A Re-Examination of What is Unprecedented

Ed O’Keefe has an important story in the Washington Post about the eight Trump nominees that Democrats plan to zero in on during their upcoming confirmation hearings in the Senate. For the record, they include:

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state; Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), his pick for attorney general; Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), tapped to lead the Office of Management and Budget; and Betsy DeVos, selected to serve as education secretary.

There’s also Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and oversee changes to Obamacare, who is expected to be attacked by Democrats for his support for privatizing Medicare. Andrew Puzder, a restaurant executive set to serve as labor secretary, will face scrutiny for past comments on the minimum wage, among other policies. Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner set to serve as treasury secretary, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA, will also be the focus of Democratic attacks, aides said.

Unfortunately, O’Keefe steps all over the story with this opening sentence:

Democratic senators plan to aggressively target eight of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees in the coming weeks and are pushing to stretch their confirmation votes into March — an unprecedented break with Senate tradition.

A quick look at the dictionary gives us this definition of the word “unprecedented.”

without previous instance; never before known or experienced

In other words, O’Keefe is suggesting that a delay in confirmation of somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 days for a presidential nominee is something “never before known or experienced.” Perhaps he simply forgot that there were over 160 days between AG Loretta Lynch’s nomination and her confirmation by a Republican -controlled Senate. Or that Richard Cordray’s confirmation to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was held up by Republicans for over a year.

But it is impossible to forget the unprecedented way that Republicans refused to even hold hearings for President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Especially in this case, that move was not prompted by any concerns about the nominee’s background or qualifications for the job. Republicans simply suggested that a president of the opposing party should not fulfill his constitutional duty in the last year of his term in office. THAT is something that we have “never before known or experienced.” After that, the word “unprecedented” can no longer be applied to moves that delay the confirmation of presidential nominations.

On the other end of the spectrum, this weekend we watched Gerard Baker, editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal normalize the behavior of president-elect Trump by suggesting that the publication would not break precedent with how they have traditionally defined “objectivity.”

Asked by host Chuck Todd whether he’d be willing to call out a falsehood as a “lie” like some other news outlets have done, Baker demurred, saying it was up to the newspaper to just present the set of facts and let the reader determine how to classify a statement.

“I’d be careful about using the word, ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead,” Baker said, noting that when Trump claimed “thousands” of Muslims were celebrating on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11, the Journal investigated and reported that they found no evidence of a claim.

“I think it’s then up to the reader to make up their own mind to say, ‘This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what? I don’t think that’s true.’ I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective,” he said.

Under normal circumstances, that might be an acceptable principle for journalists to apply. But let’s be honest…Donald Trump’s presidency will be nothing if not unprecedented. To take the example Baker used about Trump’s lie that thousands of Muslims celebrated on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11, let’s remember that he said that around the same time that he suggested that we should ban all Muslim travel to the U.S.  Later in the campaign a Trump spokesman suggested that there was precedent for a Muslim registry in the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. There was a way that statement is correct. But it is a precedent for which this country later apologized and paid reparations. By this logic, one could claim that there was a precedent for slavery in the U.S. – or the genocide of Native Americans.

None of this is “normal” and can therefore be called “unprecedented.” To pretend that the media can apply the same standards of objectivity under these circumstances is absurd, if not dangerous. Along those lines, Jay Rosen has written some tips for journalists in the Trump era. They are worth exploring. But this one stands out:

If Trump can break with established norms so can the journalists who cover him. When you’re not where he expects you to be, you’re winning.

Both O’Keefe and Baker demonstrated a lack of understanding about “established norms” and how both Republicans in Congress as well as our president-elect have been breaking them. That means that they are essentially missing the story about what is happening in our politics right now. Heading into an unprecedented Trump administration, that is unacceptable.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.