For most of the last two months, Donald Trump promised to present “awards” for what he considers the most egregious examples of the “fake news media.” The ceremony was supposed to happen on Wednesday. But it doesn’t look like that ceremony is taking place–if it was ever due to take place at all.
Trump first floated the idea of “awards” for “fake news” a few days after Thanksgiving.
We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me). They are all bad. Winner to receive the FAKE NEWS TROPHY!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2017
Soon after he returned from his working–er, golfing–vacation, he announced that he would present the first “Fake News Awards” on January 8.
I will be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR on Monday at 5:00 o’clock. Subjects will cover Dishonesty & Bad Reporting in various categories from the Fake News Media. Stay tuned!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
A day before the original ceremony, Trump announced that interest was so high that he had to push the ceremony back–to January 17.
The Fake News Awards, those going to the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media, will be presented to the losers on Wednesday, January 17th, rather than this coming Monday. The interest in, and importance of, these awards is far greater than anyone could have anticipated!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2018
But there were already indications that this ceremony only existed on paper–or in Trump’s mind. For one thing, when the Trump campaign announced a similar contest in December, it only presented supporters with three options. Rather odd, since by The Washington Post’s reckoning, Trump has tweeted about “FAKE NEWS!” more than 150 times since taking office.
Then on Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave a rather curious response to a question about the “Fake News Awards” ceremony.
“We’ll keep you posted on any details around that potential event and what that would look like.”
But wait a minute. Trump had all but announced the ceremony was on. How could it still be “potentially” occurring just a day before it was due to start?
Perhaps someone must have told Sanders that she and others who would theoretically be taking part in the festivities that they might not be able to legally do so. Earlier in the week, Norman Eisen, a senior ethics lawyer during the early part of the Obama administration, warned that any White House staffer who helps Trump in the ceremony would be committing an ethics violation.
WARNING to White House staff: the president may be exempt from the rules at 5 CFR § 2635.701 et seq. on misuse of position BUT YOU ARE NOT. If you help @potus with the below, you risk violating §§ 702, 704 & 705 forbidding use of gov time & $$$ to harm some media & aid others. https://t.co/gHxzJcCEAW
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) January 7, 2018
Eisen was referring to the portions of the executive branch’s Standards of Official Conduct which bar staffers from using their office to endorse “any product, service, or enterprise.”
Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, delivered a similar warning.
Hey @PressSec & @RajShah45, Norm is right. If you or *ANY* WH staffers work on this or post it on the WH website, it will be a violation of the Standards of Conduct. Beware of laws on using federal appropriations too, if there are any visuals, certificates, handouts, or trophies. https://t.co/3tlyrkNc9H
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) January 7, 2018
Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law and an ethics expert, didn’t see any difference between the “Fake News Awards” and the White House attacking the press via Twitter and press briefings. Eisen begs to differ, arguing that a ceremony goes beyond “just the president bloviating” and puts it close to the level of “official government activity.”
Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel in the latter part of the George W. Bush administration, agrees with Eisen. He told Politico that there has to be “a legitimate official government reason” for an executive branch staffer to speak out against a private company. Speaking out against them because staffers “don’t like the coverage of the president” doesn’t qualify. He further added that if Trump were to use the ceremony to justify retaliation against any outlet that gets an “award,” it could raise serious First Amendment problems.
Had the awards ceremony been carried out solely by Trump campaign staff or Republican National Committee personnel, it would be merely unsavory–but it wouldn’t raise an ethical problem. But it doesn’t look like anyone made an effort to put together this supposed shindig. And that may be because it never really existed.
(featured image courtesy Gage Skidmore, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)