Seriously scary: Trump war with Press is bad news for all
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Few US presidents have entered the White House amid such extraordinary tumult. Former Fleet Street editor Paul Connew describes the start of what will be a unpredictable four years for the world
The real-life plotlines in the run-up to Donald Trump's inauguration as America's 45th president have been enough to leave scriptwriters for House of Cards, The West Wing and The Thick Of It sick with envy. Even Alec Baldwin's Saturday Night Live lampoon looked less like satire and more like a documentary portent of things to come. Throw in that sensational but uncorroborated Moscow sex tape allegation and you can add a touch of John le Carré to the mix.
Never before has a president stepped into the White House locked in a bitter feud with all his intelligence services, most of the mainstream media and with approval ratings of only 40% and an inauguration so surrounded by protest demos, with more A-list 'celebrities' committed to joining the protests than accepting invites to the presidential pomp and ceremony.
Never before has a president projected the impression he is an ego-driven, narcissistic dilettante who envisages running the world's most powerful nation as a combination of business tycoon, television game show host and medieval monarch.
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Those of us who had been encouraged by some in Team Trump to anticipate a very different, decidedly more measured presidential figure than the rabble-rousing raver of the campaign trail are still looking for signs of this remarkable character transformation. It could still happen, perhaps, but you'd be a bold punter to wager more than one of your oldest, well-worn shirts on kit.
Certainly it didn't come with the 'audience' (for that was what it was, rather than an interview) The Great Ego granted The Times in the shape of Michael Gove and a colleague from Germany's Bild. OK, The Donald might not have ranted or raved on this occasion, but he still managed to display both startling ignorance and frightening inconsistency on at least a couple of key issues.
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- 7 Former Labour MP tells Jeremy Corbyn to retire after being suspended from party
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Witness his chilling description of NATO as 'obsolete', followed within minutes by him then calling it 'important'. Witness him telling Gove that the US and Russia must 'substantially reduce' their nuclear arsenal, seemingly oblivious to (or contemptuous of) the fact that less than three weeks earlier he'd declared his commitment to a renewed nuclear arms race.
Despite critics who have mocked The Times and Michael Gove over their 'encounter' with The Donald, it was a genuine 'scoop' insofar that it was Trump's first interview (oops, sorry, 'audience') with major European newspapers since his election victory. It was genuinely revealing, too, in that it provided fresh insight into the stream of consciousness thought process of the most powerful man on earth… a sort of face-to-face Twitter stream. Or the prospect of the Oval Office being presided over by the equivalent of the loudest and most opinionated bloke in the bar down at the Dog & Duck.
Whether Gove's failure to forensically challenge some of those inconsistencies was a cop-out down to his later, seemingly awestruck description of Trump as an 'incredible force of nature' or a calculated decision to sit back and allow The Donald to pour out his off-the-cuff, illogical, inconsistent, ill-informed and often self-contradictory spiel only the Brexit-championing, ex-Cabinet Minister turned Times columnist truly knows.
Similarly, the rumour mill suggests that Gove's ultimate boss, Rupert Murdoch, might have 'brokered' the Times audience with Trump. Maybe, maybe not. But I doubt we'll get a definitive answer to that one, either.
Arguably the most remarkable twist to the tale of the Times Trump encounter was that it set the agenda for the rest of the UK media on a very flimsy angle. The notion that Trump had 'promised' the UK a special fast track trade deal with the US seemed to be predicated on no more than the him reiterating his support for Brexit and responding 'you're doing great' when Michael Gove rather too plaintively asked whether we'd now be at the front of the queue for presidential favour.
With Trump's continued Twitter-feed 'commitment' to populist protectionism Britain would do well not to count its chickens on that one and any deal eventually offered by President Trump would be more likely tilted in America's best interest rather than the UK's.
Far more significant, and disturbing, was Trump's almost gleeful prediction that the EU is likely to disintegrate, and his assertion that he 'trusts' Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin equally. That's the same Angela Merkel, by the way, that Trump variously hailed as 'fantastic' and branded 'catastrophic' in swift succession, without so much as a raised eyebrow, let alone a sharp interjection, from either Gove or the man from Bild.
While his questionable boasts of being the man who knew Brexit would win the UK referendum was somewhat undermined by the ignorance displayed with his suggestion that Remain would have won if Britain hadn't taken in so many 'illegal' refugees – a total failure to grasp the reality that it was the issue of legal EU migrant workers that tilted the balance.
Then there was Trump's chillingly contradictory condemnation of the 'terrible' shooting of 'old ladies' in Aleppo with his chirpy prediction of doing 'great things' with Putin, without reference to the Russian president's complicity with Assad in the shameful slaughterhouse that is Syria today. If ever there was a tough question Gove should have plucked up the courage to ask The Donald, that was it – but, alas, again it never came.
Instead we were told (again) how much Trump's Scots-born mum loved the Queen and how much The Donald admires the ability of the 'English' to put on pomp and ceremony like no one else on Earth. (Sorry, Donald, but aren't the Scots, Welsh and Irish up to the job too?). But the footage inside his Trump Tower 'Man Cave' provided an invaluable insight into the colossal ego of America's new commander-in-chief … here, truly, was a shrine to the Narcissist Supreme.
The same narcissistic streak that saw Trump refer to himself in the Third Person both during the Gove 'interview' and the surreal, and seriously scary, press conference that had preceded it days earlier.
Seriously scary because, even while belatedly accepting US intelligence agencies were 'probably' right over Russian cyber-hacking during the US presidential election, he devalued it by continuing to flatter Putin personally.
Seriously scary because of his monstrous attempt to compare those intelligence agencies charged with keeping America (and the West generally) safe to 'Nazi Germany'. And all because Trump wrongly accused them of 'leaking' that alleged Moscow hotel room 'dalliance' with prostitutes to the media.
Seriously scary because Trump knew only too well that the disputed dossier compiled by a British former senior MI6 spook had been commissioned by both Republican and Democrat opponents of Trump and had then been passed to several media organisations back last summer and not via the CIA, FBI or any other US intelligence agency.
Seriously scary too, in terms of the Trump Twittersphere take on truth, that he also saw fit to tweet that James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, had written to him to apologise for the 'false' Moscow sex scandal allegations in the dossier. In reality, Clapper had written to deny that America's intelligence services had 'leaked' it to the media and to reiterate that they hadn't reached a conclusion either way on its credibility.
Seriously scary too, in the context of Trump's vitriolic, sinister but electorally highly-effective targeting of a 'corrupt' mainstream media, with his arrogant press conference refusal to allow CNN a question because they'd carried a cautious, balanced report on the fact that the Moscow allegations had been included in the report US intelligence agencies had compiled on Russian cyber-hacking for a briefing for both Obama and Trump himself.
Seriously scary too because the rest of the mainstream media at that black farce of a press conference failed to protest vigorously at Trump's treatment of CNN as he branded it 'fake news'. If ever there was a moment for the MSM to have shown solidarity by insisting CNN should be allowed their question, that was it. A mass walkout by the media might even have concentrated the Trump mind enough to back down. Or maybe, to pick up on a delicious notion from the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, this should have been the 'Spartacus' opportunity for every journo in the room to declare: 'I am CNN!'
For what it's worth, I happen to think BuzzFeed went too far in running the entire dossier which I fully accept may well be unfounded and the result of Russian sources who were out for a fast buck, or even complicit with Kremlin sources in sowing discord between their favoured POTUS and US intelligence agencies.
But, whatever BuzzFeed's OTT misjudgement may have been, the incontrovertible fact that intelligence chiefs had seen fit to append it – without a view as to its veracity or not – to their briefing paper for both the outgoing and incoming presidents made it a legitimate public interest story in the way CNN and eventually most of the world's MSM have handled it.
That bizarre press conference also saw Trump brush away questions about his still unreleased tax records with the dismissive claim that 'reporters' were the only people who cared about it and not the 'public'. Quite how he equates that with a new poll showing 75% of Americans – including half of Trump supporters – want his tax records made public is another interesting question. But, for once, don't expect a quick tweet on the subject.
But the scariest aspect of all is that, if those allegations of sexual and financial impropriety involving Trump and Russia really do have substance, the only way the world is likely to discover it would be if the president of the United States incurs the displeasure of the brutal and ruthless ruler of the Kremlin.
For the moment at least, Putin is only too happy to echo the Trump denials and brand the whole episode 'dirty tricks' by a departing Obama, US and UK intelligence chiefs and 'embittered' allies of Hillary Clinton.
But as long as Trump continues to prioritise 'doing great things' with Putin while ranting, raving and denigrating his own intelligence services and any media organisation that dares to prick his peculiarly thin presidential skin, the thick cloud of suspicion, justified or not, simply won't go away and the braver spirits from the world of investigative journalism will carry on probing.
It'll be interesting to see how Trump reacts to Obama's clemency for Chelsea Manning. Normally you'd expect him to criticise heavily....but then there is the little matter of how much Wikileaks helped him on the campaign trail...
There was something depressingly 'unpresidential' about Trump's spat with the iconic civil rights campaigner and veteran Georgia congressman John Lewis who had the 'temerity' to call The Donald an illegitimate president and announced he'd be among around 30 Capitol Hill Democrats boycotting the inauguration ceremony. In response Trump tweeted that the 76-year-old was 'all talk, talk, talk....no action and results'. The fact that Trump went on the attack on the eve of Martin Luther King Day only added fuel to the rising tide of racial tension triggered by his election victory.
Meanwhile, even among Trump's inner circle, there was a degree of dismay that he took time out from preparing for the presidency to attack-via Twitter, of course, Meryl Streep over her Golden Globes ceremony criticism of his mocking of a disabled reporter on the campaign trail. Not least because Trump's dismissal of Streep as 'one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood' contradicted his own well-publicised lauding of her as recently as 2015.
Still more bizarre, perhaps, was The Donald's Twitter taunting of his successor on The Apprentice Arnold Schwarzenneger over the show's declining ratings and boasting that Arnie 'got swamped by comparison to ratings machine, DJT!'. If nothing else, it only revived the controversy over Trump's insistence that he'll remain executive producer of the programme while he's in the White House and added to the growing conflict of interest questions surrounding his business interests and the presidency.
On Capitol Hill there is a growing rumour that Trump has flatly rejected appeals from security chiefs to surrender his private phone and personal Twitter account. But, as one member of Team Trump told me a couple of weeks ago, 'Donald sees himself as a modern communications revolutionary president. And with so much of the media establishment hostile to him, he regards Twitter and Facebook as his high-speed hotline to the very people who elected him'.
The build-up to Trump's inauguration was plunged into further sensation on Tuesday with former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos's decision to file a New York lawsuit accusing the president-elect of sexual assault.
Zervos is one of a dozen US women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct and as she is being represented by the renowned and feisty feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, the prospect of the president being forced to appear in court may well turn out to be something he can't dismiss with another Twitter tirade.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and one of the authors of a new book, 'Last Words: Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?' published this month by Abramis. He is a former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and as US Bureau Chief for the Mirror Group he met and interviewed Donald Trump twice in his pre-Apprentice days
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