Four weeks that shook America

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The press is the enemy, the establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy.
-President Richard Nixon (1972)

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
-President Donald Trump (2017)

He strutted on to the stage, cocky and unable to hide his malignant grandiosity and proceeded to act as if, to paraphrase William Shakespeare all the world is his stage, except he was not Shakespearean in the least. Donald Trump who threw down the gauntlet repeatedly to the American media was now ready to cross swords a month after his sullied coronation. And for eighty minutes the flailing narcissist bathed himself in mendacity and braggadocio. In reciting his “incredible” achievements he was delusional, in his depiction of his epic battle with the media, the judiciary and the intelligence community he was quixotic, and in his threats to punish the “criminals” responsible for the leaks that are exposing his dangerous actions, and his vows to exact revenge from his real and imagined enemies he was unhinged. Never before in the history of the Republic, has a president faced in his first few weeks in office serious questions about his mental fitness to lead the country, or public discussions about when – not if- impeachment proceedings will be initiated against him.

Refusing to admit that he and his zealot confederates are responsible for the crises and chaos that have engulfed his first month in office, Trump lamented “I inherited a mess, a mess, at home and abroad, a mess...” The days that preceded Trump’s solo act, witnessed the unceremonious sacking of his woefully flawed national security advisor Michael Flynn who during the transitional period engaged in secret, possibly illegal contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington in which he discussed the sanctions that a sitting president, Barack Obama had just imposed on Russia because of its flagrant attack on America’s electoral system. The bumbling Flynn willfully deceived vice president Pence, who appeared on television programs and lied unknowingly on his behalf. Trump’s hoped for replacement, the highly respected Ret. vice Adm. Robert Harward turned down the offer reportedly because he was not allowed to pick his own team, and because of the chaotic environment at the White House and the blurred line of authority. Two days after the removal of Flynn, Trump’s labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, withdrew from consideration amid growing Senate Republican opposition because of his past employment of an undocumented housekeeper, and reports of domestic abuse. The president was in denial that these recent developments, in addition to reports about the internecine fighting among his lieutenants have thrown his White House in turmoil.

It was a press conference for the ages. It was a mixture of political Vaudeville, a rambling monologue, self-congratulation, personal insults, stereotypical attitudes, fearmongering and political laments. Before listening to the first question, Trump lashed out against the media, and addressing his “message straight to the people” he told them that “many of our nation’s reporters will not tell you the truth.” Never mind that many of his claims and assertions were false, like repeating the canard that his Electoral College victory was the largest since Ronald Reagan. When NBC’s reporter Peter Alexander challenged Trump’s claims and began listing recent electoral victories of both Republicans and Democratic presidents bigger than Trump’s, a sheepish Trump said “well, I don’t know, I was given that information”. But Trump kept returning to the point he wants to stress which is the “dishonesty” of the media, and clearly he was trying to establish that every time the word media is uttered, the word dishonesty should pop up next to it. While slamming the leaks, Trump declared "I have never seen more dishonest media, frankly than the political media.” Then he went Orwellian full throttle, saying “the leaks are real. The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake." How could leaks be real, and the stories based on those real leaks are fake? In Trump’s world Aristotelian logic stand on its head.

It was a press conference for the ages. It was a mixture of political Vaudeville, a rambling monologue, self-congratulation, personal insults, stereotypical attitudes, fearmongering and political laments

Hisham Melhem

President Trump tried to run the media through a gauntlet hoping to inflict serious damage; he taunted and mocked various outlets, interrupted most questions, and was downright mean towards a Jewish reporter who asked him about the spike of anti-Semitic incidents and what he intends to do about it. An angry Trump interrupted, saying it was “not a fair question.” Then he raised his voice telling the reporter “sit down, I understand the rest of your question.” When the reporter tried to clarify his question, Trump shot back “quiet, quiet, quiet.” Trump’s racial insensitivity was also on display. When an African-American reporter asked him if he is planning to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, he interrupted her “do you want to set up the meeting?" Then Trump asked “Are they friends of yours? Set up a meeting. Set up the meeting.”

Clearly the president was throwing red meat to his shrinking base, which according to the latest poll by the Pew Research Center has receded to 39 %. Using the media as the perfect foil appeals to Trump’s voters who see the media as part of the detached elite that lives in the coastal cities far away from the concerns of the people of the hinterland.

Two states, one state and stateless

President Trump’s breathless solo act on Thursday was preceded on Wednesday by his first official foray into the daunting Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and his incoherence and recklessness were breathtaking. The joint press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a bizarre event held before the talks took place. It was a choreographed show attended by family members, where a stage was given to Mr. Netanyahu to malign the Palestinians and deny their national rights, and for the American president to make a serious break with decades –old diplomatic assumptions in the most flippant and vacuous way possible.

Asked if he is willing to abandon the two-state solution, President Trump casually said “I am looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like. I can live with either one”.

It was as if Mr. Trump was looking at a menu of appetizers pondering his options and looking at his quests for advice. A century-old conflict that caused much blood and tears for Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis was cavalierly being played with by an uninformed president without regards to the fate of the peoples at the heart of the conflict.

President Trump, who is totally ignorant of the history of this conflict, or the proposed compromises for its resolution was playing the act assigned to him by his lieutenants, to excise the words two-state solution from the lexicon of “peacemaking” efforts between Palestinians and Israelis. And this is precisely what the Israeli visitor came for. The smug Netanyahu, as is his habit used the White House stage to lecture the world that “labels” like the “two-state” solutions have been rendered meaningless, because they mean different things to different people.

In recent weeks, a new phrase has been added to that long list of words, concepts and terminology associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict; meet the new minted: “outside-in”. The words are new, but the concept is old and has been tried before. This is the idea of mobilizing the Arab countries; particularly those close geographically and politically to Palestine, to cajole, push or deliver the Palestinian leadership to reach an agreement with Israel. The renewed interest in this idea, which is being pushed by Netanyahu, and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, ( a strong supporter of Israel and its settlement activities) who will represent the U.S. in any new negotiations, is due to the emergence of Iran as the new hegemon threatening both The Arabs and Israelis. The view in Washington, Israel and in some Arab capitals is that this new regional Iranian threat, (Iran’s direct military interventions in Syria, Iraq and its support for Shiite militias in the Levant, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen) requires a regional response. But, the legitimate concerns over Iran’s nefarious role in the region, which has become in some capitals bitter hostility, is not a sufficient reason to get a Palestinian- Israeli “deal” as Mr. Trump would like.

The “two-state” solution has become more difficult to achieve, given the absence of progress in recent years, the hardening of positions on both sides, the rise of right wing and religious parties in Israel that seek to annex all or part of the West Bank,, the dysfunction and corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the rising Islamist radicalism in Gaza. But, if not the two-state solution what then? The one-state solution alternative is nightmarish for both Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians, will not accept to live as a captive population under Israeli rule, in an apartheid-like situation. Condemning the Palestinians to remain stateless in perpetuity is a recipe for a low intensity conflict in perpetuity. The flip side of the one-state solution is nightmarish for the Israelis, if such a state is to grant Palestinians their full political and civil right.

This state will no longer be a “Jewish” state. This one-state solution has another name: a binational Palestinian-Israeli state. For all of its shortcomings, the two-state solution, while far from being ideal or fully just for the Palestinians, is still the only immediate solution that could lead to full peace and genuine human and political normalization of relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Inciting the vigilantes

All American presidents had adversarial relations with the media. A free, independent and professional press holding officials to account is an essential element of American democracy. Most presidents complain privately and publicly about stories and analysis that is critical of them, some excoriate the media, others claim to ignore the sensationalism and the criticism, still others tried to resort to the legal system to punish leakers and whistleblowers, but rarely American presidents attempted to silence the media by outright threats and intimidation. However, the enmity towards the media took on a sinister turn during the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon who ignominiously had to resign in 1974 because of his illegal role in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal, a resignation brought about in part by the work of intrepid journalists.

The Nixon presidency waged a dirty war against its critics in the media, and its infamous “enemies list” which included well known journalists was designed to intimidate and punish Nixon’s critics. Nixon’s paranoia went beyond the media to the high world of academe where many of the critics of his war in Vietnam were perched. But if Nixon’s hostility towards the media was developed over the years and was mostly secretive, Trump’s war on the media is qualitatively more dangerous, and in less than a month has become an all-encompassing obsession of his. Trump’s war on the media is real, not rhetorical. During the campaign he would incite his delirious supporters to taunt and harass the media, and they did to his unabashed delight.

Trump’s first press conference turned into the strangest encounter ever between a sitting president and representatives of the American media. The American president invited the press to the Whiter House to tell them that he is waging an all-out war against them. As if to drive his stake deeper into the heart of the first amendment and the constitution in general, Trump tweeted the following day “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American People.” No American president had stooped to this level of public depravity. The president who swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” was clearly and publicly inciting his vigilantes against the men and women who are truly preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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