Donald Trump and his allies believe he’s gained a tactical advantage in his war with the media.
As he escalates his attacks on the “failing media,” Trump and his allies are increasingly convinced that recent evidence, including the retracted CNN piece on an aspect of the Russia investigations, will prove to skeptical voters that the mainstream media has a vendetta against the administration.
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Many White House staffers were “elated,” a person with knowledge of their conversations said, when they learned that three journalists had resigned over a botched story that claimed newly appointed Export-Import bank official Anthony Scaramucci was being investigated for his ties to a Russian investment fund.
Trump was quick to publicize the retraction and resignations on his Twitter feed, adding, “What about all the other phony stories they do. FAKE NEWS.” He used the “FAKE NEWS” line again Wednesday morning in claiming that The Washington Post was “guardian of Amazon,” the company of Post owner Jeff Bezos.
Conservative outlets and allies of the president also trumpeted Sarah Palin’s libel suit against The New York Times for suggesting in an editorial that her super PAC played a role in inciting the gunman who shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The editorial from May was ultimately corrected, but was nonetheless an embarrassing moment for another media company that’s aggressively reported on the president and received his wrath in return.
The attacks marked an escalation of Trump’s strategy of citing media bias to rally conservatives and undecided voters around the idea that the investigations of Russian influence in the 2016 election are media-driven and politically motivated.
Nigel Farage, a Trump ally and former British lawmaker, wrote on Twitter "It’s not looking good for CNN. @realDonaldTrump was right when he called this a witch hunt.”
Some Trump allies suggested that the recent misstep at CNN is enough to justify drastic changes to how the White House deals with the press, including moving reporters out of the West Wing entirely.
“Now would be a perfect time to move the briefing from the West Wing. I’d move [Press Secretary Sean] Spicer over there too,” said one top Republican aide on Capitol Hill. "The public doesn’t care where the reporters sit. If the press corps gets moved 100 feet away, it will be a one-day story. No one cares.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association and many reporters have strongly protested the possibility of moving the briefing room and their tiny work spaces, noting the access it affords them to not only the White House press shop but other senior administration figures such as Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dashed the idea for now, saying there are "no changes planned at this time” for the briefing.
Internally, some staffers at CNN saw the retraction episode as embarrassing, and expressed chagrin at having given Trump such powerful ammunition, especially since it followed by several weeks a mistaken report by the network that former FBI Director James Comey would dispute Trump’s claim that Comey had told him he wasn’t under FBI investigation.
But CNN staffers insist that the punishment — the resignation of the three staffers — more than fit the offense. They pointed out that some of the conservative outlets that were highlighting CNN’s retraction, such as arch-competitor Fox News, did not move as swiftly or intensely when it posted, and then retracted six days later, an article that connected a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer and WikiLeaks. (A Fox spokesperson did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
Even some in conservative circles and Trump’s allies have said CNN did more than enough to atone for its sin. Chris Ruddy, head of the conservative television network Newsmax and a close friend of the president’s, said he was “surprised” the reporters were let go and defended CNN’s credibility, saying the network “plays pretty close to the rules.”
“The truth is, much as we might not like CNN, they have a right to have a point of view just as much as Newsmax and Fox News,” he said. "I think that if they do anything improper that’s illegal or purposely seeks to defame someone then they face the consequences. I’m not sure that was the case in either situation.”
Still, the CNN staffers acknowledged that, in this environment and with the aggressive stance CNN has taken with its White House coverage, any error would be magnified. It’s a theme management has stressed as well with CNN chief Jeff Zucker urging the journalists at the network to “play error-free ball,” according to multiple reports.
Conservative outlets and the White House have also attacked CNN over sting videos from undercover activist James O’Keefe and his team showing a CNN medical producer in Atlanta and commentator Van Jones suggesting stories about Trump and Russia are overblown.
From the briefing room podium on Tuesday, Sanders encouraged Americans "to take a look at” the video — even after conceding that she’s unsure whether it’s accurate. If true, she said, the video “is a disgrace to all of media” and “all of journalism.”
“I think that we have gone to a place where if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America,” she continued, going on to condemn the press for relying on unnamed sources and not reporting on positive developments within the Trump administration.
The videos haven’t prompted any internal actions, as CNN executives have said they stand by their employees who are free to have personal opinions, especially when they aren’t reporting on the White House or politics.
But all of the stories together have provided Trump’s allies with enough evidence to declare with a wide brush any stories about investigations into Trump and Russia unfounded.
“We’ve been telling you for months the destroy Trump media will do anything in their power to take down this president, this administration,” Fox News host and Trump ally Sean Hannity said on Tuesday night. "Time after time, the professional trump haters over at the Clinton news network," Hannity continued, using a Trump favored nickname for CNN. "they’ve been proving my point.”