Election Analysis: Trump sacrifices House Republicans to strengthen GOP Senate majority

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A busy week of explaining the U.S. election to Chinese audiences.

China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:

Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?

A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.

Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?

A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.

Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?

A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.

Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?

A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.

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The Magic of MAGA? Trump charges up his troops … again.

Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?

A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.

Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?

A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.

It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.

Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?

A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.

Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?

A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.

Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?

A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.

But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.


Trump’s NAFTA gamble: A quick cost-benefit analysis

Here’s my quick take on Donald Trump’s hard-line negotiating style with Canada and Mexico over the future of the North America Free Trade Agreement. Trump thinks that he can wring concessions out of America’s two neighbors that would bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It’s a very big gamble: The automakers might just build the cars elsewhere.

Here’s the video clip from CGTN’s World Insight with Tian Wei. Just click on the embedded link:

 


Best practices in multimedia journalism: NY Times video on ‘Dreamers’

As a professor of multimedia journalism, I tell my students about the importance of clear, concise storytelling — in whatever medium they choose. The New York Times has been leading the news industry in its use of multimedia platforms, from data visualization to videos that complement text stories.

This September 5, 2017, video was posted in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to end the so-called “DACA” program that protected children brought illegally into the United States from the threat of immediate deportation. Look at its production qualities. People speaking into the camera, stating their personal stories. The camera is the storyteller. There is a minimum of text on the screens. The storytelling is spare. And powerful.

Take a look.

https://static01.nyt.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000005403642


A Fourth of July analysis of Donald Trump’s first six months in power

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What is America’s place in the world on the first July 4 of the Trump administration?

As a regular analyst of American politics, policy and economics, I am often asked to explain Donald Trump to global audiences. Here is my Fourth of July segment on World Insight with Tian Wei:


Truth matters: A commencement address to Global Business Journalism Program graduates

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Here is the text of my address to the 2017 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University on June 28, 2017.

大家好。Добрый день. Benvenuti. Welcome.

I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your graduate studies.

You are a special group – the best young business journalism minds in China, along with a unique mixture of nations: Iran, Israel, Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Slovakia, Turkey, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that many more of you will have an impact in the years to come, in journalism systems as disparate as Iran, the United States and China.

All of us in this room have our differences – cultural, geographical, even political – but one thing that unites us is the search for truth. As Jim Asher, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for his role in the Panama Papers investigation, said recently: “A world without facts can’t function.”

We live in an unsettling era when the concept of “truth” can be a matter of dispute. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Donald Trump, has declared that the White House is entitled to its own “alternative facts.” Whatever that means.

To the graduating class of 2017 and your proud professors, that’s just plain nonsense. We owe it to the public, whether we operate in the United States, China, or anywhere around the world, to share the truth, as best as we can tell it, and to explain what the truth means to our audience. As the 2017 National Press Club president, Jeffrey Ballou, said to fellow American journalists in Akron, Ohio: “Truth is not a game at all.”

The esteemed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Братья Карамазовы, The Brothers Karamazov, summed up the predicament of the perpetual prevaricator. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie,” he wrote, “comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”

We must respect knowledge, respect truth, and respect ourselves. We owe it to the global public to use the knowledge we have gained about China and about global economics to provide our audiences with intelligent, insightful and factual reports. With your newfound expertise on the Chinese economy, globalization, corporate strategies and much more, you can communicate clearly and comprehensively, on any multimedia platform, about issues ranging from the Paris climate change accords to the Belt and Road Initiative.

One of my favorite philosophers, Nelson Mandela, said that “a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

You have something very special – tools that you can use to make the world a more informed and a more just place. Because, as our dean, Liu Binjie, said in his speech welcoming many of you to the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication in September 2016, “Justice is the soul of the news.”

Barbara Cochran, my successor as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington, reminds us that truth is an imperfect pursuit, and journalists are imperfect people. “All news organizations make mistakes from time to time,” she said recently, “but they are trying to tell the truth and generally do it well.”

Truth and justice. The Global Business Journalism program has been trying to live up to the highest international standards for the past 10 years. Since 2007, the GBJ program has combined rigorous academics with practical journalism training in a cross-cultural setting at one of the world’s great universities.

Thanks to the vision of brilliant minds such as Professor Li Xiguang, ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan, and ICFJ vice president Vjollca Shtylla, the GBJ program was created. Thanks to the financial and journalistic support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Bank of America, it has grown and prospered. Thanks to the commitment of Tsinghua leaders like Dr. Hang Min, Dean Shi, Dean Chen, Dean Hu, Professor Lee Miller, Professor Dai Jia, and many more, it has a bright future. Thanks to dedicated and high-achieving alumni from some 60 countries, GBJ is improving the quality of journalism – and public understanding of economic issues — in China and around the world.

I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. In his 1947 book Man Against Myth, he concluded that understanding the truth was necessary to overcome society’s myths. “With words, as with knowledge generally,” my grandfather wrote, “there can be no substitute for constant analysis of fact.”

Truth. Justice. Words. Knowledge. Tsinghua. That pretty much sums it up. Congratulations on your achievements in the Global Business Journalism Program. I look forward to your truth-telling in the years to come.

谢谢。Thank you.


Trump, Putin and journalism in the post-truth world: A philosophical dialogue

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My conversation with Matti Virtanen, as it appeared online in Finnish.

During my latest speaking tour of Finland, I’ve been discussing the policy implications of the Trump presidency with business leaders, university students and business school alumni. But I’ve also had the chance to talk to some of the top editors in Finland about the ethical and journalistic challenges facing American reporters trying to cover a very different kind of president.Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 1.20.05 PM

Here is my conversation with Matti Virtanen, a veteran journalist with Talouselämä. Click here to read his article in Finnish.

Q: If you look at Trump’s communications as a whole, what do you think is the main difference between his and a professional politician’s rhetoric?

A: Trump’s rhetoric is more colorful and less “politically correct” than an average politician. He seems to enjoy being incendiary and provocative. He never fears the consequences of his own words.

Q: Much of political discourse is full of exaggerations and embellishments, and statements that are meaningless or “not even wrong.” Where do you draw the line that differentiates all this from lying?

A: Lying is intentionally or knowingly saying something that is untrue. It is the same as the distinction between a killing and a murder. Murder is killing with malicious intent. Lying is telling falsehoods or untruths with malicious intent. Saying that 3 million “illegal aliens” voted — and all voted for Hillary Clinton — is untrue. Once you are told it’s not true and you keep saying it, it’s a lie. (Or if you knew it was untrue when you first said it, it’s a lie.) The difference between Trump and typical politicians is that Trump’s supporters do not hold him accountable for not telling the truth. Average supporters and his advisers will lecture the press, saying you are “taking him too literally.” It’s dangerous territory for the media and for politicians when the truth is a philosophical concept and not an objective reality.

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Talking Trump in Finland.

Q: What are the most obvious lies that Trump has expressed in office? (Three examples will do, let’s forget the campaign lies for now.)

He falsely stated, over and over, that he had the biggest Electoral College landslide with Ronald Reagan, when, in reality, Barack Obama (twice), Bill Clinton (twice) and George H.W. Bush all had more. He stated without evidence that Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower, something flatly denied by the FBI and the former Director of National Intelligence. He claimed, without offering evidence, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because 3 million illegal immigrants voted for her. He said she won New Hampshire because of “massive” voter fraud. Elections officials in the states he mentioned all denied his claims, which he has repeated over and over since then. Also, he said more than 100 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners were released by Obama and have returned to the battlefield. (All but nine were released by Bush.)

Q: How is the system equipped to counter lies from the White House?

A: The media ecosystem is not set up to deal with serial lies from public officials, or, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called them, “alternative facts.” Trump’s strange relationship with the truth has left reporters in an uncomfortable position: report his claims factually, as you would with most public officials, and become part of a disinformation or propaganda campaign — or state that the president of the United States did not tell the truth, which makes many Americans believe that you are taking political sides and are part of “the opposition” to Trump, as Trump aide Steve Bannon puts it.

Q: Why is he getting away with lies better than his predecessors, who were also not quite immune to the syndrome?

A: Many of Trump’s supporters say it is just “Trump being Trump.” They think it is refreshing to have a “politically incorrect” president. Some find it entertaining to see the establishment ridiculed. Thus far, none of the falsehoods seem to have harmed Trump’s public standing. His approval rate has changed relatively little since it dipped during his first week in office, despite a barrage of reporting on false statements from the president.

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Speaking at an AmCham Finland “Brief on the Go” in Helsinki.

Q: What is the threshold that would trigger a formal, legal investigation of the president’s lying?

A: Either a Democratic-controlled Congress (in two years at the earliest) or a lie on a sensitive national security subject, such as his relationship with the Kremlin or possible blackmailing of him by Vladimir Putin or Russian intelligence.

Q: How long can the Republican Party remain united in defense of presidential lying?

A: Party leaders are following their followers. As long as Trump’s support among rank-and-file Republicans remains above 80 percent, as it has been since he assumed office, Republican elected officials will be cautious in they criticism. Some Republican elected officials have dismissed some of Trump’s statements as incorrect (such as his allegations of voter fraud or his claims about wiretapping), but they have not broken with Trump politically. As long as Republican voters do not abandon Trump, he will maintain a base of power in Congress.

Q: How likely is it that we are going to see an impeachment process against Trump?

A: It won’t happen as long as the Republicans control Congress — unless there is evidence that he sold out the United States to Russia for business purposes or under threat of blackmail. There is no evidence of that now. Short of that, it won’t happen in the next two years. I think it would be a mistake for Democrats, should they take control of Congress in 2019, to immediately initiate impeachment proceedings. It would look like crass politics. It would be smarter to have oversight hearings and see where the evidence leads.

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Q&A in Helsinki

Q: What if the Department of Justice refuses to appoint a special prosecutor? Does the Congress have any way around that?

A: Excellent question. Congress can’t appoint a special prosecutor, but it can create a bipartisan investigating committee or empower an independent, bipartisan commission. I think the commission approach is the most likely. It will be less inflammatory and more likely to get at the truth, quietly and over a longer period of time.

Q: How would you rate Trump’s lying if you compare it with the untruths from Russian and Chinese governments?

A: Trump’s relationship to the truth is similar to Putin’s. They both say things that are demonstrably untrue. With the Chinese government, there is a lot of “partisan spin,” but rarely does the government say things that can be easily contradicted. One way or another, an American president doesn’t want to be compared to Putin or other authoritarian regimes when it comes to credibility.

Q: What about the personal level: how do you feel about the situation?

A: I feel that it’s a tough time to be a reporter. You must have a thick skin and be willing to be bullied and threatened. Thus far, no harm has come to an American reporter, but many of my former colleagues have been subjected to online harassment and even phone calls at their homes. The old rules of fairness apply to our reporting, even if the norms of truthfulness are shifting. Reporters have to adjust if they want to maintain their integrity and shed light on the words and deeds of public officials.

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Pay no attention to the man behind the podium.


Q&A: The causes and consequences of Michael Flynn’s NSC exit

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Happier times: Michael Flynn is all smiles as Vladimir Putin and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein applaud at the 10th anniversary gala for Russia’s international propaganda outlet, RT.

I discussed the sudden resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with China Radio International this morning. The interview came hours after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had breached his trust with Donald Trump by lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s call to Kislyak was intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources and a transcript was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Here is a Q&A of my conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity:

Q: We know that Flynn resigned because of the scandal involving his talk with Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was in office. But what law did he exactly violate?

A: He did not violate any law simply by talking to the ambassador. If he was promising a future Trump administration action in return for a certain Russian response to the Obama sanctions against Russia that had just been announced, he might have violated the Logan Act. That law, enacted in the year 1799, makes it a crime for unauthorized American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments involved in disputes with the United States, such as promising future U.S. government action.

The bigger issue is whether Flynn lied to the FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump campaign ties to the Russian government, about this conversation. That would be a felony crime. Apparently, the acting attorney general informed Trump that Flynn may have lied to the FBI. Trump apparently kept that information from his vice president, Mike Pence, who lied to the press as a result. Trump and Flynn also lied to the press about this call — but it’s not a crime to lie to the press.

Q: Did Flynn have any other choices besides resignation?

A: Not really. According to the White House spokesman, Trump demanded his resignation. If that statement from Sean Spicer is true, then his only choice was to either resign or be fired. By resigning, Trump allowed Flynn to issue a statement explaining his point of view in the matter.

With this scandal, Flynn sets some sort of record for being forced to leave two consecutive White House administrations, first Obama and now Trump.

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Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak speaks at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO photo)

Q: White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said President Donald Trump knew weeks ago — at the end of January — there were problems with Michael Flynn’s Russia phone calls. Then what’s the long pause between Trump knowing the fact and Flynn’s resignation about? Why the wait?

A: This is the question that reporters — and many Republicans in Washington — want answered. The simple answer is that Trump knew Flynn lied, but the public did not know. We don’t know the backstory yet, but Trump may have thought he could get away with keeping Flynn on the job as long as the lies did not become public knowledge. Once the Washington Post published a report that Trump was told Flynn had lied (and did not tell Mike Pence or others in the administration), Flynn was gone in a day.

Q: Will there be an investigation of the phone call and everyone involved in the White House?

A: Yes, and no. Congressional Republicans say they will investigate Flynn and his ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee says it will conduct an investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman said today he will not investigate Trump’s conversations with Flynn, citing a concept called “executive privilege,” which shields a president’s discussions with aides from public disclosure.

Q: What political implications does this have on the presidency?

A: It elevates the importance of criminal investigations by the FBI and Justice Department into Russian attempts to influence the election, it removes Russia’s most vocal supporter from Trump’s inner circle and empowers Russia’s top critic in the Trump inner circle, Vice President Pence. In the U.S., it’s further evidence of chaos within the White House and reinforces the concept that White House officials regularly deceive each other and lie to the public. Whether that is true or not, the perception is becoming more widely accepted.

Q: Following Mr Flynn’s resignation, the White House announced that Keith Kellogg, who was serving as chief of staff of the National Security Council, would take over as interim national security advisor while the White House would scout for a candidate for the position. What do we know about Kellogg and how does his national security plan for the U.S. look like?

A: He is 72 years old. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a top civilian official in post-war in Iraq. He was generally respected by people in both parties. He was the first retired general to endorse Trump’s campaign for the presidency when few in U.S. politics took it seriously. He has Trump’s confidence, but some mainstream Republicans believe he is not strong enough by to stand up to Trump’s most hawkish advisers, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. They would rather have remain as a specialist in policy rather than the top administrator.

If Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a protege of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is chosen, that is a sign of Mattis’ influence in the administration. If former CIA director David Petraeus is chosen, it is a good sign for the U.S. intelligence community. If Kellogg is chosen, it may be a sign that Trump values loyalty over everything else. The selection may tell us who’s up and who’s down inside the Trump White House.