The political media had a collective meltdown on Monday over President Donald Trump’s speech about the new $717 billion defense budget he signed. The meltdown wasn’t about the sheer enormity of the money we’re spending on the military, though. Nor was it about how the language in the bill seeks to escalate tensions with Iran, or how the bill further entrenches the U.S. alliance with Israel despite the rampant human rights violations Israel is committing in Palestine.
No, the meltdown was about Trump failing to thank or congratulate or mention Sen. John McCain, whose colleagues gave him the greatest gift of all in his final days on Earth: putting his name on the Let’s Be At War Forever Act. And no one’s outrage was more pronounced than CNN’s Jake Tapper, who included a segment in his show about the “incident.”
After opening with a supercut of the “laundry list of people” Trump thanked for the bill, Tapper took a deep sigh and then unloaded with the kind of pent-up rage that usually only reveals itself when a middle-aged man who has 4,000 books about World War II sees a guy wearing ball shorts not thank someone wearing a military uniform for their service.
“One person who wasn’t on that list of people that he thanked? Outspoken Trump critic and the namesake of the bill, Sen. John McCain,” Tapper said. “You know, the decorated war hero who was a prisoner of war, continues to serve as a United States senator, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? The bill the president signed, it’s called the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act. No mention of him by the president today.”
After showing a statement by McCain and a tweet by his wife Cindy, neither of which mentioned Trump, Tapper took it another step: “And since President Donald Trump would not do it, let us here on The Lead congratulate Senator John McCain and his family, and thank him for his service.”
Yes, it’s true, there is no way it just happened to slip Trump’s mind to thank the guy who loathed him so much that he told Trump not to come to his funeral. Also true: Who the fuck cares!!!
Here’s just one piece of context it might have been nice to hear about from any of the hordes of pundits lamenting Trump’s snub: Over the weekend, an airstrike by the U.S.-backed Saudi military in Yemen killed 51 people. Forty of them were children. As In These Times reported earlier this month, the best that Congress could do in this bill to acknowledge that the U.S. is complicit in Saudi Arabia’s war crimes was to ask the secretary of state to certify that the coalition waging war on Yemen is at least trying to minimize harm to civilians and eventually end the war. That way, Congress could happily approve the United States’ midair refueling of Saudi bombers.
As In These Times noted, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who unsurprisingly blames Iran for the catastrophe in Yemen—can still issue a waiver ignoring all of these new rules approving midair refueling for “security reasons,” so long as the administration outlines in writing to Congress why the Saudi government can’t be bothered to comply. And as we’ve seen over the course of the past year and a half, the Trump administration’s willingness to confront Saudi Arabia on human rights issues has so far not proven to be substantial. (A better alternative would have been to pull the U.S. out of the war entirely; earlier this year, the Senate rejected a resolution that would have done just that, or at least until Congressional authorization for the war was given.)
Tapper knows the atrocities in Yemen—and their connection to the American military—well. He’s given them coverage on his show, something you can hardly say about most of the other cable news hosts who joined his outrage over McCain. So it was even more bizarre that congratulating McCain on the passage of a bill that further expands the military’s budget didn’t even register as questionable for Tapper, who—according to his own tweets—wants to be an objective journalist, even if he recognizes that it’s an ultimately impossible goal. There is a reason for this: the mainstream press views the military as the last true area of bipartisan agreement in the federal government (they aren’t wrong, as the bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers), even if they view the consequences of decisions made about what the money given to the military will actually do in the abstract.
Not giving credit to the Honorable Gentleman From Arizona whose name the bill carries, on the other hand, is just plain disrespectful.
Given our multitude of failed military adventures over the past several decades, and the press’s own complicity in some of them, there is no area of policy where the media should be casting a more critical eye than on the decisions made to sustain U.S. imperialism and the consequences of those decisions. If the mainstream press wants to portray the lack of big ups for a United States senator as more worthy of scrutiny than a bill that will help decide who the U.S. kills around the world, they’re not only failing the empty standard of objectivity they aspire to—they’re failing their audience.