The resignation letter of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis runs just shy of 600 words. For the average reader, digesting such a missive is an undertaking of about three minutes, maybe a bit less. Way too much, in other words, for the president of the United States.
If President Donald Trump had wanted just the CliffsNotes version of the letter, he could have read merely these three sentences: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
That’s about 100 words, or about a half-minute of investment for the average reader. Again, that’s asking a lot for this particular fellow. The New York Times reports:
“But Mr. Trump had not read the letter. As became apparent to the president only after days of news coverage, a senior administration official said, Mr. Mattis had issued a stinging rebuke of Mr. Trump over his neglect of allies and tolerance of authoritarians. The president grew increasingly angry as he watched a parade of defense analysts go on television to extol Mr. Mattis’s bravery, another aide said, until he decided on Sunday that he had had enough.”
Indeed: On Sunday, Trump declared that Mattis would be leaving his post on Jan. 1, not in February, as Mattis had intended.
The snap decision resulted from a policymaking “process” governed by television. Here was a letter addressed to the president himself. Instead of reading it and sorting out its tone and message, he outsourced that job to the people on whom he relies the most: commentators on cable news and other media, that is.
The list of precedents highlighting this depraved dependency is getting unruly. Just think back to the shutdown drama, as Trump knuckled under to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and people on Fox News who knocked him for caving on wall funding. Or all the times that he derived governmental policies based on the programming of “Fox & Friends.” Or the time he vowed to get to the bottom of the land-reform situation in South Africa based on an error-laden presentation by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Or the fact that his communications director – Bill Shine – is a former Fox News guy and a buddy of host Sean Hannity. Or the fact that he adjudges former Fox News presenter Heather Nauert sufficiently qualified to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
On one level, Trump’s approach to the resignation of his defense secretary makes sense. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump was asked where he got his military advice: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals,” he said. For such a dedicated liar, that was a moment of honesty, not to mention a campaign promise fulfilled: Instead of reading Mattis’s letter, he turned to television to figure out what this general had to say.
And then he became enraged. That makes a lot of sense, too: Cable news is designed to tweak you, to bait you, to titillate you and, sometimes, to anger you. It’s a dangerous formula even for folks who read a lot and who are not president of the United States. It’s a lethal formula for a guy who doesn’t read and who is president of the United States.
Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.