly the narrowness of the Republicans’ majority, the frayed and tattered relationships that a growing number of Republican senators have with Trump, and the lack of needed credibility, focus and leadership from the White House. These things would all make passing tax reform difficult even if there weren’t more pressing obstacles.

But there are more pressing obstacles, which means that Collender is basically misinforming his audience about what is going on. It’s not that Trump is weak and discredited that is the main hurdle in the path of tax reform. It’s the process that was chosen for enacting it.

As with the effort to repeal Obamacare, the plan for doing tax reform involves using the budget reconciliation process. In both cases, it’s a three-part process. It begins with passing a budget resolution for the coming fiscal year. In that budget resolution, they need to include special budget directives or instructions.

To start the reconciliation process, the House and Senate must agree on a budget resolution that includes “reconciliation directives” for specified committees. Under the Congressional Budget Act, the House and Senate are supposed to adopt a budget resolution each year to establish an overall budget plan and set guidelines for action on spending and revenue.

These budget directives are supposed to go to the relevant committees in both houses of Congress. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, those committees were House Ways & Means and Energy and Commerce, and Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). Those committees received instructions specifying targets for changes in spending and revenues that they needed to provide by marking up legislation. Reconciliation directives do not dictate any specific legislative changes or language that a committee must adopt, but they do provide numerical targets that have to be met. Things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to in the Obamacare repeal effort because the committees didn’t do their work. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s team was writing and tweaking the language up to the very last moment. Yet, he still had to abide by the targets set forth in the budget resolution directives.

I hope none of this is overly complicated or hard to understand. The same process needs to happen to make tax reform work. First, the House and Senate must agree to a new budget. If they can’t agree to a new budget, then they won’t have any budget resolution directives. And if they don’t have any budget resolution directives, the committees will have no spending and revenue targets to reach on tax reform and nothing to reconcile in a reconciliation bill. Without anything to reconcile, there can’t be a reconciliation bill at all, and that means that they can’t use that process to avoid a filibuster. McConnell couldn’t even step in the way he attempted to with Obamacare repeal and do the committees’ work for them. Without passing a budget, the Republicans will need 60 votes in the Senate for any tax reform, which means that they won’t get tax reform that looks anything like what they’ve promised or what they want.

Thus, the problem doesn’t even get to worrying about winners and losers in any proposed reform unless the budget is passed first. The Republicans couldn’t pass a budget last year which is why they were able to use the empty shell of last year’s budget bill as a vehicle for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Of course, they succeeded in getting that process started by passing last year’s budget this past January during the lame duck session of Congress. Their problem came on the back end when it came time to actually reconcile the budget in early August. But that was last year’s budget and it didn’t contain budget directives for this year’s budget.

So, first they need to pass a new budget with new directives aimed specifically at tax reform. If they somehow succeed at doing that, then they need to write legislation that can get at least 50 votes in the Senate. Senator John McCain, who is suffering from brain cancer, may or may not be generally available to travel to Washington, DC to cast votes, so the Republicans may only be able to afford one defection. That would mean that every Republican senator would have an effective veto on any provision of the proposed tax reform that they don’t like. Given that any tax reform would negatively impact some states more than others, it’s almost impossible to write anything that would satisfy every Republican senator (save one).

Under these circumstances and constraints, it’s doubtful that even LBJ at the zenith of his power could succeed. Trump’s personal failings and difficulties don’t need to enter into our consideration of the problem.

Trump could, of course, attempt some kind of pivot in search of any kind of win. He could aim for something more modest like a simple tax cut rather than a comprehensive reform. He could abandon the effort to pass something comprehensive on a strictly party line vote and go in search of Democratic authorship and sponsorship of a tax reform. But he still would need a budget resolution to pass through Congress for other reasons. Without one, Congress has no guidance for doing their appropriations bills and the likely result will be some kind of government shutdown followed by a bill that keeps the government operating with Obama era baseline numbers and priorities.

Can the Republicans pass a budget this year when they failed to do so last year? That, to me, is the first and primary problem that Trump faces. It may not be possible.

Relatedly, Trump needs the Republicans in Congress to vote to raise the borrowing authority of the government. That also may not prove possible, at least in time to prevent a global economic crisis.

On both issues, the budget and the debt ceiling, Trump’s weakness matters quite a lot. But on tax reform it is his strategy that is the main obstacle to success. He could have given a wonderful and appropriate speech in response to Charlottesville and it wouldn’t have had much, if any, material impact on his prospects for signing a tax reform bill. His problem is actually more serious. Congressional Republicans can’t act in concert, and any plan that relies on them following along uniformly is going to fail.

After the recess, if the Republicans quickly pass a budget resolution with budget directives for tax reform, only then can we begin to discuss how Trump’s embrace of white nationalists has imperiled his desire to sign a tax reform bill.

Prepare Yourself For Talk of Another Trump Pivot

There has always been a sort of manic/depressive quality to Trump’s presidency. I’m not suggesting that the president should be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That would require a more up-close examination of his daily routines. But we’ve witnessed periods where he seems to go off the deep end emotionally, only to be followed by times when his behavior is actually described as “presidential.”

Last week brought us one of those cycles as it unfolded over a couple of days. Trump’s immediate response to the events in Charlottesville was to suggest that in altercations between white supremacists and counter-protesters, there were “many sides” to blame. Then his handlers got hold of things and scripted a speech in which he condemned racism, only to be followed the next day by unscripted remarks at a press conference where he reverted to his original statement.

As David Atkins pointed out over the weekend, the flip was condensed to a matter of minutes on Twitter as the president reacted to demonstrations in Boston.

Yesterday we learned that Trump will give a speech tonight in which he is expected to lay out a plan for this administration’s strategy in Afghanistan. Based on what we’ve seen from this president over the last few months, we can expect that to be a very well scripted affair and the media will respond by doing a logical analysis of what he has to say. While it grows increasingly difficult to buy into the charade, there might even be some who will suggest that his remarks were “presidential.” If so, you’ll be able to hear a sigh of relief in their voices that signals the hope that all of this ugliness we’ve witnessed over the past week is finally behind us. I’m sure that is exactly what Chief of Staff John Kelly and his other handlers had in mind when they decided to schedule this speech tonight.

After that, the president is off to Phoenix for a campaign-style speech in which it is very possible that he will announce a pardon for convicted Sheriff Joe Arpaio—a hero to white nationalists. His staff will have their hands full in trying to keep him on script at this kind of event. As we watched throughout the 2016 election, Trump tends to feed off the crowd, which will be stacked with his most loyal supporters.

Over the last couple of months, Josh Marshall has started to suggest that Trump’s presidency is like living in a household with someone who is abusive.

I’ve analogized him before to an abusive man in an abused household – only his house is now the country, now with all the cumulative exhaustion, warped perceptions and damage that are the common lot of people living with and trapped with violent predators, addicts or people with certain profound mental illnesses.

That is a pattern a lot of us have come to recognize. The outbursts are often followed by a period of calm in which the victim assumes that the abuser has changed. While Trump will never be contrite, it is very possible that his more abusive energy will have waned over the course of last week’s events and his handlers will be able to contain his most destructive impulses.

If that happens, you can expect that we’ll hear a huge sigh of relief that is indicative of the “warped perceptions” that are common among people who are trying to adapt to living with someone who is abusive.

Marshall offers that analogy because he is suggesting that we tie Trump’s previous behavior to what we’ve just witnessed and not get fooled again. Here’s what we know about the past:

We elected a President driven by white racial grievance. That is the fulcrum and driving force of his politics. It’s no surprise that a big outbreak of white supremacist violence would lead us to a moment like this. We also elected a President who is an abuser and a predator.

Last week Trump crossed a line. We know that. He’ll do it again. We know that too because he has shown us time and time again who he is. He might or might not be able to get through a speech about Afghanistan and a rally in Phoenix, but even if he does, it will be because he submitted to his handlers and not because he has ceased to be an abusive predator.

Yes, We Will Replace ‘Em

Lunatic fringe
In the twilight’s last gleaming
This is open season
But you won’t get too far
Because you gotta blame someone
For your own confusion
We’re on guard this time
Against your final solution

–Red Rider, “Lunatic Fringe,” 1981

If they think we’re going to let Heather Heyer’s death be in vain, they’re out of their minds.

Heyer, the human-rights heroine savagely murdered in Charlottesville on August 12, represented the best of this country and this world–and the individuals who, directly and indirectly, caused her slaughter are some of the very worst. Heyer should absolutely be named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017, as a symbol of both the anti-Trump resistance and the consequences of the hatred the 45th President and his party have fostered for years.

Heyer’s name has been added to a noble and tragic list, the same list that features the names of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner–men and women who gave their very lives in the effort to resist hate. Her name and her legacy will inspire a new generation of activists, a new generation of Americans who will fight passionately for love, tolerance and justice.

Much has been made of how young the “alt-right” crowd was in Charlottesville. Yes, it is disturbing to see how attracted some millennials are to malevolence. However, there are millions of young Americans who, in the wake of Charlottesville, have renewed their commitment to diversity and equality, have reaffirmed their desire to smash down the walls of prejudice and privilege, have made it clear that bigotry is baseless.

Look at the folks who rose up in Boston this past weekend to resist hate. It was inspiring to watch, especially because it occurred a week before the eighth anniversary of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy’s death. There’s no doubt that had he lived, Kennedy, a valiant warrior for civil rights, would have been among the thousands who turned out to denounce the bigotry that Kennedy himself was a target of during his US Senate career.

Donald Trump–who seems to have forgotten that this country fought the ultimate manifestation of the “alt-right” during World War II–has awakened the sleeping giant of resistance. By equivocating on the chaos in Charlottesville, he made it clear that he really stood with the same forces that killed Heyer, Evers, Liuzzo, Reeb, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. He revealed himself to all but the most naive citizens of this country as an opponent of America’s highest virtues. As the old saying goes, a tiger cannot change its stripes–and with his reaction to Charlottesville, Trump made it clear that he hasn’t changed one iota since the 1970s and 1980s.

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of Americans who grew up in environments in which they were taught to hate anyone who wasn’t exactly like them. Some Americans never learned that those lessons were wrong, that hate based on color, class and creed is evil, that we are all one. Most Americans, however, did learn those lessons–and they’re beyond disgusted with Trump, and want him to leave the White House now and take his cretinous Cabinet with him.

In the wake of Charlottesville, we are bearing witness to the beginning of, to quote a familiar phrase, a political revolution–an uprising against injustice, a revolt against racial hatred, an alliance against the “alt-right.” The Khaki Klan that showed up in Charlottesville–the new young vessels of the centuries-old hatreds the iconic Dick Gregory fought against every day of his life– declared, “You will not replace us!” (which they followed with a vile anti-Semitic chant). The rest of America is now saying in response, “Wanna bet?”