Cliches and distraction


Transparency.  The people’s right to know.

Un-American. Treasonous.

Political firestorm.  Constitutional crisis.

These cliches, exaggerations and emotional charges have in recent months filled news columns, air waves and Twitter feeds of millions of Americans.  They don’t help make sense of the chaotic, nasty, ill-informed national discussion about whether President Trump is obstructing justice in the probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Rather, they add to the clamor and serve the president’s goal of misdirection and distraction.  But they don’t inform.

Two of the media’s favorite, self-serving bromides are “transparency” and the “public’s right to know.”  Just as Trump has expropriated fake news for his own purposes of discrediting real news, he has expropriated these press favorites for his self-serving purpose.

Last week transparency and the right to know became the Trump White House’s favorite words when he wanted to release a partisan Republican report from Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., claiming the Russia investigation was tainted by anti-Trump bias at the FBI.

“I’ve always believed in the public’s right to know,” Vice-President Mike Pence said.  “We have said all along, from day one, that we want full transparency in this process,” chimed White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

But the transparency argument makes no sense in the context of intelligence secrets.  It’s hard to argue “transparency” justifies access to intelligence secrets.  Nor does the people’s right to know.  The uncomfortable truth is there is no explicit constitutional protection for a  people’s right to know.

Yes, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden served a public good when they risked prison to disclose the Pentagon Papers and NSA meta-data collection of Americans’ cell phone calls.  But they knew they were violating the law.

The risks these men took to enlighten Americans about their government’s secret abuses were noble.  By contrast, Trump is employing transparency and the people’s “right” to know for one self-interested purpose — to save his own skin.

Transparency is great when he can release a House GOP report and follow it up with the tweet that it “totally vindicates” him the the “Russian Witch Hunt.”   But transparency isn’t so great when it comes to answering questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.  Or when it comes to releasing his income taxes like every other modern president.  Or when it comes to releasing the list of visitors to the White House.  Or when it comes to allowing his aides and former aides to testify to Congress about Russia.

This week Trump also has dusted off the McCarthy-era slur of un-American.  After first slinging it in the direction of black NFL players who kneeled for the National Anthem, he now aims it at Democrats who wouldn’t clap during the State of the Union speech when he said black unemployment was at a new low.  The Democrats “were like death and un-American, un-American,” he told a crowd in Ohio this week.  “Somebody said treasonous.  Yeah, I guess, why not?  Can we call that treason?  Why not?  I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

There are good reasons for a president not to call opposing members of Congress traitors.  First, it ruins the mood of bipartisanship he claimed to have brought to the State of the Union Speech.  Second, failing to clap for the president of the opposing party is a tradition, not treason.

Treason is one of those words thrown around with no regard to its meaning.  Treason is the only crime laid out in the Constitution, and it essentially requires a high level of proof that someone has waged war against the United States or given aid and comfort to the enemy.

Thus, the Democrats’ silence isn’t treason.  Nor was it treason for FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page to blast Trump in their private, romantic exchanges, which the president told the Wall Street Journal was “treason right there.”  Nor were Stephen Bannon or Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., correct in saying Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians during the campaign to get dirt on Hillary Clinton was treason.  It wasn’t.

If there were a firestorm every time the media said there was, Washington would be burnt to a crisp.  At the beginning of the 2016  presidential campaign, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said he wanted to drown the “political firestorm”  cliche. As he put it, the phrase was “unmitigated hyperbole as a way of heating up coverage.  It’s the journalist or commentator as carnival barker: ‘Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and watch the amazing firestorm of controversy….”

Clark’s campaign failed.  The Washington Post and the Washington Times recently showed what an attractive bi-partisan cliche it is, both saying that the Nunes memo created a “political firestorm.”

Democrats and commentators also warned the Nunes memo was leading to a constitutional crisis.  Their prediction may turn out to be correct, but the nation isn’t there yet.  Most of the constitutional machinery for handling crises hasn’t yet kicked into action.

To get to a real constitutional crisis Trump would have to refuse to talk to Mueller, Mueller would have to subpoena him before a grand jury, Trump would have to resist and the Supreme Court would have to decide whether or not to order him to appear — as it required Nixon to turn over the White House tapes and Clinton to answer to Paula Jones.

The real constitutional crises would be if the Supreme Court let Trump avoid testimony.  Or if Mueller decides to file criminal charges against a sitting president and Trump challenges his right to do it.  Or if Mueller leaves it to Congress to decide whether to impeach and remove Trump for obstructing justice.

The ultimate constitutional crisis would be Mueller identifying high crimes and misdemeanors and Congress failing to act because of the false narratives ginned up by the president, Nunes-style Republicans and Trump’s amen chorus of the pseudo-media.  That would amount to a mass failure of the Constitution’s checks and balances.

It’s tempting to conclude with the editorial writer’s ultimate cliche — time will tell. But the reputable media owe it to the American people to cut the cliches, avoid the distractions, deflate the hyperbole and stick to the facts.

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