For the past few weeks, mainstream American television news networks, led by CNN, have been criticizing the current U.S. President in regards to his obvious disdain for anyone in the press who questions him. While the dispute has gone on since the 2016 campaign, with the President often making the dangerous statement that media that cover him critically are, “an enemy of the people”, the conflict intensified on live TV after Trump held a press conference the day after the November 6th Midterm elections.
In what was likely intended as a victory lap after early returns suggested that, despite losing the lower house of Congress, Republicans had done better than expected, the President went on to list those Republican candidates who’d lost and blamed their defeats on their failure to “embrace” him. Soon after this rambling monologue, he began to take questions from the assembled journalists.
To say that Trump seemed intentionally testy in responding to most of these reporters would be an understatement, but things really took a bad turn when CNN’s Jim Acosta took the mic.
After asking about Trump’s rhetoric leading up to the Midterms about the caravan of migrants then arriving in Mexico from Central America and tying it into a despicable ad that had been rejected by all the major networks, including Trump supporting Fox News, due to its inflammatory, racist messaging, Acosta attempted a follow up, holding onto the microphone as an intern tried to take it from him at the by then pacing President’s request.
When Acosta finally yielded the floor, still talking but inaudible, Trump made his feelings about the veteran White House correspondent clear, “You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN,” he said, “The way you treat [Press Secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders is horrible. And the way you treat other people is horrible.”
While Trump’s often incoherent answers, casual lying and uncivil treatment of reporters, especially women of color, is reprehensible, Acosta’s showboating accomplished little besides raising his profile and creating fodder for his network, which seems to have given up on reporting the news to pontificate on Trump’s puerile behavior in panel after panel each day.
Not long after the Secret Service pulled Acosta’s hard press pass to the White House. As a result, cable news, and to a lesser extent print media, got yet another opportunity to collectively clutch their pearls over the boorishness of the most powerful man in the world.
After a judge appointed by Trump himself at least temporarily restored Acosta’s pass a few days later on the grounds that the White House had violated his fifth amendment right to due process, the Trump Administration released new guidelines for reporters that takes away the traditional right to ask a president or a surrogate a follow up question.
While presidents and those working under them should do their best to allow follow up questions, especially when on topic, reporters like Acosta, whose ‘questions’ often seem a lot like statements, should be aware of the roomful of other journalists who may actually have the ability to trip up the powerful rather than just piquing them.
While the Trump/Acosta fracas received wide, often outraged coverage, a different story, one that will probably prove far more important over the longer term, went almost completely unmentioned outside of the alternative press.
That a perfect opportunity to show a real, if still only potential, attack by the Trump Administration’s Justice Department on the freedom of the press was almost entirely ignored says a lot about the mainstream press’ actual priorities, not only in the U.S. but in most Western countries with less objectionable leaders.
The truth seems to be that only pleasing advertisers by not writing or broadcasting embarrassing stories about their business practices is more important than pulling ratings in most mainstream news rooms, and Trump’s antics are a proven ratings winner.
The case against Julian Assange
Just as Acosta was getting ready to rejoin his colleagues, Seamus Hughes of George Washington University discovered an unusual occurrence in a federal charging document from the Eastern District of Virginia for a man named Seitu Sulayman Kokayi. In what appears to have been an error of copying and pasting by an assistant U.S. Attorney, the pages after the first seem to refer to another case and a person named “Assange”.
Shockingly, in what we must presume was a mistake, this revealed that there is a sealed indictment for the arrest of Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. By all accounts his condition, both physically and mentally, has been deteriorating, especially since his internet access was cut by his hosts this past March.
While it’s possible that Ecuador’s current president, Lenin Moreno, who doesn’t seem to be a fan of the Australian muckraker, would have cut his communications at some point, Assange seems to have made an error in using his online platform to insert himself into the debate over the referendum held in Catalonia for independence from Spain, a country that is an important partner to his hosts.
The incomplete charging document, which is presumably missing its first page, begins: “The United States has considered alternatives less drastic than sealing, including, for example, the possibility of redactions, and has determined that none would suffice to protect this investigation.Another procedure short of sealing will not adequately protect the needs of law enforcement at this time because, due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.”
While the Obama Administration looked hard for the means to charge Assange and others associated with Wikileaks, they concluded that they couldn’t do so without also going after his media enablers, including the New York Times for their use of the same material.
Although Trump was an enthusiastic supporter of Wikileaks during the campaign, his administration, including current Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, have publicly stated an intention to bring Assange to the U.S. for trial.
Pompeo when at the CIA even went so far as to say, “It is time to call out Wikileaks for what it really is – a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” and it appears that one avenue used to prepare the indictment relates to this.
As explained by the Lawfare Blog (links included), “The Justice Department has regulations, last updated by Eric Holder in 2015, governing obtaining information and records from, making arrests of, and bringing charges against members of the press (see 28 C.F.R. §50.10). These regulations are reasonably protective. But they contain an important exception: “The protections of the policy do not extend to any individual or entity where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the individual or entity is … [a] foreign power or an agent of a foreign power” as defined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It also exempts those for whom there are reasonable grounds to believe the individual or entity is “[a]iding, abetting, or conspiring in illegal activity with a person or organization” that is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.”
While it is far from proven that Wikileaks received any of its materials from Russian government actors, this narrative has been so firmly established in the public mind that evidence may not be necessary. While Assange and his legal representation long claimed that he feared extradition and confinement in the United States, this doesn’t appear to have been a reality until now making his years in purgatory meaningless.
It also appears that if this is able to go forward, it follows a strange precedent that usually involves Latin American drug kingpins in that Assange isn’t even an American citizen.
Whatever one thinks of him, the trial and imprisonment of Assange and likely loss of Wikileaks would be a much greater blow to press freedom than pulling the hard pass of one easily replaceable White House correspondent like Jim Acosta, just don’t expect to hear this on CNN.