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A few more Americans now know H.R. McMaster, who resembles an aging Mr. Clean with horn-rimmed glasses. But they don’t know him nearly as well as Tom Ricks.
His journalism experience reveals a distinct reason to doubt McMaster’s defense of President Trump amid reports of the president’s disclosure of classified information to top Russians.
You remember the Russian stuff, right? That was…a day or two ago? Yes, so very long ago and already drowned out by reports of a damning memo from former FBI Director Jim Comey. But it’s important, if now sidelined by the latest news cycle.
Ricks was watching television as McMaster made the first of two major appearances in 24 hours to defend Trump. It included the classic parsing of this line in responding to the initial Washington Post disclosure: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
“As reported” was a tipoff. But so were the manner and tone of an initial appearance. Those might have been lost on most reporters, but not Ricks. It’s a reminder of the utility of experience mixed with emotional insight, as was the case for the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter.
As he noted in a blog post in Foreign Policy and later elaborated on during an email chat, Ricks instantly recalled traveling with McMaster in Iraq in 2006 when Ricks worked for The Post and McMaster ran the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
He wrote a generally very upbeat story but then heard from an angry McMaster. It wasn’t the large majority of the tale that described his thoughtful approach but a small part that compared his regiment’s success with its “ham-fisted, abusive” actions and “mediocre” performance before he commanded it.
When he saw him on TV about the Trump story, “I heard exactly the same low-key, aggrieved tone. As McMaster spoke, I recognized that weary, dutiful voice. He was being a good soldier.”
That wasn’t a good sign, Ricks believes. It was “one thing for him to defend the honor of his regiment,” another to be the good soldier as national security adviser.
It’s all a reminder that there are limits to journalism skill and even strong intellect if you don’t get out of the office and on the ground, mixing that with emotional and psychological insight, or a well-honed B.S. detector.
You can sit in your office, or in a cable news studio, and crank out as much quick, even cogent analysis as you like. But you can’t replace having reported in Iraq and hearing from a pissed-off story subject with whom you’ve just spent quality time in dangerous locations.
Ricks modestly noted that there are others who’ve been on the defense beat a long time, including a co-author of the Post piece, Greg Jaffe, who’s posted at the White House now but was a veteran Pentagon reporter.
And, amid our back-and-forth, Ricks posted a rather damning note he’d just received from retired Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who was McMaster’s deputy commander in Iraq. He contacted Ricks because he knows and respects the reporter.
“An officer may not tolerate a lie. This standard requires not only that everything an officer says is true and complete, but also that an officer must correct anyone who lies in his or her presence. An officer can never be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”
The evening babble
The sameness of broadcast news was vivid last night — not to mention its virtual daily reliance on elite newspapers, in this case The New York Times (as it had been in recent days on The Washington Post).
ABC News with David Muir: “Tonight, breaking news as we come on. What could be a new bombshell. Did President Trump ask former FBI Director James Comey to shut down the federal investigation into retired Gen. Michael Flynn?”
NBC News with Lester Holt: “Breaking news tonight: President Trump asked FBI Director Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, according to a memo written by the FBI director himself…A stunning development, as we come on the air.”
CBS News with Scott Pelley: “Breaking News: A source tells CBS News that President Trump asked the FBI director to end his investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.”
ABC had all the proper qualifiers, cited The Times and mentioned how the acting FBI boss has denied White House interference.
Holt one-upped everybody by calling it a “new bombshell” but did have the leavening impact of an able Pete Williams. “Nightly News” mentioned the acting FBI chief’s denial of interference during his Senate testimony last week.
CBS had the coverage’s most dubious line, with a reporter citing a totally unidentified source who claimed, “There’s a whole lot of interfering happening.” What’s the evidence for that? Maybe that will be left for “60 Minutes.”
The more things change…
“Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” (The New York Times)
Shock, outrage, horror! How despicable is Trump, trying to throw the press in jail. It sounds almost like the Obama administration, as James Risen noted in The Times last December:
“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”
Bloom off a Medium rose?
“Last May, Medium made publishers an offer they couldn’t resist: Free hosting. Advertising dollars. More eyeballs. The opportunity to sell sponsorships and recruit members.” (Poynter)
“Facing stagnating readership and a tough market for digital ads, many publishers dropped their old sites and joined Medium’s growing network. Now, after a company-wide shift away from digital advertising, some of them are heading for the exits.”
Tucker Carlson, toilet inspector
The Fox News host spent part of his birthday telling a national audience about the dismal state of Penn Station bathrooms in an exchange with a member of the New York City Council member Corey Johnson about Trump’s tax returns.
“It’s like a homeless shelter, it’s disgusting,” he said about the train station. “And you’re worried about Trump’s tax returns?” (@gaywonk)
Advice to Tucker’s agent: He’ll probably have a lot of leverage, given his ratings, when you negotiate an early renewal of his contract. Hit Fox up for a lifetime supply of Liquid Pine Sol Original bathroom cleanser to ease the pain of his commute from Washington. (Consumer Reports)
As Carlson was turning 48 yesterday, The Undefeated, an entertaining and often nervy exploration of sports, race, culture and politics, turned one-year-old. (The Undefeated) However, they’ve not yet explored the indignities of public restrooms.
Drum roll, please
Hey, it might be as dramatic as the finals of the Chef Junior competition on Fox. There are five finalists for Wednesday’s finale at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield. They are:
Collider’s flagship printer Orchid, which “makes metal objects that are on par with those that are injection-molded”; Domuso, which “provides more flexible rental terms for tenants”; and NuCypher, which sells companies “a specialized encryption layer that enhances their ability to perform big data analytics while tapping into the cloud.”
Then there’s RecordGram, which “aims to be a mobile recording studio where aspiring artists can find beats, create songs and get signed”; and Sunrise Health, a startup “aiming to improve mental healthcare” via group chat, anonymity, professional therapists and artificial intelligence. (TechCrunch)
Headline of the day
“Slop Machines: How a family of hog farmers manage the excess of the world’s most indulgent city” (Eater)
Say what? It’s about Las Vegas buffets and what we don’t know, namely “Squirming in the sticky spasms of rhapsodic pleasure, we’re not meant to think about what comes after. In the case of your leftovers, the after,’ it turns out, is inside the belly of a hog.”
Remember that great Fox show, “House,” about the weirdo, brilliant doctor?
Well, read this STAT News tale of how a geneticist quickly figured out what doctors couldn’t in four years of treating a confounding little Texas boy born with a floppy windpipe, his head held at an unusual angle, walking and talking abnormally late and needing leg braces.
Sanders v. Kasich
Despite the ginormous “Breaking News: White House in crisis” chyron across the bottom of the screen, CNN offered a measured “debate” (more a discussion) last night between Bernie Sanders and Ohio Gov. John Kasich co-hosted by Dana Bash and Jake Tapper.
And one of the best questions was asked by Sanders of Kasich: “Is Trump a liar?” Kasich danced around it.
News from the art world
Big auctions are underway in New York and at Christie’s “one lot did provide some much-needed fireworks: Constantin Brancusi’s La muse endormie (1909–10), which sold for $57.4 million to a buyer on the other end of a cellphone clutched in the center of the room by former Sotheby’s rainmaker Tobias Meyer.” (ARTnews)
“That price absolutely demolished the artist’s auction record, which was achieved when Bird in Space (1923) sold at Christie’s in 2005 for $27.5 million.”
The morning babble
It was Comey, Comey, Comey as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough this morning simply read from a Wall Street Journal editorial that opens, “The state of the Trump presidency has been perpetual turbulence, which seems to be how the principal likes it. The latest vortex is over Mr. Trump’s disclosure of sensitive intel to the Russians — and whatever the particulars of the incident, the danger is that presidencies can withstand only so much turbulence before they come apart.” (The Wall Street Journal)
On CNN’s “New Day,” Jeffrey Toobin said “it is striking that the White House has said nothing” about the Comey memo…”Nobody’s come out to defend him.” David Gregory discussed “the outrage of the silliness from Republicans…C’mon, guys, get in the game, do your job, at least to get to the bottom of it.”
“Fox & Friends” was curiously defensive even as it stacked the deck with conservative reporters and pundits. Co-host Brian Kilmeade conceded that the White House is slow to react and Steve Doocy, self-proclaimed chief derider of the meanie mainstream media, said it “was probably a dumb thing” to bring up the Flynn investigation with Comey.
Co-host Ainsley Earhardt then fronted a quickie piece with this: “The mainstream media is turning anti-Trump bias into a business.” Huh?
She showed a few clips of people broaching impeachment and extrapolated, “Is resisting the president the newest form of journalism?”
No, it’s called “democracy” and being a countervailing force to power sometimes. But a free press can be a pretty good business. Ask Rupert Murdoch.