Critics outraged by CNN 'designated survivor' report ahead of Trump inauguration
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - With only a few hours before Donald Trump is sworn in as president, some news outlets have run stories highlighting the vulnerable period between President Obama's resignation and Trump taking the oath of office.
The reports raise an important question about the continuity of government in an era of complex national security threats, but some critics argue that the timing of the discussion is entirely inappropriate.
CNN ran a brief and shocking segment on Wednesday, under the headline, "Disaster could put Obama cabinet member in Oval Office." According to the report, if the Capitol were to come under attack during the inauguration and the presidential line of succession was essentially wiped out, the presidency of the United States could fall on the shoulders of a low level official from Obama's government.
Ron Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center explained the "confusing line of succession" on Inauguration Day. "In the inauguration, you have two lines of succession," Fortier said. "One from the Barack Obama administration, which is still in place; and one which really won’t be in place until Donald Trump is inaugurated, comes into office actually formally nominates them and the senate confirms his people. You might actually end up with a president from the prior administration, because of a tragedy."
The report, which was re-posted on YouTube was met with an overwhelmingly negative response. By Thursday afternoon, the video was viewed more than 86,000 times and voted down by 5,500 users. "CNN went beyond the pale to incite violence at the swearing in," one viewer commented. "Its not so much that we don't need to know this. But the timing is outrageous," another user said. Multiple viewers said they had flagged the content as inappropriate for "inciting violence" or "inciting terrorism."
Political advisor Harlan Hill strongly opposed CNN's decision to run the report. "It's dangerous, because it gives license to some crazy person who thinks they're stopping a violent dictator," he said, adding that mainstream media outlets have repeatedly compared Trump to Adolf Hitler. In addition, he argued that the timing of the story is tactless.
"Any story on the continuity of government in the event of the president-elect's assassination is nothing but liberal disaster porn," Hill said.
Only one day before CNN aired its coverage, a 51-year-old Florida man was arrested after threatening to kill President-elect Trump. The arrest report stated that the individual posted a video to his Twitter account saying he would be at Trump's inauguration in Washington on Friday and would kill him.
Under U.S. law, anyone who "knowingly and willfully threatens to kill, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon" a current president, former president, a president-elect or anyone under the protection of the Secret Service, can expect to face fines and up to five years in prison. The law applies to online threats as well. In 2009, the Secret Service expanded its Internet Threat Desk in order to sift through the growing number of online threats to the president and his family and better sort out the credible threats. A few years later, they launched an internet campaign encouraging social media users to contact them with "time sensitive or critical" threat information.
Since winning the election, social media platforms have been flooded with assassination threats against Trump. A simple search of public postings on any social media site turns up hundreds of threats in just seconds.
In the days after Trump's victory, Matt Harrigan, the CEO of the cybersecurity firm PacketSled was fired after he posted Trump death threats on his private Facebook page. Harrigan offered his resignation after his private posts became very public through a Reddit community. "I am going to kill the president. Elect," the tech CEO wrote in one post. In another he said he would be "perching" with a "sniper rifle" outside the White House "I'll find you."
All of that is to say that the context of the CNN report is important. When Trump is sworn in on Friday, he will have the lowest approval rating of any president in modern history and n era of complex and evolving national security threats. Ahead of the Friday inaugural celebrations, director of the Secret Service, Joseph Clancy is preparing for a "different" threat environment than in previous years. "I think people today are willing to do things they may not have been willing to do in the past,” Clancy told Washington's WTOP.
Aside from the anger and frustration of the 99 different groups of anti-Trump protestors expected to take to the streets during the inauguration, the threat of a terrorist attack also looms large in the minds of America's national security officials. Officials have shored up security in D.C. to defend against the types of truck attacks that have been used in terrorist incidents overseas last year in Berlin and Nice, France.
Those who have studied contingency plans for mass-casualty attacks against the government are less concerned about the timing of the report and more concerned about the continuity of government itself.
Asked about the timing of CNN's report, constitutional litigator and member of the Continuity of Government Commission, James Ho emphasized the importance of planning ahead for any contingency. "That’s all we’re talking about here. The advice of former presidents, senators, legal scholars, and leaders of both parties is to plan ahead when it comes to the transition into a new administration."
In the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the privately sponsored Commission on the Continuity of Government was formed to better prepare for a mass casualty attack that could incapacitate large numbers of officials and throw the presidential line of succession into chaos. In 2003, the Commission released its first report, considering how the government could continue to function in the event a terrorist group detonated a small nuclear device in Washington, D.C. halfway between the Capitol and the White House. The scenario they considered took place at 11:30 a.m. on Inauguration Day.
"Everyone present at the Capitol, the White House, and in between is presumed dead, missing, or incapacitated. The death toll is horrific, the symbolic effect of the destruction of our national symbols is great, but even worse, the American people are asking who is in charge, and there is no clear answer," the group concluded.
In a follow-up report in 2009, the Commission on the Continuity of Government concluded definitively that "the current system [of presidential succession] would be inadequate in the face of a catastrophic attack that would kill or incapacitate multiple individuals in the line of succession."
The report hit a nerve when it was released. Lawmakers, like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) held hearings to review constitutional amendments that would enable a more effective government continuity in response to a mass-casualty incident against the U.S. government.
On Thursday, Cornyn responded to the reports of an incident on Inauguration Day 2017. "Obviously none of us would like to contemplate that. But I do think there has to be more work done and more consideration given to continuity of government," he said.
Despite the grim nature of contemplating a mass casualty attack on the U.S. government, Cornyn did not oppose having the discussion "Given the fact that on 9/11 the Capitol was targeted, and we could foresee the horrible possibility that Congress would be incapable of carrying out our constitutional responsibilities."
It was famously said by the 9/11 Commission that "a failure of imagination" led the intelligence community to miss the signs before the deadly terrorist attacks. It is a mistake that no one in government wants to repeat.
As far as the line of succession posed by CNN, claiming that an Obama official would be put in charge of the government, there are some holes in the argument. Such holes only lend credibility to social media users' accusations that the report was "wishful thinking."
The timing of the incident, for example, would be relevant. Under the Constitution, the new president must be sworn in by noon. At that time the former president and his cabinet have resigned and the new administration is effectively in charge. If an incident were to occur before noon, there would be no new administration to take over. If it were to occur after noon, that's a different story, and one that James Ho says underscores the importance of the Senate confirming members of Trump's cabinet as soon as possible.
"There is a bipartisan Senate tradition of confirming as many incoming cabinet appointees as possible on Inauguration Day," Ho explained. "And the reason is simple: We do not want to encourage a politically motivated attack that would overturn the results of an election."
While senators must exercise their duty to provide advice and consent on the president-elect's cabinet nominees, Ho says that "part of that duty includes consideration of this national security threat."
This threat, he says, is why political leaders and legal experts who served on the Continuity of Government Committee recommend "swift confirmation on, if not before, Inauguration Day."