Donald Trump has, shall we say, a unique relationship with the media. His narcissistic, oversized ego demands their full and constant attention. Politically, he needs the press to be the stenographers of his constant lies and a foil for his outsider status. His constant description of the press as the “enemy of the people” not only shows his base he is fighting the Washington establishment but also provides cover to dismiss any unfortunate truths the media uncovers about him. Sadly, especially in 2016, many in the media found this to be a mutually beneficial relationship.
But his lifelong threats against reporters that dare to print critical information about him illustrate that Trump is only interested in a sycophantic and pliant press. Fox is his ideal network, a willing dance partner in his presidency, although often it is hard to distinguish which one is the lead, which will gladly self-censor any stories damaging to Trump. In Fox, Trump has his authoritarian dream of a media outlet.
Last week, Trump barred four reporters from covering his dinner with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. The ostensible reason for them being barred was because they shouted questions at an earlier event where Trump met Kim. Of course, the questions that the reporters were hoping to get answered concerned Michael Cohen’s testimony that Trump was a racist, a con man, and a cheat. This is hardly the first time that Trump has barred US reporters from events covered by other media. The most infamous example is his meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office the day after he fired James Comey and told them that the pressure of the Russian investigation had now been taken off. The Russian press was invited to that meeting. The American press was not.
More disturbingly, NBC News in San Diego reported last night that CBP had created a database of activists, lawyers, and journalists involved in immigration issues along the southern border, especially those that dealt with the migrant caravan, and was actively monitoring their movements. Some, including a lawyer and three journalists, had alerts place on their passports and were denied entry into Mexico. Other journalists report detailed questioning by both Mexican and American border patrol agents that indicated their movements were being closely tracked. That questioning was often invasive, demanding journalists’ personal details, and included apparently illegal searches of their electronic devices.
As an unnamed Homeland Security official noted, “We are a criminal investigation agency, we’re not an intelligence agency. We can’t create dossiers on people and they’re creating dossiers. This is an abuse of the Border Search Authority”. The ACLU concurred, stating, “For years, the U.S. government has used the pretext of ‘border security’ to trample on Americans’ constitutional rights. This most recent example is just the latest in a steady stream of CBP abuse of authority”.
This is not the first indication that CBP may have been tracking specific journalists. Last summer, a CBP agent was investigated for obtaining the confidential travel itinerary of a journalist who, herself, was being investigated for leaks coming from the Senate Intelligence Committee. The agent used his knowledge of an affair that the journalist was having with an Intelligence Committee staffer in order to essentially blackmail her into disclosing her sources and becoming an informant. While this was originally written off as an agent gone rogue at the time, it is worth noting that the agent was assigned to the San Diego area, the same region where the immigration activists are being tracked with the help of that CBP database.
It is also becoming clearer that Homeland Security (DHS) is becoming the Trump administration’s agency for keeping tabs on its supposed enemies and enforcing Trump policies whether or not they follow the law. In New York, ICE was monitoring what it specifically described as “anti-Trump protests”. One of those protests was a unity march in response to a racist, xenophobic message from a white supremacist group, a group whose protest did not make the list of protests ICE should be monitoring. Another was simply a march against gun violence. ICE has also specifically targeted immigration activists. An ongoing lawsuit from the New Sanctuary Coalition claims that “ICE is violating the First Amendment by targeting prominent immigrant rights activists for surveillance, arrest and deportation”.
DHS, especially CBP and ICE, has become a rogue agency. ICE has been accused of falsifying reports used as a basis for deportation and detaining American citizens. ICE has also been accused of force-feeding some of its detainees, an action that some international organizations claim amounts to torture. CBP openly defied court orders during the Muslim ban. According to Representative Nannette Barragan, CBP continues to disobey the law on the southern border by turning away asylum seekers and not informing them of their legal rights when they try to claim asylum. The DHS policy of separating families and then not keeping track of the children was tantamount to kidnapping and child abuse. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen spent most of her testimony yesterday before the House Homeland Security Committee obfuscating or just plain lying. She even refused to call the cages uses to detain immigrants cages, euphemistically describing them as “areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they’re being processed”.
Trump’s assaults on the norms and rules of law are constant and wide ranging. But the use of an agency that has a history of legal abuses to monitor and harass journalists is certainly one of the most disturbing.
Originally published at thesoundings.com on March 7, 2019.