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Trump can be impulsive. But his war with the press is strategic.

Alex Wong/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump very deliberately picked a fight with the media to help fuel his rise to the White House, and now that he’s there — and his administration is struggling — he is strategically escalating it.

On Friday, the administration canceled press secretary Sean Spicer’s scheduled briefing to the full White House press corps, and replaced it instead with an off-camera briefing to which some media outlets were invited — and others were excluded, including CNN, the New York Times, Politico, and BuzzFeed News.

The move was met with howls of protests. "Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties," Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said in a statement. “Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. The move came on the heels of a morning speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which Trump complained, at length, about what he called the “fake” media, saying “they are the enemy of the people.” And at Trump’s freewheeling press conference last week, he similarly started off by denouncing members of the media who, he said, “will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that we deserve.”

Though Trump is surely motivated in part by personal pique here, and he has long complained about the press, it’s now indisputable that the attacks on the press are part of a deliberate White House strategy — one that has the fingerprints of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who early on in the administration suggested the media was the “opposition party” and Trump’s most important foe.

In explaining why Trump is going after the media now, we should keep in mind what has happened in this administration so far. Namely:

1) He’s ended his first month without any significant accomplishments (since his controversial immigration and travel order is currently frozen in the courts).

2) He’s been plagued by a seemingly endless series of leaks from what appears to be every level of the government.

3) There are burgeoning scandals potentially implicating his administration officials and associates — scandals publicized and often exacerbated by the aforementioned leaks.

4) With Democrats reduced to minority status in both houses of Congress, and years remaining before candidates begin challenging him for the 2020 election, he’s lacking an obvious enemy to make his foil.

Trump appears to be trying to solve all these problems by attacking the press. Doing so changes the subject from his lack of accomplishments and scandals. It also discredits the institution that is the conveyor of a great deal of negative information about him. And it gives Trump a nemesis he can fire up the conservative base by fighting.

What actually happened with the press briefing

When the White House schedule for Friday came out, Spicer was listed as giving his regular briefing, in which he takes questions in the briefing room, on camera, with the full White House press corps in attendance.

Toward the middle of the day, though, the White House announced that this version of Spicer’s briefing would be different. First, it would be off camera. Second, and much more importantly, only certain news outlets would be allowed to attend.

Excluded were major outlets such as CNN, the New York Times, Politico, and BuzzFeed. Other mainstream media outlets, like ABC, CBS, and NBC, were allowed in, as were reporters from several conservative-leaning outlets. The Associated Press and Time were invited but decided to boycott.

It is nothing new for administration officials to hold off-camera briefings for certain reporters and not others. Arguably, it is no great loss for a media outlet to miss out on a chance to be spun by Spicer.

Still, what was eyebrow-raising about the move was that a previously scheduled briefing for the full White House press corps was changed to exclude certain media outlets in particular. As the White House surely anticipated, this was interpreted as a confrontational move meant to punish certain media outlets for critical coverage of the administration. For instance:

  • CNN just yesterday reported on some unusual contacts between White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and FBI officials about the FBI’s investigation into connections between Trump associates and Russia.
  • The New York Times reported last week that Trump campaign members and associates had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.”
  • BuzzFeed posted an uncorroborated dossier on alleged Trump/Russia ties in January.

One person who has spoken critically of actions like this is Sean Spicer himself. In December, before being named as Trump’s press secretary (but while he was working with the transition), Spicer was asked at an event whether Trump’s White House would go about “banning reporters and banning outlets” like the campaign did.

“There’s a big difference between a campaign where it is a private venue using private funds and a government entity,” Spicer answered. “I think we have a respect for the press when it comes to the government. That is something you can’t ban an entity from.” He continued: “That’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship. I think there is a vastly different model when it comes to government and what should be expected, and that’s on both sides.”

Trump’s complicated relationship with the press

Trump’s rise in general has led many of his critics to fear what they see as a rising tide of autocracy and illiberalism. And his criticisms of the press have proved particularly alarming to some.

“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” Sen. John McCain said last weekend. “Without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started.”

Retired Adm. William McRaven, now the chancellor of the University of Texas, said this week that Trump’s “sentiment” that the news media was “the enemy of the American people” could be “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”

Many mainstream media outlets have naturally responded to this criticism by becoming more outspoken and oppositional of the administration, and the Washington Post not so subtly added this slogan to its webpage:

Now, Trump’s relationship with the press is a good deal more complex than a purely oppositional one.

As Josh Barro points out, Trump “loves press coverage.” He’s obsessed with being on TV and monitors the media constantly. And he likely wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for the vastly disproportionate amount of coverage he got in the primaries — $2 billion worth by March 2016, the Upshot estimated.

Still, since taking office, it has indeed been true that Trump has been dogged by a good deal of critical press coverage and a truly remarkable amount of leaks from essentially every imaginable level of government — from his top hand-picked White House aides to his Cabinet officials to the permanent bureaucracy to the intelligence agencies.

It’s the last set of leaks here that seems to alarm Trump the most — since they pertain to investigations into his administration and could even have criminal implications. Indeed, one of these leaks seems to have driven Trump to fire National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump specifically seemed to refer to the Washington Post story that drove him to fire Flynn when he denounced “fake news” at CPAC. That story cited “nine current and former officials,” and Trump complained, “I saw one story recently where they said nine people have confirmed. There are no nine people.” He added: “They make up sources. They’re very dishonest people.”

This may be a shortsighted strategy

The bigger picture here is that being president is difficult, and Donald Trump has had a particularly rocky start to his administration.

With his appointees bogged down in Congress, no evident movement on any of his major legislative priorities, his main executive action blocked in the courts, and his top national security aide already fired and replaced, Trump has little to show for his first month in office.

The idea that he can get his mojo back by attacking the press might seem to make sense. After all, Trump enjoys fighting, so if the goal here is to please the president by picking a fight, then mission accomplished.

But if the goal is to actually get anything done in this administration, it’s not so clear this is wise. Picking random fights with the media won’t help the White House get anything through Congress. It won’t make FBI investigations go away. And it won’t help the administration’s arguments in the courts.

Another problem is that if the administration destroys its own credibility by waging a war on the press, it could have a hard time getting its message out later when it truly needs to — say, during a major crisis of some kind.

Moves like this could also make the leak problem worse. Though attacks on the mainstream media are good red meat for the conservative base, they’re deeply unsettling to many people — and not necessarily just staunch liberals, as the McCain and McRaven comments above show. The more people inside the government get scared that Trump is threatening democracy, the more they might be motivated to leak a damaging bit of information before it’s too late.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering that presidents can greatly damage themselves by overreacting to leaks. The Watergate scandal came about because President Nixon was furious at leaks, and in an effort to “fight back” against leakers, his White House aides created the “plumbers” to retaliate against leakers and political opponents (because plumbers, you see, fix leaks). This eventually led to the botched Watergate break-in at the DNC headquarters. That didn’t play so well in the press, either.