The terrorist attack in Brussels commands the attention of us all, and we will comment on its significance in the next few days. In the meantime, the presidential race in the United States moves relentlessly on with no timeout for crisis or tragedy. We have already written more about Donald Trump than we ever expected or wanted to. Yet there is no other issue that is more important to the country than the destructive path down which the Pied Piper of Demagoguery seeks to lead us. And only now is the mainstream media beginning to awaken to the fact that it has played an important role in his ascent. It is too late for them to take back the billions of dollars of print and air time given Trump, but perhaps it is not too late for journalists to begin acting like journalists.
On CNN on Sunday, Jeff Greenfield offered a telling commentary:
One of the things the media and I think cable TV in particular stands indicted — convicted of for months is failing to be prepared enough to — if you’re going to put Trump on, and he’s a front runner, to say, you said this, this is flatly false and not to cover he said/she said. And certainly not to put on un-vetted 45-minute long town meetings where all you hear are — rather rallies where all you hear is Trump speak. That becomes almost like state TV. That’s like what happens when Fidel used to speak.
And the appetite for the ratings, Les Moonves of CBS was very candid when he said Trump may not be good for America but he’s very good for the company.
I think the desire to have him on and the unpreparedness of so many of the people interviewing him will stand for a long time as a serious black mark on the American press.
On Monday, The New York Times published an article which further underscored the economic interest of the media in publicizing Trump, “The Mutual Dependence of Donald Trump and the News Media.” The article analyzed the ratings and revenue effect of lavish Trump coverage by broadcast networks and cable news and described the joy it had produced in the hearts of television executives. The writer treated print media more gently, but did not excuse them entirely. (“None of this is meant to let newspapers off the hook. In our rush to find new digital readers via iPhones and tablets, we are adding to the Trumpian churn.”) The point made by Greenfield—inadequate questioning of Trump—was addressed only in passing and with a half-hearted defense (“True, plenty of Mr. Trump’s “free media” has included some good, tough reporting on him, if belatedly.”)
In our view, the “good, tough reporting” on Trump has been not only belated, but limited to individual stories, quickly read or watched and quickly forgotten. And such reporting has seldom taken the form of rigorous questioning of Trump. To be sure, Trump occasionally fielded a critical question in the debates, but the interrogators allowed him to brush them off or even, as in the case of Megyn Kelly, respond with a vicious counterattack. Trump’s continuing battle with Kelly has been too widely reported to require a reprise here and it is fair to say that she has emerged from it all with enhanced stature and a lucrative book contract. Many other reporters, however, lacking Kelly’s taste and talent for celebrity, will prefer not to let themselves become “the story.” And reporters who write critically of Trump may also find themselves quietly excluded from campaign events.
Politico reported on March 16, that one of its reporters had been barred from a press conference after writing an article critical of the behavior of Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. As Politco made clear, the experience was not unusual:
POLITICO is far from alone among media organizations being denied entry to Trump events. The Des Moines Register, Univision, Fusion, The Huffington Post, National Review, Mother Jones and BuzzFeed have all been denied credentials to Trump’s events, often after publishing critical stories about the campaign. In January, New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel was ejected from an event in Iowa after writing about Trump’s weak ground game in the state, which he eventually lost to Ted Cruz.
Jeff Greenfield attributed the soft interrogation of Trump to lack of preparation on the part of his questioners rather than intimidation, and perhaps that is so. The most recent example of ineffective questioning of Trump is the transcript of his interview by the editorial board of The Washington Post on Monday. The hour-long session was marked by little incisive questioning and wasted considerable time rehashing familiar subjects such as violence at Trump events and Trump’s comments on the size of his hands. When Trump did make substantive comments, by suggesting reduced support for NATO and defeating ISIS by “get[ting] other countries to become very much involved,” the lack of follow up questions was conspicuous.
Among the subjects left untouched by the editors of the Post were Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns, his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico and have Mexico pay for it, proposed deportation of 11.5 million illegal immigrants, and Trump’s statements on trade policy. In order to provide some help to our friends in the Fourth Estate, we will suggest a few questions that they might pose to Trump if they have the opportunity and the fortitude to do so.
Trump’s Tax Returns
After a flurry of interest in Trump’s tax returns, the subject appears to have been quietly dropped by most of the media. Trump has brushed off requests to disclose his returns on the ground that they are being audited. Many observers have pointed out that an ongoing audit is no bar to the release of the return(s) in question. Hence Trump should be asked to explain the basis of his reasoning. Whatever his answer, but assuming no change in position, he then should be asked the two questions posed in our Special Bulletin on February 26, “Is Trump a Tax Cheat?”:
What exactly are the years for which your returns are being audited and when did each audit begin?
What is the last year for which you were audited and the audit closed? Is there any reason not to release the return for that year (and disclose any adjustments made as a result of the IRS audit)?
Other questions might include:
For years in which you do not provide returns, will you disclose the gross income and net income you reported for each year?
Will you disclose your effective tax rate each year?
Will you provide a schedule of the charitable contributions claimed for each year?
In addition to citing pending audits, Trump has claimed that all pertinent information is available from the Personal Financial Disclosure (PFD) form submitted to the Federal Election Commission. That claim is plainly bogus and should be the subject of aggressive questions. We have no idea how many journalists have attempted to analyze the PFD document, but at least one has. An article in Fortune, “Why Donald Trump’s Tax Returns May Prove He’s Not That Rich,” concluded that the PFD presents an incomplete and misleading picture of Trump’s finances that overstated his wealth. One basic point: the figures in it are revenue rather than income (revenue less expenses). As a questioner might well ask: That is a fact, is it not. Mr. Trump?
An article in MarketWatch, “What Trump’s taxes could tell us about the candidate” also pointed out several respects in which Trump’s tax returns would be revealing such as how and to what extent he manipulated the tax law in pursuit of his expressed goal to pay “as little as possible.” As one tax expert put it, “His tax returns will show us how far he pushed the envelope to turn ordinary income into capital gains, defer the payment of tax through ‘like-kind exchanges’ and otherwise create an impenetrable maze for IRS auditors.”
Isn’t the public entitled to know how far you pushed that envelope, Mr. Trump?
Trump has promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico at a cost of $10 billion dollars and to make Mexico pay for the wall. This invites several questions, none of which have been asked so far as we know.
You have claimed that migrants from Mexico are “pouring across the border unabated.” Are you not aware of data from the Pew Research Center showing that “More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the end of the Great Recession,” and that the total population of Mexican immigrants in the United States has declined by 1 million? If you dispute that data, what data are you relying on?
Many observers believe that your estimate of $10 billion is understated. Is that an estimate that you came up with alone or was it made by others? If so, who? Was the estimate made in writing with estimates of numbers of workers and kinds and quantities of material? If so, will you release the written estimate?
You have said that you will make Mexico pay for the wall by “playing with” our trade deficit with Mexico of $58 Billion dollars. Please explain just how you propose to do that. Do you plan to threaten to impose a tariff in violation of NAFTA or to withdraw from NAFTA?
You have said that you plan to deport 11.5 million illegal immigrants. What estimate have you made of the cost of doing so? Are you aware of the report by the American Action Forum indicating that it would require 90,000 federal agents, over 300,000 more beds in detention facilities as well as more than 1,300 immigration courts and about 30,000 more federal attorneys. If you disagree with that report, what data and analysis are you relying on?
Trump and Trade Policy
Mr. Trump, you have repeatedly described our trade deficit with China as $500 or $505 billion when in fact it was $366 billion last year. It appears that you have confused the trade deficit with China and the overall trade deficit. Is that the explanation for your number? If not, why would you overstate the deficit with China?
What specifically would you do to reduce the trade deficit with China? If you impose a tariff, raising prices on goods imported from China, that will raise prices to American consumers. Have you calculated what effect that would have on our economy?
You referred to the companies, Ford, Carrier and Nabisco, that have moved facilities to Mexico and said “we shouldn’t be allowing that to happen.” How exactly would you prevent it?
Trump and the Press
Trump has said that he would like to “loosen” the libel laws to make it easier to sue the media. Although he could not provide the editors of The Washington Post a coherent explanation of what he had in mind, he claimed that he had been the subject of many “false” stories in the Post and elsewhere.
Mr. Trump, please identify any particular false story for which you think you should be entitled to bring a libel action.
Would you as President direct the Solicitor General to attempt to persuade the Supreme Court to abandon, or modify in some defined fashion, the standard for libel that it adopted in Times v. Sullivan in 1964 and has followed ever since. In making appointments to the Supreme Court would you seek to determine the views of potential nominees on libel law? On any other subjects?
Finally, to end on a somewhat lighter note, but one of personal interest:
Trump complained to the Post editors about the Ricketts family which has contributed money to oppose him and which also owns the Chicago Cubs. In typical Trump fashion, he threatened to retaliate: “I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs.”
Mr. Trump, are you aware that last year the Cubs won 97 games in the regular season and played in the National League Championship Series, concluding a year that was universally regarded as a spectacular success. Their manager was voted Manager of the Year, their top pitcher won the Cy Young award, and their third baseman was named Rookie of the Year? Do you really think that’s a “rotten job”?
The subjects we have mentioned are but a few of those on which Trump should experience rigorous questioning. And even in those areas, the questions suggested are far from exhaustive, but they would start the process. Finally, another factor may be equally important. Many politicians tend to answer a question with a point they want to make, rather than actually answering the question. Trump however, does it to a degree that has seldom, if ever, been matched. In interviewing him, questioners must have the discipline and stamina to listen to a non-responsive answer as many times as necessary and, after each one, simply repeat the initial question word for word. It is tedious, but eventually it works more often than not.
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We noted that Jeb Bush has endorsed Ted Cruz, and our initial reaction was surprise and disappointment. Unlike Cruz, Governor Kasich has run the kind of positive campaign that Bush had promised but was unable to execute. On the other hand, the endorsement may serve a useful purpose in the short run if it helps to stem the Trumpian tide. Beyond that, and specifically at a contested convention, we hope and expect that the Bush endorsement will carry little weight. As we have made clear, we believe that Kasich is the only one of the current Republican contenders whom we, and we believe millions of other Republicans, could support in November.