Columnist Byron York

Trump, NATO and the mainstream media

Posted

There’s an odd dynamic that plays out when former President Donald Trump gives a campaign speech. Many news organizations have imposed a virtual blackout on his appearances. As a rule, they don’t broadcast Trump’s speeches live and often never report on them at all, even if a particular speech is newsworthy. When Trump won the Iowa caucuses, for example, Fox News carried his victory speech live, while CNN cut away from the speech when Trump discussed immigration, labeling his remarks “anti-immigrant rhetoric” unfit for CNN viewers. MSNBC did not broadcast the speech at all.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who devoted hundreds of hours of coverage to the Steele dossier, told viewers that out of a deep reverence for the truth, MSNBC will not broadcast Trump speeches live. “There is a cost to us, as a news organization, of knowingly broadcasting untrue things,” Maddow explained. “That is a fundamental truth of our business and who we are.”

The blackout has created a perverse incentive for the former president. If Trump says something outrageous from the podium, the news organizations will drop their bans and play that portion of the speech for the purpose of fact-checking and denouncing it. They then hold panel discussions on how terrible Trump is. If, on the other hand, Trump does not say something sufficiently outrageous — crickets. So the way for Trump to win coverage, indeed, to dominate coverage on the networks that have blacked him out is to say something outrageous enough for them to put him on the air.

Decades ago, when he was a New York businessman and, later, a television star, many observers said Trump operated by the old maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity. One might think that in the current atmosphere, with Trump’s level of notoriety, there is, in fact, such a thing as bad publicity. Being called a fascist or a racist or an authoritarian or a dictator — surely that is worse than being ignored, right?

Not really. Trump understands that many of his supporters actually like it when he says something that makes network commentators flip out. The supporters enjoy seeing it, because they believe Trump is fundamentally right, and the network pearl-clutchers are wrong. When the commentators search for some new way to condemn Trump, that just shows his supporters that he’s driven them crazy again.

So there is every incentive for Trump, in his campaign speeches, to say something outrageous to set the publicity process in motion. And so it happened again on Saturday, when Trump discussed NATO during a campaign speech at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. (Trump also engaged in some nasty innuendo about opponent Nikki Haley’s husband, Michael, but more on that in another column.)

On NATO, Trump essentially said what he always says, which is that while he was president he forced NATO countries to pay more for their own defense, which had been a goal of U.S. presidents for quite a while. Trump stressed that he had to get tough with some of the countries — had to make a credible threat to stop U.S. support — before they would pay up. Only then did they come up with more money. To illustrate that, Trump said: “One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’ I said, ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’ He said, ‘Yes, let’s say that happened.’ ‘No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.’ And the money came flowing in.”

What was new there was Trump’s statement that he told the European president he would “encourage” Russia to attack if the president’s country did not pay enough for his country’s defense. That was enough to set the outrage machine in motion again. There were headlines in all the papers and websites. Excerpts of Trump’s speech shown on television. Commentators condemning Trump. If Trump had simply bragged that he strong-armed NATO to pay more for its defense, as he has done a zillion times, then there would have been no reporting. When he tossed in the “encourage” line, he dominated another news cycle. So much for the blackout.

This is not the place to do a deep dive on Trump and NATO. There have been plenty of those in other outlets. Suffice it to say that Trump’s speech in Conway was entirely consistent with things he has said about NATO in the past. And unlike any other Republican candidate, Trump has actually been president, so voters can judge what he actually did on the NATO issue. Plus, we have a recent statement — before Trump’s Conway speech — from the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, on the effect of Trump’s NATO policy.

On Jan. 31, Stoltenberg appeared on CNN, where anchor Poppy Harlow asked him about Trump. The former president has said the U.S. pays a lot for NATO and doesn’t get a lot out of it, Harlow noted, and said if he wins another term, the U.S. might “fundamentally reevaluate” the role of NATO. “Would a second Trump presidency concern you about the future of U.S. membership in NATO?” Harlow asked. And then:

STOLTENBERGH: I believe the United States will continue to be a staunch NATO ally regardless of the outcome of the U.S. elections because it is in the U.S. interest to have a strong —

HARLOW: Even under President Trump?

STOLTENBERGH: Well, I worked with him for four years and I listened carefully, because the main criticism has been about NATO allies spending too little on NATO, and the message has been taken across the alliance in Europe and Canada. So over the last years, NATO allies have significantly increased defense spending. More and more allies meet the NATO guideline on spending 2% of GDP on defense. ... In total, they have added $450 billion extra for defense. So the message from the United States that the European allies have to step up has been understood, and they are now really moving in the right direction, and that strengthens also the transatlantic bond within the alliance.

Needless to say, Stoltenberg’s assessment — that Trump’s stand actually strengthened NATO — got lost in the media hysteria that followed Trump’s Conway speech. It could be that the speech said less about NATO and more about Trump’s relationship with some media outlets, a relationship that is both troubled and transactional.

Troubled for obvious reasons, and transactional because Trump knows if he offers them something hot enough, they will stop everything and obsess over him again, just as they always have. And that is the lesson, such as it is, of the latest Trump-NATO-media flareup.