For many years, I thought the most dishonest headline I had ever seen in a reputable newspaper was in the New York Times in 1985, reporting on President Reagan’s address at a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany: “President Equates Nazi War Dead to Holocaust Victims.”
Reagan simply had stated that even 17-year-old conscripts into the German military, ignorant of the war’s issues and killed in action, were victims of Nazism too. When I raised this informally with Punch Sulzberger, the Times’ distinguished publisher for 29 years and a combat-experienced U.S. Marine captain, he acknowledged that it could have been better phrased.
Yet, the Times may have surpassed itself on the Nov. 22 cover of its magazine with the headline: “Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE's potential criminal liability is the key to understanding his presidency.” There followed a stupefying bowdlerization of facts and a character assassination of the president. He was envisioned in “an orange jumpsuit” worn by violent inmates in high-security prisons.
The author, Jonathan Mahler, conceded that “the Constitution could make it difficult to secure convictions” of the president. But Mahler then rushed to the task, accusing Trump of unprecedented corruption, tarring him with the brush of Paul Manafort (whose legal offenses occurred before he became Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman) and of Gen. Michael Flynn (who clearly was not guilty of any illegalities yet was persecuted relentlessly by Trump’s enemies). Mahler presumed to impute Trump’s allegedly compulsive dishonesty to his “relationship” with Roy Cohn, the controversial lawyer who advised a great many clients, including Ronald Reagan.
Trump University was a tawdry business but it was not “a pyramid scheme,” as the article contended; there were many lawsuits but no criminal allegations. A lengthy sequence of Trump tax matters was effectively presented as a series of criminal evasions; Trump has been audited steadily by the IRS for 40 years — and all of those issues are civil disagreements on a quantum of tax; no fraud or false returns have been alleged.
Mahler’s witch-burning meandered on into the exhumation of former Trump lawyer (and cooperating plea bargainer) Michael Cohen and the Stormy Daniels nonsense. Mahler gamely acknowledged that the charges against 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, in supposedly comparable circumstances, failed; wealthy friends paid $925,000 to Edwards’ pregnant girlfriend in mid-campaign. In this instance, Ms. Daniels was paid not to comment on the evening she allegedly spent 10 years before with Trump. She did not allege coercion or impropriety, there was no pregnancy, and Trump denied her story. He apparently told Cohen to settle with her and paid Cohen’s invoice when it came, including the payoff. How anyone could imagine that Trump paying his legal bill, including the payment by Cohen to Daniels, constituted an illegal campaign contribution by Trump from and to himself escapes my comprehension.
This is the principal problem of all the Trump-haters: They are so possessed by their loathing that they lose all judgment and imagine that his many tawdry acts and utterances are crimes — because they want them to be crimes.
U.S. public life is afflicted, as many (myself included) predicted during the Watergate affair of 1972-1974, by the criminalization of policy differences. Now, the rabidly partisan national political media have embraced the criminalization of poor taste as well. The New York Times declared after Trump’s 2016 election that objectivity was no longer desirable; the national interest required Trump’s destruction by any means short of actual assassination (though that might not have left some of his enemies inconsolable). By this criterion, practically the entire adult population, including almost all of its journalists, would be incarcerated.
Naturally, the Times article could not resist stumbling into the Mueller Report’s nonsense about obstruction of justice. That is a catchment offense hideously misused by the frequently corrupt and almost omnipotent American prosecutocracy. Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham Woodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China Barr-Durham investigation again fails to produce a main event MORE correctly stated its criteria at the time that the second Mueller Report volume tried to incite impeachment for obstruction: It requires a criminal act with criminal intent to disrupt or hinder a criminal investigation. A fool could see that, despite the desperate efforts of the Mueller lynch mob, none of the 10 incidents they cited qualified as obstruction offenses. That Trump endured such persecution and defamation with the restraint he did showed unsuspected Job-like patience, not felonious conduct. Mahler’s preposterous arraignment in the Times plodded through “political corruption” imputed to Barr and others, and then thrashed about in the quagmire of “partisan coercion.” He even harped on Trump’s $421 million of debt, oblivious to the publicly verifiable fact that it is secured by billions of dollars of assets.
Mahler floundered to an end by going full-metal-jacket for emasculation of the presidency. Gerald Ford, one of the most profoundly decent men ever to be president, is reproached for not facilitating the prosecution of Richard Nixon. There has never been any probative evidence that Nixon committed crimes, although some of his entourage did and he tolerated a cavalier attitude to the legal niceties. Never mind that even the draconian Judge John J. Sirica concluded that Nixon might die if forced to appear and testify at the trial of his former aides. Never mind that no president who has been impeached — Andrew Johnson, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHas China already won? Budget impasses mark a critical turning point in Biden's presidency Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE, Donald Trump — has come remotely close to the “high crimes” comparable to taking bribes or committing treason required by the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. And never mind that President Obama and then-Vice President BidenJoe BidenFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push Protesters demonstrate outside Manchin's houseboat over opposition to reconciliation package Alabama eyes using pandemic relief funds on prison system MORE tolerated the politicization of the higher levels of the FBI and the intelligence services to try to alter and then reverse the 2016 election.
This Times story, unfortunately, was only marginally less unprofessional than most media coverage of this president. Even though many Americans have implicitly approved of Trump’s policies, an adequate number of them are so irritated by his gaucheries and infelicities that they defeated the scores of millions of his admirers, who generally detest the media as much as most of the media detest Trump.
But it appears the media soon must sell the canard that Joe Biden is an adequate president and, given that Sisyphean public relations challenge, they will not be able to maintain the hatred of Trump they have promoted — often, it must be said, with Trump’s unintended cooperation. The score seems to be 1-1 in the Great Trump War; the next round will decide it. Despite the depths that the president’s many enemies have now plumbed, it would be imprudent to bet against Donald Trump.
Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of ten books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.