It was a set piece for the Washington Post on Tuesday. President Trump was speaking to the United Nations General Assembly. The paper knew the time of the speech and had an advance copy.
It had all the ingredients to publish a balanced, thought-provoking coverage of what may have been the most significant speech to date of the Trump presidency.
“Trump hammers his points with bellicosity and swagger,” read the headline on an analysis of the speech on the front of the Post’s heavily trafficked website. “Trump threatens to ‘destroy North Korea,’ calls Kim ‘Rocket Man,’ read the headline on the top news story about the speech.
“Why Trump’s threats to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea is extraordinary – even for him,” read still another headline.
But the real gem actually had two names. On the front page, it was headlined, “Trump’s speech annotated.” The click-through headline read, “Trump’s menacing United Nations speech, annotated.” If you cared enough to click, you needed to be reminded it was menacing.
The annotation is a worthwhile lens into the thinking in the Post newsroom because it was a set piece, and Aaron Blake, the writer who produced it, had time to reflect.
He got catty practically from the first paragraph. “Fortunately, the United States has done very well since Election Day last November 8,” the president said. Blake’s annotation: “Why does Trump begin his speech by citing the election date? Because he’s selling his resume to the rest of the world.”
Trump then launched into the economic situation since he took office – the record-breaking Dow, unemployment at its lowest level in 16 years and more people working in the U.S. than ever before “because of our regulatory and other reforms.”
“There are some curious claims in here,” Blake responds. “For one, the fact that more Americans are working than ever before is largely a function of population growth. He also cites ‘regulatory and other reforms’ for that fact, but Congress hasn’t passed any, and it’s still very early for any of Trump’s reforms or proposals to have made a difference.”
Turns out some of his Blake’s contentions are curious too. Congress has rolled back nearly 20 Obama-era rules using the Congressional Review Act, so it has “passed any.” And the president has cut more than 300 pages of energy regulations and hundreds more throughout government, and business leaders are saying regulatory reform is spurring economic activity.
In many cases, Blake’s entries amounted to “We, the Post, continue to find fault with this.” Where President Trump says “Authority and authoritarian powers seek to collapse the values, the systems, and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom since World War II,” most Americans may have thought they heard a familiar presidential comment in support of freedom.
The Post heard the president go against what it sees – on its supposedly neutral news pages – as his view toward authoritarianism.
“Trump has often been criticized for praising authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Blake writes. “And many have accused Trump of having his own authoritarian tendencies, including threatening to crack down on the rights of the media and criticizing the independence of judges. So this line sticks out.”
It goes on to point later, after a Trump passage that said “Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty …” that Trump said ‘sovereignty’ 22 times in his speech, then intones, “This is the nationalism within Trump’s speech.”
“Critics would argue that Trump’s effort to assert more presidential power – including on executive actions, fighting the judiciary, and telling the Senate to get rid of the filibuster – seems to fly in the face of his kind of rhetoric,” Blake continued.
It is hard to imagine such comments every being offered about President Obama, who bragged about governing with his phone and his pen, fought the judiciary (and lost more than any president in history) and had his own ways to circumvent filibusters – especially in something labeled an annotation of the speech.
Then, after Trump made the argument for nations serving their citizens first and the role nations play in promoting prosperity for their citizens – he uses that word 12 times, which is not mentioned in the Post – Blake takes one final shot.
“This is the meatiest part of Trump’s speech when it comes to his philosophy on the U.N. and foreign alliances – a version of the Trump Doctrine, if you will. “We must be first and foremost sovereign,’ he seems to be saying, ‘but also work with others when we can and when it’s necessary.’”
He says this with a sneer, but it’s what got Trump elected.