Generally speaking, after events such as Wednesday’s when suspected explosive devices were sent to top Democrats in the US including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, there will be something of a cooling-off period before the real political blame starts flying. Evidence is gathered, motives are assessed, and then conclusions are reached about whose actions may have been a factor — if for no other reason than you want to avoid embarrassing prejudgments.
CNN decided that there was no time to wait. It almost immediately implied blame for President Donald Trump. And its official response to a bomb being sent to it and Democratic politicians suggests a new boiling over of the relationship between Trump and the media.
“There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in a statement. “The President, and especially the White House Press Secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.”
The sharpness of the statement was particularly notable given that the White House largely said the right things after the attempted bombings. Trump called them “abhorrent” and “despicable.” He called for unity and said, “Acts or threats of political violence have no place in the United States of America.”
The aforementioned press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said in a tweet that Trump’s “condemnation of these despicable acts certainly includes threats made to CNN.”
For a president who often shows a lack of empathy and a tendency to suggest that blame belongs on “both sides” after such events, it was actually pretty sober and disciplined.
But the genie, in many ways, was already out of the bottle. Trump has regularly attacked the media as the “enemy of the American people.” He has goaded his supporters at rallies into jeering the press. Just last week, for the second time, he made light of and even praised a Republican Montana congressman who, as a candidate, body-slammed a reporter — an incident that resulted in an assault plea.
CNN has found itself the target of Trump’s media-bashing perhaps more than any other outlet. There was the time Trump tweeted a video clip of himself body-slamming the CNN logo. He has regularly attacked its anchors and reporters, most notably jousting with Jim Acosta. He has offered wild theories about how the network refuses to hire pro-Trump people (even though it hires his former staffers).
The combination of all of it, plus the readily apparent targeting of Trump’s political and media foes, apparently made CNN think that a strong, immediate response was warranted. Waiting would allow for certitude that this was actually a pro-Trump person targeting his enemies, but it would also make CNN’s response less impactful. Eyeballs are on this story now, and CNN just made a very strong statement about what will and won’t be tolerated from the commander-in-chief.
At the same time, there is the risk that this isn’t quite what it seems; we simply don’t know. Politicians joined in attacking violent political rhetoric Wednesday, but — save for Senator Jeff Flake (Republican from Arizona), who said a more civil tone from Trump would help, and the Democratic congressional leadership (“President Trump’s words ring hollow until he reverses his statements that condone acts of violence”) — the responses have not generally targeted specific people.
Trump’s supporters are very likely to see the CNN statement as premature, at best. Trump has called the media the enemy of Americans and goaded it into registering its dismay. He also in 2016 occasionally suggested violence at his rallies. But he’s never explicitly called for attacks on the press. People who view the media as being overly anti-Trump or oversensitive to his critiques will have plenty to confirm their pre-existing beliefs.
CNN surely knows that. What’s notable here is that it decided — in the face of an actual attempted terrorist attack on it — that it could no longer be so cautious or judicious about Trump’s alleged role. In the still-deteriorating relationship between the media and Trump, that seems likely to be a seminal moment.
— Washington Post
Aaron Blake is senior political columnist and reporter.