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Trump called out for ‘news dump’ as storm pummels Texas

© Brendan Smialowski, AFP | US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House August 25, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-08-26

US President Donald Trump pardoned a controversial ex-sheriff, gave form to his contentious transgender troop ban and split with polemical right-wing aide Sebastian Gorka late Friday, as a historic hurricane pounded the Texas shoreline.

The moves had all the hallmarks of a Friday night news dump, a well-worn tool of American politics that sees news timed for release at a moment of the week when it is least likely to face sustained media scrutiny or general public attention -- with one caveat: far from going unnoticed, Trump’s prolific news lob was blasted for not only its substance but for its arguably cynical timing as well.

Critics are calling out “President Trump’s flagrant Friday night news dump”, as the Washington Post characterised it in a headline, and debating why he might have felt such manoeuvring was necessary.

“In the span of three hours, as Hurricane Harvey barreled toward landfall in Texas last night, the White House dropped three controversial stories -- taking the classic tactic of burying news on a Friday night to new heights,” Bloomberg opined. The Atlantic called it “the Friday news dump to end them all”.

Rick Hasen, a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, tweeted, “This Friday night news dump in the middle of a category 4 hurricane will be taught in political classes for years.”

Each of Trump’s Friday-night newsmakers were hot-button issues in their own right.

Trump had tweeted his controversial intention to ban transgender people from serving “in any capacity in the US military” on July 26 – a sudden announcement that appeared to catch the Pentagon by surprise and had not come with instructions. Friday’s memo provided that guidance, directing the US Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to halt the use of government funds for sexual reassignment surgery, except in cases where it would be dangerous to halt a course of treatment already begun. Trump’s Friday memorandum also extends indefinitely a ban on recruiting transgender personnel.

The president’s memo does, however, appear to be a ban softer than Trump initially suggested it would be in July, apparently giving Defense Secretary Jim Mattis some discretion over the fates of transgender personnel already serving openly.

Shortly after the transgender directives were issued, news came that Trump had issued his first presidential pardon, in another highly controversial move. The president had floated his intention to pardon Joe Arpaio, an Arizona ex-sheriff who was convicted last month in a federal court of criminal contempt for illegally targeting Hispanic immigrants, during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday. But Trump said at that time that he was holding back on discussing the pardon, during a nationally televised rally in Arpaio’s home state, so as not to court “controversy”.

Indeed, Friday’s pardon earned a swift rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union. “With his pardon of Arpaio, Trump has chosen lawlessness over justice, division over unity, hurt over healing,” Cecilia Wang, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director, said in a statement. “Once again, the president has acted in support of illegal, failed immigration enforcement practices that target people of color and have been struck down by the courts.” Wang called the pardon “a presidential endorsement of racism”.

Arizona Congressmen Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, also slammed the pardon. But he reserved a share of some of his ire for its timing. “It’s cowardly. The president decided to use the cover of a Friday evening, as well as a hurricane, to pardon one of his racist friends,” Gallego told MSNBC.

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer echoed that sentiment. “As millions of people in [Texas] and [Louisiana] are prepping for the hurricane, the President is using the cover of the storm to pardon a man who violated a court’s order to stop discriminating against Latinos and ban courageous transgender men and women from serving our nation’s Armed Forces. Then he ran to Camp David”, the president’s country retreat, Schumer chided in a series of tweets. “The only reason to do these right now is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny. So sad, so weak,” the senator opined.

In the Washington Post, Amber Phillips called the White House’s Friday moves “a flagrant attempt to hide a series of politically fraught (but base-pleasing) moves under the cover of an August Friday hurricane. In other words, it’s transparent Trump is doing controversial things he knows are controversial, and he and the White House would prefer the public and the media not focus on it.”

But if Trump had indeed sought to avoid general public scrutiny on Friday night, the tactic appeared to be backfiring. “The irony for Trump is the exact opposite is happening.” Phillips added. “In so obviously trying to downplay this news, he’s framing it in neon flashing signs.”

Bloomberg editor Michael Marois, meanwhile, noted that while Trump’s transgender and Arpaio moves were likely to win praise from Trump’s hardcore followers, the exit of Sebastian Gorka may have the opposite effect. Gorka, a national security aide and hardliner, was a former editor for the Breitbart News website, then touted as a “platform for the Alt-Right”, and a protégé of another inflammatory character, Stephen Bannon. “The departure of Gorka risks creating more fractures in Trump’s base, coming on the heels of former strategist Bannon’s ouster one week ago”, Marois wrote early Saturday morning.

Critics of Friday’s news onslaught were not, however, limited to Democrats and sources Trump himself has tarred with his “Fake News” epithet.

Across the aisle, Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and a former communications director to Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, made note of the conspicuous timing of Trump’s social media missive, which vaunted his pardon of Arpaio: “He literally tweeted as [the] hurricane’s eye came ashore in Texas”.

But the political strategist also noted that the ostensible attempt to bury news under Friday night’s unique conditions could come back to haunt Trump. “So IF hurricane is bad and Fed response lacking whatsoever, Trump opponents will now say potus was preoccupied with pardons, transgenders, etc,” wrote Conant.

Indeed, political observers point out that natural disasters themselves are, too, fraught with danger for elected officials. In his post-White House memoir, “Decision Points”, George W. Bush looked back on 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, saying its “impact was more than physical destruction. It eroded citizens’ trust in their government. It exacerbated divisions in our society and politics. And it cast a cloud over my second term.”

Seen in that light, the political peril of a mishandled natural disaster might beg the question as to whether Friday’s White House news dump was, in fact, meant to muffle the impact of hurricane news and not the other way around. But Trump’s pre-White House Twitter history sheds some light on his calculus of presidential fortunes in the eye of a storm. At the time of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which killed dozens in the American northeast, the billionaire future president tweeted, “Hurricane is good luck for Obama again – he will buy the election by handing out billions of dollars”.

Date created : 2017-08-26

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