Why Nothing Sticks to Trump

Leave it to David Fahrentold, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his outstanding coverage of Donald Trump’s charitable foundation and other charity-related activities, to beautifully and succinctly describe what happened today.

New York’s attorney general filed suit against President Trump and his three eldest children Thursday, alleging “persistently illegal conduct” at the president’s personal charity and saying that Trump had repeatedly misused the nonprofit organization to pay off his businesses’ creditors, to decorate one of his golf clubs and to stage a multimillion-dollar giveaway at 2016 campaign events.

In the suit, Attorney General Barbara Underwood asked a state judge to dissolve the Donald J. Trump Foundation. She asked that its remaining $1 million in assets be distributed to other charities and that Trump be forced to pay at least $2.8 million in restitution and penalties.

Underwood also asked that Trump be banned from leading any other New York nonprofit organization for 10 years — seeking to apply a penalty usually reserved for the operators of small-time charity frauds to the president of the United States.

If you don’t regularly read the Washington Post or watch cable news, particularly MSNBC, this suit by the New York attorney general might come as a surprise. But Fahrentold exposed Trump on this front with indefatigable tenacity, and each of his bombshell reports were duly covered on television. The problem was mainly that these were one-and-done stories which were immediately dropped down the memory hole when the next Trump outrage took precedence.

I’ve seen a lot of people comparing how little coverage the Trump Foundation received in comparison to the Clinton Foundation, and it’s true that there really is no comparison. But that’s largely a function of two things. One is that, although Trump received much more coverage overall than Clinton, it was dispersed over an ever-changing set of scandals, exposés, outrages, and norm breaking. And the second is that, largely driven by Trump’s message discipline, the negative coverage of Clinton stayed in a few well-traveled lanes. By far, the busiest lane was discussion of Clinton’s private email server, but speculation about improprieties with the Clinton Foundation was in second place, followed by blathering about Benghazi.

You could go back in time to any given week in the general election, and the chances are that Trump and the media would be discussing those three topics. There were times when the discussion shifted a bit, like when WikiLeaks dumped hacked DNC emails around the time of the convention or in October decided to divulge John Podesta’s pilfered emails. Clinton had a health scare in early September that sucked up a lot of focus. In general, however, she had relatively few real vulnerabilities and didn’t make a lot of glaring errors or misstatements or deliver newsworthy insults that commanded attention.

Trump, on the other hand, was the subject of near-constant condemnation by the press from the moment he made his announcement in Trump Tower and inspired nationwide boycotts with his anti-Mexican rhetoric. At first, he was so unprofessional and offensive that Huffington Post decided they’d only cover his campaign in their entertainment section. He lost the endorsement of almost every single editorial board in the country, including some papers that had never failed to endorse a Republican or hadn’t failed to do so since the 19th Century. Story after story after story was produced to expose Trump for every sin he’d committed over the last five decades.

We learned about how he and his father were sued for housing discrimination in the 1970s. We learned about how he used undocumented Polish labor to build Trump Tower out of mob-controlled concrete. We learned about his ties to the mob in Atlantic City and how he ruined a dozen or more New Jersey contractors by stiffing them on pay. We learned about his poor business decisions and bad luck that led to multiple bankruptcies and his obscene litigiousness. We learned about him impersonating fictional people in phone calls with reporters. We learned about his connections to Russian mafia figures and fraud related to his Trump SoHo complex. We learned about how his Florida properties were being used by Russian oligarchs and crime figures to launder money and avoid taxation. We learned about questionable dealings with foreign governments and shady development projects in Panama, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.

We read about his failed effort to sell water, vodka and steaks, his failed airline, his failure as a professional football owner, his failed magazine and board game, his failed mortgage company, and his fraudulent “university.” We read about his deplorable behavior in the Central Park Five controversy.

His every stupid utterance on history, policy and basic reality was examined, dissected, and declared wrong or foolish or ignorant or hateful or simply inexplicable. His personal life was opened up and rehashed without mercy, not that he was inviting mercy on that front. His first wife’s rape allegation was aired. He was, of course, credibly accused of sexual assault and unwanted sexual behavior by dozens of women, and that was covered most heavily in October when some people were already voting.

The behavior of his surrogates was often controversial, and the behavior of his rally-going fans was an unending source of negative stories. White nationalists like David Duke continually said kind but unhelpful things about his candidacy, leading to more bad press.

In general, his performance on the stump, in television interviews, at the convention and in the debates was panned by critics. The assessment of his campaign structure was brutal, and he suffered from a lot more internal resistance and negative commentary from fellow Republicans than Clinton did from her fellow Democrats.

By contrast, Clinton mainly suffered from lack of attention. Trump seemed to be in a constant state of implosion and therefore doing most of her work for her, but he was taking her apart on the emails and succeeding in making the non-issues of the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi into real burdens through sheer repetition.

It’s often said that the press tried too hard to be balanced, but I don’t think they really succeeded in being balanced. Overall, the American media rejected Trump outright, which was seen most obviously in his failure to win almost any editorial board endorsements, including in his best political strongholds. They were correct to do so because Trump was obviously unfit to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, they were self-conscious enough about the disparity that it was very common for the latest negative Trump stories to be “balanced” with a negative Clinton story. And she didn’t really have a lot of negative stuff to work with. WikiLeaks and Russia played a major part, but much of what hurt Clinton came in the form of fake news that was disseminated primarily through non-traditional media. Things like the Seth Rich and PizzaGate conspiracies did real damage, and they were pushed into the national consciousness by partisan right-wing media outlets like hate radio, Breitbart and Fox News.

For the most part, the traditional media stayed away from fake stories, but they kept coming back to the emails, the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi. The latter two of those stories I consider largely fake, and the Department of Justice’s inspector general’s report that was issued today shows how little merit the email story had compared to the degree of coverage it received. Yet, in the end, these three so-called scandals received far coverage than any single negative story about Trump.

It’s also true that the traditional media coverage that Clinton did manage to receive was overwhelmingly negative. If the media displayed an absolutely unprecedented hostility to the candidacy of Donald Trump, and they did, they did not give correspondingly positive coverage to Clinton.  Some of this was a result of concern that they were already tipping the scales too much, but it had other causes as well. One was that both Clintons had a lot of baggage with the press that had built up over the preceding quarter century. Another was that they didn’t think she needed their help. She had a persistent and sizable polling lead from the beginning to the end of the campaign, with polling prognosticators consistently giving her huge odds of victory.  In fact, the widespread view that she was a lock to win even informed James Comey’s decision to inform Congress in late October that the FBI had reopened the email investigation. He thought he was protecting her legitimacy, amazingly enough.

People underestimated the mileage Trump was getting out of the trade issue and they did not want to contemplate the idea that he was winning on immigration. He was getting a lot of help through the Russians and WikiLeaks, and much of his Facebook campaign was invisible from the outside.  And he still lost the popular vote by a decent margin and needed the equivalent of an Electoral College inside straight to come out on top.

It really shouldn’t be the media’s job to picks sides in a presidential election, but this election was different because Trump was justifiably seen as unacceptable to such a huge majority of the political cognoscenti. It’s simply not true that he received favorable treatment in any sense, although he was able to dominate the media’s attention like moths to a flame.

The media were as wrong about the election as James Comey and the pollsters, and there are a lot of areas where their coverage can be rightly criticized.  A desire for ratings crowded out too much substantive and policy discussion, which is a perennial problem in any case, and Clinton received some really shoddy treatment, particularly from the New York Times which made far too much of Clinton Foundation stories.

But the biggest fault lies with the electorate which was provided with all the information they needed to know that Trump was a racist and a crook and a fool who had none of the knowledge or skills or character traits needed in a president.  Too many of them looked at his mob ties or what he said about Putin and Russia or how he treated a disabled reporter and a Mexican-American judge or how he incited hatred in his followers or at him boasting about his sexual assaults, and then said to themselves these things were not disqualifying. They were told over and over that his business career was littered with fraud and failure and deceitful self-promotion and they chose to believe in The Apprentice version of Donald Trump.

I have my problems with how the media performed in 2016, but there are dozens and dozens of editors and writers who busted their ass, did their jobs, and told the real story of Donald Trump. For a variety of reasons, these stories never got sustained traction. I believe the main reason is not that they didn’t get enough play, but because there were so many of them, and that Trump was making brand new news almost hourly that crowded out solid reporting that took weeks or months to compile.

As for the New York attorney general’s office, they spent a year looking into Trump’s charitable foundation, and I bet this story doesn’t last any longer than the one about him giving top secret Israeli intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office.  We’ll eventually get back to it because it’s a legal  proceeding, but there isn’t much anyone can do to make things stick to Trump.  The case against him was made before we voted and it has been made many times over since then. Eventually, and ultimately, it’s up to the electorate to care.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.