MSNBC's Halperin Claims Trump Administration Violated Democracy

On Monday's Morning Joe, the conversation centered around the press gaggle that was held by Sean Spicer on Friday. Host Mika Brzezinski began by listing off the organizations that were unable to attend and mistakenly called the gaggle a briefing, which occurred several times by all of the panelists. Brzezinski said: “The White House held a press briefing, but it was not open to all reporters. CNN, BuzzFeed, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill and Politico were just some of the outlets barred from covering the briefing. Has this ever happened before?” Political analysts Mark Halperin and John Heilemann both answered the same, with a resounding no. Again, in a sing-song voice this time, Brzezinski asked, “Anybody ever seen this before?” The answer is yes, we have seen this before.

In 2009, the Obama administration did something very similar. President Obama had such an unfavorable relationship with Fox News that the White House attempted to exclude Fox from the pool of reporters during an event at a Treasury Department. Other media outlets voiced their concerns and refused to take part in conducting interviews, which forced a reversal of the decision.

Following a video clip of Spicer explaining why every media outlet was not invited, Brzezinski commented: “What’s the endgame here, Mark Halpern? This war with the media that is getting so ugly. By the way, this is a guy, nice guy. But his very first act in this presidency was to walk out and do a hostage video talking about crowd size. Obviously, forced by his boss whose ego was so busted by people talking about his crowd size that he actually made his press person walk out there and do a press availability on crowd size…and they are looking at the media as not being honest and trustworthy? This is getting – a little bit concerning.”

Halperin responded: “America needs to stand up when fundamental principles are violated. This is a fundamental principle about the press holding the power of the White House accountable. I don't think it will stand. I'm hopeful it's not repeated. I'm hardened by the pretty widespread reaction, but everyone, Republicans and people around the country, should look at this not as some inside baseball thing, but as a fundamental principle of our democracy being violated. And the White House will not like the press coverage, but they cannot change the rules. They cannot penalize news organizations based on the content of their reporting. They just can't.” Apparently, Halperin and his fellow panelists all forgot about Obama’s attempt to exclude and marginalize Fox News.

Heilemann commented:

I believe it’s the case that Sean Spicer himself was quoted back in November or December saying that barring legitimate news organizations from the White House briefing would be – that’s what dictators do. He said that back in December…And that is what – that is what this reeks of. It’s – I agree with everything Mark just said. Horrible and they should not be doing it. One of the questions I think it raises is that, they’ve gone after the press so hard, not just in terms of the barring of some organizations from the briefing but also what President Trump said at CPAC, it suggests that they are concerned about reporting that may be forthcoming on some stories where they’re sensitive, particularly related to Russia and that they are trying to discredit the press ahead of those stories that they know are in the pipeline.

Later on, Brzezinski played a clip from President Trump’s speech at CPAC: “I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake. Phony. Fake...A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.” As soon as the clip ended, Brzezinski said, “No, actually, the sources are in your administration. They are calling the press. Every second of the day…Because they’re really nervous. Very high-level people are calling the press all the time leaking.”

The segment continued discussing the leaks and Spicer asking for some of the phones of White House staffers. Brzezinski asked MSNBC political analyst Michael Steele, “But the problem is, who is the enemy of the people? The leakers who are talking to the press? Because they’re in your administration.” Steele answered with: “I think that’s the key point. I mean Sean Spicer asking his com shop to drop their phones on the table? Big whoop! That’s not the source of the leaking. The leaking is coming from all over the administration…So I think if the administration is going to be serious about this, they have got to be comprehensive about it and this is not the way to go about solving that problem because it's not just in Sean's office.”

Halperin added, “The President needs to look in the mirror and realize this is from people who want help him. Not people who want to hurt him on almost every instance.” Brzezinski concurred, saying, “I agree with that. There is a fear that they can't talk to him. So they try and find other ways to communicate.”

Brzezinski played the same clip of Spicer again, along with another from December, the same one Heilemann mentioned. After the clips ended, Brzezinski stared into the camera for about 6 seconds, silent. The rest of the panelist started to laugh. Brzezinski asked, “Are they trying to create a dictatorship? I mean – I'm not joking and I'm not angry.” Author Eddie Glaude Jr. answered: “What we might be seeing here, is an attempt to erode some of those institutions and here the fourth estate is under attack…And so I'm deeply disturbed by this. And at the same time, that we are focusing on the banning of news outlets from – the gaggle, there is Priebus talking to the FBI. There are folks who are trying to impact stories so there is something happening here that seems to run against…”

Brzezinski continued by reading an excerpt from the Washington Post which spoke about Spicer’s role in the White house. She commented after reading saying, “I don't think Sean Spicer takes him too seriously. I think he is a really nice guy in a really bad position. And I think he wears it -- you can see the bad position that he is in, written all over his face, which ultimately I think may undermine his  effectiveness.” Halperin chimed in, “The decision to exclude legitimate news organizations from a regular briefing, not a private small thing --” Brzezinski interrupted with: “No, you just can't do it. Come on.” Halperin continued, “That is a fight they will lose and one they should lose.”

Brzezinski asked Halperin, “So where’d that decision come from?” He answered, “Well, it’s not clear where the decision came from but I think they also compounded their problem by not being honest –” She interrupted again, “Do you think Sean Spicer made that decision?” Halperin responded: “I bet he didn’t make it on his own.”

Brzezinski continued: “I don’t think he made that decision. I think that’s like – This is like the crowd size hostage video where he went out and did something that he doesn't believe in but he is –  I think had he been a veteran journalist, it would have been, no, Mr. President, no. You can't do this. You can't do this. I'll walk out.” Halperin replied, “And then they defended it by giving an explanation that it doesn't match up with the facts. And it's going to be, as I said, a distraction. We can't be distracted by it in terms of doing our jobs. We do have to fight for the principle. They cannot decide who gets to cover the White House based on whether they like the coverage or not. It's not going to work.”

<<< Please support MRC's NewsBusters team with a tax-deductible contribution today. >>>

This is the full exchange that took place on February 28:

MSNBC -Morning Joe

6AM TEASE

[6:08:03 - 6:11:19 ]

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Just hours after that speech at CPAC the White House held a press briefing but it was not open to all reporters. CNN, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill and Politico were just some of the outlets barred from covering the briefing. Has this ever happened before?

JOHN HEILEMANN: No

MARK HALERPIN: Nothing quite like this.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Anybody ever seen this before?

JOHN HEILEMANN: Never.

BRZEZINSKI: The Associated Press and Time were invited but they declined to attend in opposition. Spicer defended the decision to limit the press.

SEAN SPICER: I think that we have shown an abundance of accessibility. We’ve brought more reporters into this process and the idea that every time that every single person can't get their question answered or fit in a room that we are excluding people we have actually gone above and beyond with making ourselves, our team and our briefing more accessible than probably any prior administration so I think you can take that to the bank.

HAROLD FORD JR: That’s fake news. I don't know how–

BRZEZINSKI: Yeah

HAROLD FORD JR: What he would base that on. I can understand he is upset but I used to defend Sean. This is indefensible--

BRZEZINSKI: No

FORD JR: He knows better. And as much as they may not like some things that are being written about them, you don't – you don’t take it on by barring the people. You take it on, you counter it with facts. So, it's an unfortunate moment and I'm hopeful that Sean and perhaps those in the White House will try to dissuade this president, whomever else is–  might be behind these decisions. This is not healthy.

BRZEZINSKI: What’s the endgame here, Mark Halperin? This war with the media that is getting so ugly. By the way, this is a guy, nice guy. But his very first act in this presidency was to walk out and do a hostage video talking about crowd size. Obviously, forced by his boss whose ego was so busted by people talking about his crowd size that he actually made his press person walk out there and do a press availability on crowd size. And they are talking about–

FORD JR: His very first press conference.

BRZEZINSKI: His very first act in this presidency, and they are looking at the media as not being honest and trustworthy? This is getting–  a little bit concerning.

MARK HALPERIN: America, not just the Washington Press corps, America needs to stand up when fundamental principles are violated. This is a fundamental principle about the press holding the power of the White House accountable. I don't think it will stand. I'm hopeful it's not repeated. I'm hardened by the pretty widespread reaction, but everyone, Republicans and people around the country,  should look at this not as some inside baseball thing, but as a fundamental principle of our democracy being violated. And the White House will not like the press coverage but they cannot change the rules. They cannot penalize news organizations–

BRZEZINSKI: Barring news organizations

HALPERIN: Based on the content of their reporting. They just can't.

JOHN HEILEMANN: I believe it’s the case that Sean Spicer himself was quoted back in November or December saying that barring legitimate news organizations from the White House briefing would be – that’s what dictators do. He said that back in December.

BRZEZINSKI Well– Right.

HEILEMANN: And that is what– that is what this reeks of. It’s– I agree with everything Mark just said. Horrible and they should not be doing it. One of the questions I think it raises is that, they’ve gone after the press so hard, not just in terms of the barring of some organizations from the briefing but also what President Trump said at CPAC it suggests that they are concerned about reporting that may be forthcoming on some stories where they’re sensitive, particularly related to Russia and that they are trying to discredit the press ahead of those stories that they know are in the pipeline.

-----------------------------------------------------

7AM

[7:08:50 -7:16:21]

DONALD TRUMP: I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake. Phony. Fake. A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: No, actually, the sources are in your administration. They are calling the press. Every second of the day.

MARK HALPERIN: Including some high level people.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Because they’re really nervous. Very high level people are calling the press all the time leaking.

HAROLD FORD JR: It’s funny– it’s strange how he reconciles those words with the fact that his own press secretary has asked his staffers to come in and --

BRZEZINSKI: And hand over the phones

HAROLD FORD JR: Hand over the phones because there is a belief or at least they suspect that someone in that group is leaking. So these anonymous sources –

BRZEZINSKI: Those are– I mean they may– you may have found stuff on their phones but those aren't the -- the –

HAROLD FORD JR: Right, it's happening at every level.

BRZEZINSKI:  There’s a very nervous administration very much wondering where their jobs stand. They’re all– there’s a lot of people paranoid they’re going to lose their positions and a lot of people just looking at what is happening saying, oh, my god, how do we keep this train on tracks?

MARK HALPERIN: It’s a lot of pressure.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR: And there’s a piece in The New York Times today about the use of the phrase the enemy of the people even – wouldn't use that phrase.

BRZEZINSKI: No.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR: And so there this sense in which--

BRZEZINSKI: But the problem who is the enemy of the people? The leakers who are talking to the press? Because they’re in your administration. Michael Steele?

MICHAEL STEELE: Yeah, no Mika. I think that’s the key point. I mean Sean Spicer asking his com shop to drop their phones on the table? Big whoop! That’s not– that’s not the source of the leaking. The leaking is coming from all over the administration. A lot of it in offices inside the west wing that have nothing to do with the com shop. So I think if the administration going to be serious about this they have got to be comprehensive about it and–-  this is not the way to go about solving that problem because it's not just in Sean's office.

BRZEZINSKI: Your top ten people just–  hand over the phones.

MARK HALPERIN: The President needs to look in the mirror and realize this is from people who want help him. Not people who want to hurt him on almost every instance.

HAROLD FORD JR: Right.

BRZEZINSKI:  I agree with that. There is – there is a fear that they can't talk to him. So they try and find other ways to communicate. --Just hours after that speech at CPAC, the white house held a press briefing but it was not open to all reporters. CNN, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, The Hill and Politico were just some of the outlets barred from covering the briefing. The Associated Press and Time were invited but they declined to attend in opposition and unity. Spicer defended the decision to limit the press.

SEAN SPICER: I think that we have shown in abundance of accessibility. We have brought more reporters into this process and the idea that every time that every single person can't get their question answered or fit in a room that we’re excluding people, we’ve gone above and beyond to making ourselves, our team and our briefing more accessible than probably any prior administration. So I think you can take that to the bank.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI:  So there’s a different Spicer that we have for you. Back in December, here he is.

SEAN SPICER: We have a respect for the press– When it comes to the government. That that is something that you can't ban an entity from. You know, conservative, liberal, or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy, versus a dictatorship.

[About 6 seconds of silence]

MICHAEL STEELE: Just let that marinate!

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: I mean– So, is that where we're at? Anybody want to participate? I mean I– He just described himself.

HAROLD FORD JR: 70 days may be a long time in his mind. That was 70 days ago–

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: So we– Are they trying to create a dictatorship? I mean– I'm not joking and I'm not angry.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR: Well one of the things that I think we have been talking about on this show, over the time that I've been part of it, is Joe and you have mentioned the importance of democratic institutions, holding in check, right? The autocratic tendencies of Donald Trump and his administration. But what we might be seeing here, is an attempt to erode some of those institutions and here the fourth estate is under attack and the fourth estate, if you read, is crucial to the workings of democracy. And so I'm deeply disturbed by this. And at the same time, that we are focusing on the banning of news outlets from–  the gaggle, there is Priebus talking to the FBI. There are folks who are trying to impact stories so there is something happening here that seems to run against--

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Well, you have a -- I'm going to read from Kathleen Parker but, you have a weekend where I think the President had one of his best moments, presidential moments. Yet, if you look at his weekly address, it was good. But we really can't talk about that because we– I mean, either we’re the fake news and you shouldn't be watching. Or I mean you've got this press spokesperson who clearly is now describing months ago what would be a dictatorship and banning media outlets. Kathleen Parker writes this in The Washington Post, Spicer makes an impossible job even harder. To give Sean Spicer the benefit of the doubt his job, his job must be the hardest in the history of press secretaries. Explaining Trump is a relentless, thankless task for which he will be punished one way or the other. Unlike most press secretaries, who typically come from the reporting world, Spicer is a veteran flack with a flack's contempt for the media. What is missing, also a missed opportunity, is the camaraderie and mutual respect that often develop in the media briefing room. Spicer would do well and would be well served if he would treat all reporters with the same respect he wishes for himself. They're a loathsome bunch to be sure. But they're also suckers for pros who are self-aware enough not to take themselves or this business too seriously. I don't think Sean Spicer takes him too seriously. I think he is a really nice guy in a really bad position. And I think he wears it -- you can see the bad position that he is in, written all over his face, which ultimately I think may undermine his  effectiveness.

MARK HALPERIN: The decision to exclude legitimate news organizations from a regular briefing, not a private small thing --

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: No, you just can't do it. Come on.

MARK HALPERIN: That is a fight they will lose and one they should lose. And one that again, I am hardened by–

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: So where’d that decision come from?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, it’s not clear where the decision came from but I think they also compounded their problem by not being honest–

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Do you think Sean Spicer made that decision?

MARK HALPERIN: I bet he didn’t make it on his own.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: I didn't– I don’t think he made that decision. I think that’s like– This is like the crowd size hostage video where he went out and did something that he doesn't believe in but he is–  I think had he been a veteran journalist, it would have been, no, Mr. President, no. You can't do this. You can't do this. I'll walk out.

MARK HALPERIN: And then they defended it by giving an explanation that it doesn't match up with the facts. And it's going to be, as I said, a distraction. We can't be distracted by it in terms of doing our jobs. We do have to fight for the principle. They cannot decide who gets to cover the White House based on whether they like the coverage or not. It's not going to work.

Alexis Thomasi
Alexis Thomasi
Alexis Thomasi, an intern in the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division