WASHINGTON — In the running fight between President Donald Trump and the so-called mainstream news media, Americans are asked either to take the word of the demonstrated serial liar in the Oval Office or of the army of journalistic working stiffs whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In light of two recent inside-the-White House accounts — one a book by reporter/author Bob Woodward and the other an anonymous op-ed essay in the New York Times said to have been written by a senior Trump administration official — greater concerns than ever have been raised not only about the president’s disregard for accuracy but also now about his basic fitness for the high office he holds.
Bolstering Woodward’s claim for credibility is his more than four decades of presidential sleuthing, first established (with Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein) in the tenacious uncovering of the Watergate scandal.
He has carried on his rigorous reporting on presidents of both major parties, always putting his name behind his reports. Many of his scoops have been based on anonymous sources, but they have often been backed by interview notes and occasionally tape recordings as well.
While Woodward has granted anonymity to many of his sources, there has been little serious pushback for doing so. It’s a tribute to his careful and courteous demeanor that in itself separates him from tabloid traffickers in rumor and salacious movieland fare.
As a former Post colleague, I have occasionally witnessed The Woodward Treatment in action: the way he charmingly develops sources with low-key schmoozing backed by solid assurances of confidentiality. I should also disclose my long friendship with the man, strengthened by shared standards of journalistic ethics.
As for the anonymous White House op-ed in the Times, the question of his or her credibility can be resolved only by the author coming out of the closet.
A reasonable case can be made that the op-ed piece has performed a public service. It has alerted readers to the dire circumstances of a chief executive recklessly or wantonly ignorant of the high stakes involved in the domestic and foreign policy decisions he makes daily.
Both Woodward and Times op-ed describe Trump staffers shortstopping dangerous presidential initiatives — even to the point of purloining key documents to keep Trump from enacting some disastrous policy or other. It’s a “Dr. Strangelove” type movie plot come to life.
Yet in public debate, the alarming possibility is now being widely considered that Trump is a genuine peril to the nation’s stability and its long commitment to the rule of law, as he threatens to place himself above it.
In undermining the Department of Justice and the FBI, and in seeking to discredit the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election interference, Trump is drawing himself and the country ever closer to a constitutional crisis. The specter of the 25th Amendment being invoked to declare the president unable to carry out his duties and designate an acting president seems too far-fetched, given the lockstep in which Vice President Mike Pence is marching behind Trump, along with a large majority of Republican voters.
That’s why the focus on mobilizing heavier turnouts for the November midterm congressional elections is dominating the thoughts and energies of both parties. For starters, if the Republicans lose their majority in the House or the Senate, Trump would be immensely more vulnerable to Democratic subpoenas on a range of issues.
No wonder Trump is doubling down on his denunciations of the free American press as “the enemy of the people.” However, it is not the people he’s worried about but rather his own hide, however much he narcissistically confuses the two.