BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
President Donald J. Trump has had a contentious relationship with the Press. Thus, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the President has floated the possibility of ending the daily White House press briefings altogether. This is not such a controversial decision, considering that the daily press conferences began in earnest only during the Eisenhower Administration. The conferences were a product of the advent of television, not a constitutional requirement for the Executive Branch. Also, while the press is guaranteed freedom of speech under the First Amendment, they are not entitled to report from inside the White House. This is a privilege that has been conferred to them over time. More importantly, it is a privilege that can be denied to them whenever a President so chooses.
Yet, the great mistake on the President’s part would be to exclude American media (or, for that matter, Western media) from accessing his administration, but not the Russian press. However, that is precisely what the President did during last month’s meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. It was a downright strange decision on the part of the Trump Administration.
The Russian news services, such as TASS and RT, are not news services as we understand them. They are conduits for Kremlin propaganda. By granting them exclusive access to the White House, the President not only empowered his critics, but he also conferred a great propaganda victory upon Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin.
The Russians have weaponized their news services. Russian news outlets play a significant role in Russian disinformation operations globally. The goal of Russian disinformation campaigns is to sow paralyzing confusion in the minds of Russia’s enemies. The Kremlin believes that by confusing its enemies with disinformation, Russia will have a freer hand in implementing the most radical parts of its foreign policy agenda. Namely, Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire and reduce America’s hegemonic position in the world.
As Marcel H. Van Herpen details in his magnificent book, “Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy,” Russia has spent the last 20 years building up its media presence in countries such as France and Germany. The Russian media presence has been linked to other pernicious Russian endeavors, such as buying influence in major political parties (of both the Left and Right), all aimed at influencing the German and French governments into taking a more pro-Russia tone in their respective foreign policies. Vladimir Putin is intent on replicating this strategy in the United States.
There can be no doubt that Russia launched massive cyberattacks upon both the Democratic and Republican parties during the 2016 Presidential election. The goal was to sow discord and confusion rather than to elect a specific candidate, such as Mr. Trump. Further, President Trump is not a Russian agent, knowingly or unknowingly. What’s more, the people in the Trump Campaign suspected of illicit Russian ties did not remain in the campaign for very long. Moreover, the President has so far been cleared of any improper relationship with Russia. So, Trump is right to be upset with the press and his Democratic opponents for propagating such myths about him.
But, the larger issue of Russian interference cannot be overlooked. Such interference was present and it likely had a marginal impact on the election. Given all that we know about Russian influence operations—about how Russia has weaponized its news agencies—it strains credulity that the Trump Administration would give those Russian news agencies exclusive access to the President, his senior staff, and the White House itself.
If the President wants to punish the press for being overtly partisan, fine. Disinvite them from the White House. However, for the President to shut off access only to Western media sources writ large, but to continue allowing for the Russians to have access to him, is a bridge too far.
Next time, the Trump Administration should simply be more selective in which Western news agencies it invites into the White House press pool. If the Administration believes that having a Russian news agency present is a smart move, that’s one thing. But, please, don’t give the Kremlin exclusive access to the White House. Like it or not, the United States is in a quiet Information War–or, at the very least, a quiet information competition–with the Russians. While we can all push for healthier relations with the Russians, we must recognize the dangers that Russian disinformation poses to the country and work to counter it with extreme prejudice. There is absolutely nothing good that can come of excluding Western press from covering high-level diplomatic meetings with the Russians, while allowing for the Russians to exclusively cover the event.
It’s just bad form.