As the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the US in more than a decade took aim at Texas, President Donald Trump’s White House engaged in an age-old Washington tradition: the Friday news dump.
Transgender individuals? Banned from joining the military. Convicted Sheriff Joe Arpaio? Officially pardoned. Controversial White House adviser Sebastian Gorka? Out of a white House job.
All three headlines popped after 6 p.m. Friday as TV news broadcasts and websites turned their attention to Texas, where Hurricane Harvey was preparing to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane – the most powerful to hit the US since 2004.
The hurricane provided cover, ensuring that the controversial storylines wouldn’t dominate TV news broadcasts, websites or front pages of the next morning’s newspapers. The storylines even got overshadowed in Twitter feeds dominated by the cataclysmic predictions about damage the storm is expected to wreak.
The coordinated effort drew quick notice from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who slammed the news dump as “so sad, so weak.”
“As millions of people in TX and LA are prepping for the hurricane, the President is using the cover of the storm to pardon a man who violated a court’s order to stop discriminating against Latinos and ban courageous transgender men and women from serving our nation’s Armed Forces,” Schumer wrote in a series of tweets. “The only reason to do these right now is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny.”
The President signed a memorandum issuing his directives on reinstating the ban on transgender troops during the day on Friday, but the White House waited until 6 p.m. to release the news.
Trump’s memorandum bars the military from moving forward on an Obama-era directive that would have soon allowed the military to accept transgender individuals, orders the military to stop funding transgender-related medical treatments and allows the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to decide whether transgender individuals already serving could remain in the armed forces.
At 8 p.m., the White House announced in a news release that Trump had officially pardoned Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who had been found guilty of criminal contempt in July for disregarding a court order in a racial-profiling case.
Trump signaled at a rally Tuesday night in Arizona that he had decided to pardon Arpaio but said he would delay the announcement to avoid stirring controversy.
“You know what, I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine,” Trump said on Tuesday. “OK? But I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the next day Trump would announce his decision on the pardon “at the appropriate time.”
Then came news that Gorka was leaving the White House. Gorka, a controversial figure who earned publicity for his combative interviews and expressed anti-Muslim views, was a close associate of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Gorka’s ouster or resignation was expected since Bannon was pushed out last Friday.
The story broke after 8 p.m. And disputes between the White House and Gorka over whether he resigned or was pushed out played out under the cover of 130 mph winds gusting toward the Texas coast.
The oversized Friday night news dump raised questions about whether the White House coordinated the release of the controversial news stories to coincide with the hurricane, or if the news dump was already planned – and not scrapped.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Friday evening about the matter.