Many had hoped that President-elect Donald Trump’s rambunctious behavior on the campaign trail had simply served as a way to garner attention, and that his larger-than-life persona would fade into a more dignified, presidential presence after the election season was over. However, Trump’s first press conference since the November election has sparked conversation across the country due to his controversial treatment of the press, as well as the continuation of his polemical rhetoric.
While Trump’s remarks regarding the execution of his plans for the nation lacked details, he did list a number of his recent political victories and hint at future goals. He acknowledged Ford’s recent cancellation of its plan to construct a new plant in Mexico in favor of expanding an American factory, and chalked up the company’s change of direction to disparaging comments he made about the company’s move while on the campaign trail. In an effort to build upon that victory for American businesses, Trump discussed how he hopes to incentivize pharmaceutical and medical companies to remain domestic as well. This promise to rein in Big Pharma seemed to evoke the rhetoric of one of the key Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination, Trump’s fellow grassroots candidate Bernie Sanders. In another instance of catering to populist concerns, Trump criticized the gross amounts of money and time being spent on Air Force One and (in very vague terms) promised that such budget overages would quickly be reduced. The president-elect then criticized the government’s treatment of ex-military personnel, pushing for more efficient health care access for veterans and a reorganization of the VA.
Agenda aside, the president-elect also mentioned his excitement for Inauguration Day and the future in his characteristically puzzling fashion, expressing hope for his future plans: “I really—I’m going to work very hard on that we need certain amounts of other things, including a little bit of luck, but I think we’re going to do a real job, and I’m very proud of what we’ve done, and we haven’t even gotten there yet.”
Before the reporters had a chance to ask questions of the president-elect, Trump claimed he had stopped talking to the press for a while due to “inaccurate news,” even blaming American intelligence agencies for spreading false information. He went so far as to compare the intelligence community to agencies that would have existed in Nazi Germany, a comparison that would be exceedingly difficult to substantiate in the context of his own experience of being investigated by such agencies. This divide between the intelligence community and the head of the United States only makes our country look weak, confused, and vulnerable. Such a dispute between key elements in our governmental power structure undermines the bond of trust that should exist between the American people and national security professionals.
When asked how he would extricate himself from his business conflicts, Trump denied the existence of any such conflicts of interest, contrary to multiple reports from reputable news sources. He even tried to claim that he would be able to run both the country and his company simultaneously, a statement that he quickly walked back by asserting his lack of interest in being both head of his company and of the government. This pattern of answering big-picture questions with nonspecific, feel-good answers only continued as the press conference went on to address such issues as Mexico paying for the potential wall along the border, how many of Trump’s cabinet picks appear to have conflicts of interest concerning their would-be governmental positions and private financial interests, and how Trump planned to practically replace Obamacare.
When the press questioned this now familiar mode of Trump-communication—which is severely lacking in practical details and plans of action, and more based upon general allusions to a brighter future in the face of an abysmal present, a promise to make America “great” once again—Trump lashed out. For instance, when Trump was again questioned about his tax returns, he asserted that only the press cares about his financial dealings. In answering so flippantly, he chose to both ignore and defy the long-held truth that the press serves as the gadfly within our liberal democracy, and as such asks the questions that the citizenry ought to want answered. More pointedly, the president-elect refused to answer a question from a CNN correspondent regarding Russia. Not only that, but Trump pointed at the reporter and referred to the well-respected news agency that the man represented as “fake.”
The most frightening aspect of this entire exchange, from the start of the press conference up until Trump’s blatant dismissal of a major news outlet, is that the outrage over his actions quickly faded into mere background noise. The American people have become accustomed to Trump-ism, to such outrageous claims and behavior (including, but not limited to, his lukewarm denial of climate change, the leaked audio in which he claimed to have sexually assaulted women, etcetera). At this point, what can Trump possibly do or say to shock, horrify, and disgust the American people that he has not already done? The danger of such habituation to worrisome new norms should be all too clear given historical examples of what occurs when the freedom of the press is curtailed, or when the questionable actions of leaders are simply excused without explanation.
Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, constitute the very first right guaranteed to every American citizen in the Bill of Rights, which, due to its placement in the list, could be considered the most important freedom that the Constitution protects. In the words of Hugo Black, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” Modern-day Americans must not become complacent in their duty to safeguard the freedom of the press, for all too often the downfall of a free media has coincided with the loss of other basic civilian freedoms.
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