ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on our broadcast.
Joining me around the table, Toluse Olorunnipa of Bloomberg News, Julie Pace of the Associated Press, POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein, and Michael Scherer of The Washington Post.
Hundreds of American newspapers ran editorials Thursday that pushed back at President Trump’s attacks on the news media and his frequent claims that the mainstream media is – his words – fake news, and that journalists are, quote, “the enemy of the people.” The Boston Globe’s editorial board spearheaded this effort to galvanize news organizations. Their headline read “Journalists are not the enemy” and went on to write “A central pillar of President Trump’s politics is a sustained assault on the free press…This relentless assault on the free press has dangerous consequences.” President Trump, as you would expect, weighed in on Twitter, saying “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY. It is very bad for our Great Country....BUT WE ARE WINNING!”
Julie, you think about this administration. It’s had a strained relationship with the press from the start, going back to the campaign. I remember The Washington Post was banned. But what’s the moment tell us when the news organizations band together with these editorials?
JULIE PACE: I think it speaks to our level of concern about the president’s rhetoric. I think that it is part of his strategy to try to demonize a free and fair press. I think that he knows that there’s a skepticism in a lot of parts of this country about the media. He’s trying to play into that. He’s trying to discredit negative reporting about him. But I do think that it’s really important that as journalists we stand up for ourselves and we stand up for our role in this democracy. We’re not here to represent our own personal interests; we’re here to be a conduit between the public and powerful people. And I think that if you look at countries around the world where that relationship does not exist, you find countries where you have rampant corruption, where you have dictatorships. And I think that all Americans, I would hope, were really proud about the way that the press stood up and defended our First Amendment rights this week.
MICHAEL SCHERER: It’s just another day when the president’s fighting the national publications, but what’s different about this is there were a lot of local papers involved.
MS. PACE: Absolutely.
MR. SCHERER: And, you know, the president has a much more difficult time making the case that the local paper that you read every day that isn’t covering the White House is fake news as well. So I think it adds another voice and a little bit of credibility. It’s not just CNN versus President Trump again; it’s, you know, a publication you probably trust more.
JOSH GERSTEIN: I think there is a risk, though, in it when you see the media locking arms together. I don’t disagree with anything you guys said about the substance of what President Trump has said and the enemy of the people comments, the dangers involved in them. But there is an element here where when the press gets together and collectively begins to respond it does start to confirm some of the worldviews that President Trump often reflects and that many of his supporters have that it’s not just that the media is perhaps liberal or the media doesn’t like him, but that there’s some sort of active conspiracy against him. So I do think we have to be careful in sort of coordinated across-the-board efforts that we don’t actually reinforce some of the messages that people are already getting.
MR. COSTA: That’s an important – I’ve thought about that a lot because, Toluse, when you think about the press, as Julie said, every newspaper wants to defend its integrity, defend its reputation, but this is also a White House that wants to have the debate – bait you into a debate about fake news. Sometimes when people call me fake news – if I meet a voter, sometimes they’ll say you’re a hero, you’re a reporter; another voter will say you’re fake news. I try not to engage on that level because if you start having that debate then you’re respecting the debate’s terms, which is that somehow I could be fake news and I now need to defend myself. I just try to not respond to that and focus on the reporting. To Josh’s point, how does the media balance defending itself rightfully with also making sure we don’t seem like we’re a political entity fighting the administration?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Right, we as reporters do not want to become the story. We do not want to be really part of the story, we just want to report the news, and I think that’s important in our – in our role. And I think part of the reason all of these newspapers decided to band together was because there was no major entity coming to the defense of the press as President Trump called us fake news and attacked the free press on a regular basis. You didn’t really see Congress stepping up. You did not see our other institutions stepping up in defense of the free press. Now, we did see this week the Senate pass unanimously a resolution basically saying that the press is not the enemy of the people, so that was encouraging to see the Congress step up in a way that we haven’t seen so far in the past. But I think as reporters it’s our job to sort of keep our heads down and keep doing the work, but when the president continues and continues to attack and we don’t really see anyone coming to our defense I think that’s probably what sparked this movement by so many different editorial boards to sort of put out the basic idea that journalists are basically representatives of the First Amendment and the free press is important to a democracy.
MR. COSTA: It didn’t get a ton of attention this week, but amid all of this, Julie, the president pulls in Peter Nicholas of The Wall Street Journal for an interview, and he’s had you in the Oval Office before for an interview. So even as he fights this war on one level, he still is having an exchange with the media.
MS. PACE: So this is, I mean, the open secret in Washington about this president, that he, you know, on the one hand will trash the reporters who are covering him; at the same time, he is courting those same reporters. And he loves the give and take with the media. You know, in a lot of ways we have much more access to this president than we have had to past presidents. He’s out there on the South Lawn of the White House answering questions as he’s going to Marine One. You know, he – I don’t think he’s ever met a microphone that he didn’t like. So, you know, there’s this real – this real kind of dichotomy in his relationship with the press, but ultimately I do think that it’s important that we kind of peel back the curtain a little bit, as Peter did after his interview, and just explain as much as he says we are fake news, he really wants to be involved with that news.
MR. SCHERER: Ratings is power. That’s what he’s after. There was an interview he did I think in early 2016 on Air Force One in which he pointed to the television screen and it was all him, all the time and he said that’s what people don’t understand, if you’re getting the ratings, you’re winning. Now, that’s a paraphrase, but that was basically his message and I think it’s still true today.
This country, us in Washington, we spend an enormous amount of time every day talking about the crazy thing, the wonderful thing, the difficult thing, the challenging thing, the, you know, whatever thing that Trump just did and that’s exactly how he wants it.
MR. COSTA: Moving on. President Trump spent Bastille Day in France last year after seeing the military parade down the Champs-Elysees and he decided he wanted to have one in Washington on Veterans Day, but the initial cost was predicted to be in the 10 (million dollar) to $30 million range, I’d say. And then reporting came out this week, Thursday, that showed a much higher number, possibly as high as $92 million. The Department of Defense then put out a statement later in the day saying that plans were being pushed back and that it is, quote, “exploring opportunities in 2019.”
President Trump sent out a tweet Friday blaming the local D.C. government for the high estimate. He wrote, “When asked to give a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I canceled it.”
He wanted this parade. Was it the D.C. government? Was it concerns inside of the Pentagon? What’s the real story here?
MR. GERSTEIN: Well, I was surprised by him then saying he was going to somehow redirect these funds to buy jet fighter planes or something along those lines. And when I looked at the amount of money involved, I don’t think it would cover more than about three-quarters of an aircraft, so it would be very difficult to fly. But it’s fascinating he would try to push this off onto the D.C. government. I’m sure there’s some element there that folks in the D.C. government would be looking to get every penny they could out of this.
MR. COSTA: A pretty conservative government in D.C. (Laughter.) Or not.
MR. GERSTEIN: Exactly. They’re not the – they’re not the president’s friends. On the other hand, it’s been clear from the beginning that the military wasn’t interested in doing this and they were looking at every opportunity to shut this down. So it seems like perhaps there was an agreement between both sides here to present the White House with a pretty robust bill for this and hope that the president would make it go away.
MR. OLORUNNIPA: And we’ve heard from veterans groups, the American Legion basically coming out and saying, you know, we’re not celebrating the end of any war, we’ve been in the Middle East for more than 17 years. There are a number of veterans who are struggling who need funding, who need health care that this money would be better well-spent in the VA or supporting veterans who have come back from a harrowing time overseas. And having a military parade in Washington, D.C. may be something that would stroke a president’s ego and something that he might like, but what would we really be celebrating if we’re still at war and if there’s still veterans who are struggling? So I think that’s the message that the president and the Pentagon got, especially as these numbers went higher and higher and they decided to push this off.
MS. PACE: It is interesting, though, to remember where this all started. The president was in France and there was a big parade for Bastille Day. And we’ve seen now other foreign leaders, most recently Theresa May in Britain, pick up on the president’s love of the military hardware and aircrafts and the tanks. They did a whole big display and he apparently told advisers how impressed he was.
So while I think that the Pentagon is probably hoping that the idea of pushing this off to 2019 just puts this on the back burner, I’m not so sure. I think that the president would love an opportunity to do this, even with a pretty high cost.
MR. SCHERER: Do you remember that press conference he held down in Mar-a-Lago where he actually brought out a bunch of steaks, the Trump steaks, during the campaign? (Laughter.) He had the Trump water. It turned out the steaks were just from some restaurant, they weren’t actually Trump steaks. He has a real sense of television and what works with images and I think that it’s pretty irresistible. If he can pull it off, I bet he tries.
MR. COSTA: That point about images is right. I mean, he can see – it reminds me, in a sense, of the border wall.
MR. SCHERER: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: He knows how it would play as an image in the mind of his voters and supporters, so he promises the border wall. It hits the reality in Washington, it’s not being fully funded, just like the parade. People see it, they like the idea, but the reality is that the money’s not there.
MR. SCHERER: The Space Force.
MS. PACE: Space Force, right.
MR. SCHERER: Which got a bad poll this week actually.
MR. COSTA: Really?
MR. SCHERER: The American people – yeah, the American people, the majority does not support the Space Force or see it as a priority. But I think when Trump says Space Force, his campaign was sending out logos, like a science fiction movie, of what the Space Force could be. I think he sees images of what it could look like and it’s great television.
MR. GERSTEIN: It also feels like it plays into his sort of friendship with authoritarian leaders in some way, shape or form, to me. I mean, while you do have the allusions to England or France, it does seem much more like the kind of thing they like to do in North Korea or China or Russia. And so it’s a bit curious that he feels that it’s so imperative that the U.S. should have a parade where he can stand atop military hardware. And didn’t he talk at one point about nuclear missiles going down the street or something? (Laughter.)
MS. PACE: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: He did. He did. And Toluse brought up the point about how the last time there was a major parade like this was the end of the Gulf War, it was about an end of the war. And if you don’t have it about the end of the war, what’s it really about?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Right, right. And we’re seeing some setbacks in Afghanistan this week. There are a lot of reasons to worry about spending millions of dollars on a celebratory parade when we are seeing setbacks and we have a number of veterans who have not been taken care of. So I think that’s part of the reason the president saw so much pushback.
Now, he is still going to see a parade. He said he’s going to go to Paris to see their parade that they’re going to be putting on in November, so he’s still going to be able to witness it and maybe come back with some ideas.
MR. COSTA: Is there something at Andrews Air Force Base that’s going to go on?
MS. PACE: There’s a – there’s a Veterans Day parade every year there, so there already was a parade. This was just going to be a bigger, better, the best parade. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.