Spinning for Trump on Syria
CNSNews.com's main job when President Trump abruptly pulled U.S. troops out of Syria, allowing Turkey to attack U.S. allies in the region, was to portray Trump as correct and downplay criticism.
By Terry Krepel
CNSNews.com framed its coverage of President Trump's declared early-October withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria -- thus clearing the way for a Turkish invasion of the region targeting the Kurds, who are U.S. allies -- in its usual pro-Trump fashion: by going on the assumption that Trump is right and downplaying the widespread and bipartisan criticism of his plan.
CNS' first story on the decision was an Oct. 7 piece by Trump fan Susan Jones, who waited until the fifth paragraph to mention what she called "predictable fury from pundits and politicians on liberal cable outlets as well as Fox News," then noted "criticism from both Republicans and Democrats" -- all the while uncritically repeating Trump's tweets defending his decision -- and it was not until the 11th paragraph (six of which were straight Trump quotes) that Jones offered a detailed criticism of Trump's decision.
The next day, Patrick Goodenough highlighted Trump's further defense of his withdrawal plan, but waited until the sixth paragraph to mention that it's "drawing strong criticism from many Democrats and Republicans" and offer no further mention of the nature of that criticism, focusing instead on the issue of repatriating captured ISIS fighters.
Jones, meanwhile, contributed an article touting Republican Sen. Rand Paul's comments on how he "strongly supports the president's move," even though "some Republicans, including Trump allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, have joined Democrats in sharply criticizing the president's decision to withdraw an unannounced number of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria."
(In between, CNS published a column by Pat Buchanan -- who employed current CNS editor in chief Terry Jeffrey as research director for his 1992 presidential campaign and as manager of his 1996 campaign -- cheering the "American withdrawal from the forever wars of the Middle East.")
An Oct. 9 article by Goodenough noted criticism of Trump right at the top, for once -- but from Turkish officials critical of "Trump’s threats to destroy the country’s economy if it acts in a way that he views as 'off limits' in Syria." It wasn't until the 21st paragraph of his article that he acknowledged that "Critics, including some senior Republicans, argue that withdrawing could benefit hostile elements like the Assad regime and its allies Iran and Russia, and facilitate a resurgence of ISIS," though he then noted a Department of Defense report linking a drawdown of U.S. troops in the region to a likely ISIS resurgence.
Also on Oct. 9, Jones finally wrote the first CNS article putting criticism of Trump's withdrawal in the headline, from former national security adviser Susan Rice. That was joined by an article noting European criticism of the withdrawal.
The next day, however, it was back to the prevailing narrative. An article by Jones gave Secretary of State Mike Pompeo space to defend Trump's decision and to insist that it didn't give a "green light" for Turkey to invade northern Syria. It wasn't until the 11th paragraph that Jones got around to noting that "A number of Republicans have joined Democrats in criticizing President Trump's decision to stand aside for Turkey." And CNS touted Paul's support of Trump's withdrawal plan again, this time in an article by Melanie Arter.
An article by Goodenough the same day was a bit confused; he claimed Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was "breaking with President Trump" by pushing for sanctions against Turkey over the military operation everyone predicted would take place upon announcement of Trump's withdrawal plan, but then quoted Trump saying he thought that was "okay."
Week 2: More of the same
That spin continued largely unabated in the second week of coverage, even as Turkey moved into the region to attack the Kurds. An Oct. 14 article by Goodenough noted that Trump's withdrawal was a "widely-criticized decision, but devoted his article entirely to Trump defending his decision and not mentioning what, exactly, those who opposed the decision were criticizing. That was joined by a Goodenough article highlighting further U.S. troop withdrawals "in the face of Turkey's military onslaught," not mentioning that the withdrawals are what's prompting the military onslaught in the first place; it's not until the 22nd paragraph that Goodenough mentions one key reason Trump's decision was criticized, that it could allow ISIS to reconstitute itself. An article by James Carstensen highlighted European Union criticism of Turkey's invasion, but made almost no mention of the U.S. withdrawal that facilitated it.
Meanwhile, Arter served up a third article featuring Rand Paul's support of Trump's withdrawal, and Jones played whataboutism in an article highlighting Democratic criticism of Trump's "precision airstrikes" in Syria in response to the country's "gassing of civilians" while criticizing Trump's withdrawal, not noting the significant differences between the two situations.
On Oct. 15, Goodenough highlighted U.S. sanctions on Turkey "in a bid to pressure its Islamist government to change direction on policies seen as inimical to U.S. interests." It's not until the 21st paragraph that he notes Trump's withdrawal "has drawn flak from critics who argue it amounts to abandoning those Kurdish allies, risks strengthening the hands of Russia and Iran in Syria, and could result in a resurgence of ISIS."
An Oct. 16 article by Arter uncritically repeated another Trump defense of his withdrawal. Goodenough, meanwhile, served up pro-Trump spin on a letter Trump sent to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan under the sycophantic headline: "Trump Urged Erdogan Not to be ‘a Tough Guy’ and ‘a Fool.’ Erdogan Ignored Him and Went Ahead"; Goodenough made no mention of the fact that Trump's letter has been almost universally panned as unprofessional and disrespectful and, thus, utterly ineffective as a tool of diplomacy (Erdogan himself threw the letter away).
The next day, Goodenough repeated a claim from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Trump could adjust his withdrawal decision, claiming that "My experience with the president is that he makes decisions and then absorbs data and facts, evaluates situations"; no mention of why Trump doesn't absorb data and facts before making a decision. Arter did more Trump stenography in another article, repeating claims from White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley's claims that the media is lying about the withdrawal giving Turkey a green light to attack Syria.
Surprisingly, CNS also published an Oct. 17 op-ed from Hans Bader criticizing the withdrawal, highlighting that the Turkish invasion in the face of the U.S. withdrawal has resulted in the deaths of "hundreds of people" and that "the Kurds relied on the Trump administration’s claims to their detriment," adding: "Our shameful treatment of the Kurds is one of many examples of American politicians being unreliable in their dealings with foreign peoples. That discourages people in foreign lands from helping and cooperating with the United States." But Bader also made sure to play whataboutism, referencing what he called "the Obama administration’s even more disastrous military intervention in Libya," which is presumably what got his op-ed published at CNS.
Meanwhile, the pro-Trump spin continued: Arter touted how Vice President Mike Pence announced that "the United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria, and Turkey will allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone" -- no mention, of course, of the fact that the decision effectively lets Turkey get away with its invasion -- though a follow-up by Goodenough pointed out that the cease-fire "applies only to one relatively small section of the strip of Syrian territory that Ankara wants as a buffer zone" and quoted a Turkish official admitting that the country got what it wanted under it.
Arter did, however, add a late-Friday article featuring Republican Sen. Mitt Romney's criticism of Trump over the withdrawal.
Week 3 and thereafter: Losing interest
CNS' interest in the story waned as the media in general similarly lost interest, though its coverage did become a little less aggressively pro-Trump.
On Oct. 21, Goodenough detailed a backtracking on Trump's withdrawal (though, of course, he didn't call it that): "As U.S. troops are being redeployed from Syria to western Iraq, there were indications at the weekend that President Trump may be prepared to leave a residual force across the border in eastern Syria, in a bid to keep a lid on ISIS and help to ensure that oilfields in the area to not fall into hands of the Iranians, whose forces are in Syria to bolster Bashar Assad’s regime." The same day, James Carstensen touted a German plan to create an "internationally controlled security zone" in Syria.
More stuff came in over the next couple days:
CNS then turned the narrative to the U.S. trying to capture Syrian oil:
Then things flipped back to Goodenough making Turkey the bad guy:
Meanwhile, CNS did publish an op-ed by conservatives Ken Blackwell and David Phillips asserting that "Turkey is practicing genocide again" in northern Syria and that "by allowing ethnic cleansing to remove the Kurds from northern Syria, the U.S. may be seen as an accomplice to Erdogan’s war crimes." But it also published a couple of pieces by managing editor Michael W. Chapman trying to retroactively justify Trump's withdrawal by dismissing the Kurds as terrorists and, perhaps even worse, a bunch of commies.
In the first, on Oct. 23, Chapman ranted:
Although many liberal news outlets and some politicians have described President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria as a “betrayal” of the Kurds, our allies in fighting against ISIS in the region, it is important to note that the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, is a “Marxist-Leninist separatist organization” that was designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the U.S. State Department in October 1997.
The next day, Chapman did a walkback in a somewhat altered version of the first article:
Although many liberal news outlets have described President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria as a “betrayal” of the Kurds -- our allies in the fight against ISIS -- the Kurds who make up the People's Protection Units (YPG), are a direct offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey, which was designated a terrorist organization in 1997.
But as actual foreign policy experts point out, the links between the PKK and the YPG are not as clear-cut as Chapman portrays them; the YPG denies direct links with the PKK though there is some overlap and shared goals. Perhaps Chapman can write another article walking back things a bit more.
The only article CNS did on the actual visit was a Nov. 13 piece by Goodenough highlighting that "President Trump during his press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday asked a Turkish woman whether she was a journalist or working 'for Turkey,' after she asked a question that mirrored Erdogan’s talking points on Syrian Kurdish fighters and terrorism."
These articles were relatively straightfoward and balance, reminding us once again that Goodenough can be a real journalist when he wants to or is allowed to be one.