Democracy’s decline and fall seems aided, abetted and hastened when democracy’s watchdogs fail to bark.
And sometimes they include my former colleagues in the White House press corps. Often, when President Donald Trump and his spokespeople persist in making claims that are flat-out false, our journalistic watchdogs don’t seem to be up to the job of challenging them with facts that make their lies irrefutably apparent. (See also: sufficiently abhorrent.)
Rewind your reality TV screen to last Monday. The daily White House news briefing had been delayed for hours so Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen could jet back from a speaking engagement. Team Trump wanted her to be the one defending from the White House podium why the world has been watching scenes of terrified little children who were taken from parents who had illegally entered the United States from Mexico.
That gave White House correspondents time to research and prepare precise, concise devastating fact-based questions. But, lo, that didn’t happen.
Instead, when Nielsen faced reporters at 5:11 p.m., she restated all the old justifications: (1) parents committed crimes by illegally entering the United States; (2) her border officers were just enforcing the laws; (3) but the laws had loopholes that compelled officers to rip crying, frightened children from their parents; and (4) only Congress could close those loopholes. Never mind that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama never took such drastic action.
Then, 1,739 words later, the secretary took her first question. It was a rambling, disjoined query that chose our craft’s easiest device — asking for a response to the Democrats’ criticism that “you’re using children as a lever to try to get them to take legislative action.”
Nielsen plummeted to the occasion: “I say that is a very cowardly response. It’s clearly within their power to make the laws and change the laws.” (Well, actually, the Republicans control Congress.)
The same-old name calling had begun anew. Reporters kept trying to get Nielsen to go tabloid — would she call the new policy of putting kids in huge cages “cruel”? Turned out the secretary wouldn’t even call the new policy a policy. “It’s not a policy,” Nielsen claimed, insisting her officers are just following the law.
Too bad the correspondents hadn’t dug up the facts that would have proved her claim false. Because, in March 2017, her predecessor and mentor, Gen. John Kelly, then DHS secretary, now Trump’s chief of staff, provided just that evidence in a CNN interview. CNN’sWolf Blitzer asked Kelly if he was considering separating children from their parents who were caught entering the U.S. illegally. “Yes,” Kelly replied, “… in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that.” And when Blitzer noted, “But you understand how that looks to the average person,” Kelly replied that he felt it more important to change the policy to deter people from even attempting such an illegal migration with their children.
So Kelly had acknowledged a year ago he was considering making that policy change in the name of deterrence. Now his protege and successor was blithely claiming his policy wasn’t a policy at all. On Monday Nielsen tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Indeed, Nielsen well knew she was just dutifully implementing a Trump policy shift that even had been given a label back on June 6 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry.” Sessions’ accompanying memo told federal prosecutors: “This zero-tolerance policy shall supersede any existing policies.” Period.
Now let’s fast-forward to Wednesday: Revolting images of crying children being ripped from their parents by strangers in U.S. uniforms had ricocheted around the planet — and now even long-silent Republicans were in open revolt.
Here, we’ve just gotten a refresher course in what makes our democracy so strong: It is built upon a bedrock of the powerful decency of people. Its strength can endure the erosive elements of our daily news trickle — and survive even the daily dozings of democracy’s watchdogs.
And so, on Wednesday afternoon, Trump officials spread the news: The president was ending his calamitous new policy of separating children from parents who committed the misdemeanor of illegally entering the United States.
Belatedly, Nielsen turned out right: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” See? Maybe she’ll switch sides and join the media. After all, she sure scooped the rest of us — by days.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected].