A New Low in False Balance at the Washington Post?

It’s almost too goofy for words.

I’m not quite sure who Josh Rogin of the Washington Post was trying to fool when he suggested that Donald Trump really knows what he’s doing with regard to foreign policy. In fact, if one reads his words closely, one might conclude that he may have fooled himself:

The 100-day mark in the Trump presidency has pundits and senior officials alike searching for an overall doctrine that steers Trump’s foreign policy. But Trump’s campaign slogan “America first” was never much more than an allergy to intervention and a promise to get better deals from foreign nations. On the big issues, Trump now seems to be hewing back to a traditional Republican stance on foreign policy. But the White House claims Trump has been consistent all along.

Senior White House officials tell me that this consistency is evident not in an ideological sense but rather in how the administration is implementing Trump’s campaign promises. The idea is to take what Trump has said on issues and work with senior officials and foreign partners systematically to translate those statements into real policies.

Huh?

Rogin would have us believe that supposedly more intellectually stable members of the Trump administration know how to make chicken salad out of, well, you know:

Senior cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson take a set of Trump foreign policy campaign ideas on the road to discuss them with allies and partners. They help massage what were often broad and poorly understood campaign statements into policies or projects that both sides can agree to and work on together, gaining buy-in and finding overlap between the rhetoric and the reality.

Then, Vice President Pence follows up with similar action, traveling to those same places and often meeting with the same leaders. He reinforces what the cabinet officials have worked out with foreign governments and elevates the plans to the White House level. Finally, Trump comes in.

A senior White House official described the pattern to me as “building a structure.” Trump is “utilizing a lot of the key players in his cabinet and his vice president to lay the groundwork so that when he comes in, he’s ultimately the closer,” the official said.

As Jacob Heilbrunn observes, Rogin’s analysis, like Trump himself, is at odds with reality:

[On April 26], Trump held a meeting at the White House on North Korea, which only disclosed that his administration has no strategy for dealing with it. He also came close to signing a wacky executive order drafted by Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro that would have started the process to withdraw from NAFTA. Then, at the last moment, after talking to the president and prime minister of Mexico and Canada, Trump flinched. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may not fill some two hundred posts at the State Department until 2018. How does this square with Rogin’s soothing depiction of Trump’s foreign policy?

The main problem with Rogin’s piece is that he uncritically regurgitates the talking points disseminated to him by Trump administration officials, starting with Vice President Mike Pence. It’s fine for a reporter to serve as a kind of transmission belt for inside political dope that is revealing and reliable. But this isn’t it. What Rogin is doing isn’t reporting; it’s pandering.

As always, I can’t help wondering if the pandering is borne of a desire to shut up those who have been brainwashed into believing that the Post is somehow out to get Trump, that the venerable newspaper is part of the “liberal media empire.” Kissing up to Trump is the only way reporters, editors and publishers know how to prove a negative: rather than simply ignoring the ignorant folks who think the Post waves the flag for Democrats and progressives, these folks think that if they just run enough puff pieces about Trump, the folks who show up to his rallies will gradually become less contemptuous of the press.

To quote the renowned American philosopher Mariah Carey, it’s just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby. No amount of positive Trump press will soothe the anger of those who think every reporter in this country is a closet progressive activist. History will disprove Rogin. Common sense already has.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.