By Lena Williams
In an extensive on-the-record interview with The New York Times on July 19, President Trump was oddly candid, brutally honest, bombastic and misleading. In other words, his usual self.
The president told the Times he was disappointed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the federal investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians without so much as giving him a heads up about it. It wasn’t “fair,” the president said.
Trump suggested Robert Mueller III, the special counsel investigating possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, was overstepping his authority. He acknowledged he had a 15-minute impromptu conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin during dinner at the G-20 summit in which the two leaders discussed Russia’s ban on American adoptions, among other things.
The president lashed out at Senate Republicans’ failure to replace the Affordable Care Act, misrepresented historical facts about the FBI and Napoleon’s 1812 campaign to invade Russia.
The interview made headlines around the world.
I was surprised not so much by what it revealed, but by the fact that Donald Trump had granted an exclusive Oval Office interview with the New York Times, one of his biggest targets in his ongoing battle with the media.
As a candidate and as president, Trump has repeatedly called The New York Times, a “failing” institution, unworthy of its reputation as the paper of record, let alone his personal time. He has denounced The Times as “fake news,” along with a string of other mainstream media outlets such as the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and NBC. The list goes on.
After winning the election, Trump tweeted that the Times was losing “thousands of subscribers because of their poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the Trump phenomena,” has publicly and repeatedly castigated a newspaper and the industry it is a part of and the public it serves
I wondered why a man who, shown such blatant contempt towards the Times would grant a private audience to said newspaper and feel comfortable and confident that he would be treated fairly.
Is it because Trump understands that he needs media outlets like the Times? Perhaps, the president realizes that he cannot get his messages across to multimillions in 140-character tweets. Maybe he knows that while he may not like the media, he needs it to appear presidential and to establish his legacy.
It’s not the first time Trump turned to mainstream media.
Last May, he told NBC News anchor Lester Holt that he fired FBI director James Comey because of “the Russia thing.”
In the televised interview that aired May 11, Trump described Comey as a “showboat” and a “grandstander,” and said the FBI was in turmoil under his leadership.
The president admitted to Holt what he hadn’t even told Vice President Pence, his White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, and apparently other members of his administration.
Then there was the interview Trump gave to the Associated Press on April 23, when he surprised some of his supporters by saying he shouldn’t be bound by his 100-day promises. And, in a jaw-dropping moment he claimed his appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” drew the highest ratings for the show “since the World Trade Center came down.”
Trump used a televised interview on April 12 with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network to break the news to Congress that he was reversing himself and planned to finish health care reform before tax reform. The president also acknowledged that his administration is understaffed “by hundreds and hundreds of people” and let Bartiromo in on another secret he hadn’t shared.
“But I will tell you only because you’ve treated me so good for so long,” Trump said.
The president then let the world know that he was having dessert, chocolate cake to be exact, with Chinese President Xi Jinping when the U.S. military launched an air-strike in Syria.
Trump claims to despise the media. He doesn’t hide his contempt for journalists and has called members of the media “the enemy” of the American people.
And yet, the president has at times been his most open and candid with the media.
Why? Because Trump knows what the founding fathers knew some 241 years ago: Government cannot effectively serve the people without a free press; the role of the press is to hold the nation’s leaders accountable to the people; presidents don’t have to like the press but must and should respect the jobs they do; and that everyone benefits when the head-of-state and the Fourth Estate communicate.
Despite Trump’s campaign to undermine, divide and conquer the media, journalists keep coming back for more because they have an ethical responsibility to do so. Throughout history, presidents have relied on and used the media to speak to the American people. The president needs the media and the press needs and wants the president of the United States to be an advocate of the public’s right to know, not an adversary.
It would be nice, and good for democracy, if the president held a formal press conference every now and then instead of parsing out news and interviews on a case-by-case basis. Since taking office, Trump has held only one formal press conference. Too often, the press corps has had to rely on outside sources for insight into the White House inner sanctum.
The president and the media can and should work together. Both must find common ground in their respective roles. The president may feel the media is biased against him. Journalists may feel the president is trying to demonize them. But presidents come and go. The media, however, has been and will always be the essential pillar of our democracy, as valid today as it was centuries ago. Try as he might, Trump cannot ignore the media, its historical relevance or the vital role it plays in his presidency.