With the White House facing perhaps the most serious political crisis of its young life, Kellyanne Conway was dispatched on Tuesday to spin as best she could the sudden forced resignation of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
But the effort didn’t go well because Conway wasn’t really able to address even the most basic questions surrounding the Flynn controversy. And that inability came five days after The Washington Post first reported that Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials,” including past statements by Vice President Mike Pence, and possibly in violation of U.S. law.
On Monday came additional newspaper revelations that likely fueled Flynn’s ordered departure: The Department of Justice had warned the White House in January that Flynn may have exposed himself to Russian blackmailers because he misled the administration about the content of previous phone calls with Russia. Additionally, Army officials were investigating whether Flynn received payments from the Russian military when he appeared at a Moscow gala in 2015 and sat at the head table with Russian President Vladamir Putin. (The Department of Defense considers the receipt of payments from foreign governments by retired military officials without congressional consent a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Emoluments Clause.)
And yet there was Conway appearing on the Today show and unable to address simple inquiries about Flynn’s behavior and why Trump stood by him when White House officials knew weeks earlier about discrepancies in Flynn’s Russia story.
Conway’s glaring, televised failure wasn’t just a case of a presidential aide getting momentarily stumped. It’s part of a bubble-like culture inside a White House that desperately wants to operate within its own reality. It’s the same White House team that has been trying to shield Trump from having to face tough press questions about the Flynn controversy.
Trump's team is so busy building its own parallel universe that it doesn’t know how to adjust when the front doors are swung open and officials have to venture out into the real world. That's especially true when they have to venture out into the reality of daily news, like Conway did when she appeared on the Today show.
Led by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, as well as Conway and senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who lied and obfuscated his way through his recent Sunday morning talk show appearances, the Trump administration appears dedicated to the cause of unapologetic misinformation in a way we’ve never before seen in American politics.
Officials are making a determined effort to abide by “alternative facts” while aggressively gaslighting the press and the public on myriad topics. It’s a campaign to withdraw from the fact-based world and instead rely on increasingly irresponsible right-wing media sources to protect and boost the president.
And sure enough, across the far-right media world where fake news percolates daily, players did their best to present a palatable version of the Flynn scandal. Before It’s News claimed of the resignation, “Globalists' Fake News Claims First Scalp,” while TruthFeed called it “sad” because Flynn “is a good man.” Online, neo-Nazis railed against “the Jews” for causing Flynn’s demise.
The spin was laid on so thick that even the conservative site RedState mocked the absurd Flynn puffery offered by Trump’s alt-right media “Fanboi” Mike Cernovich. (He excitedly described Flynn’s resignation as an elaborate “coup.")
Trump himself did his best on Twitter today, lashing out at television news for pushing “conspiracy theories and blind hatred” about him while insisting that The New York Times and The Washington Post were publishing illegal leaks. (In his screed against MSNBC and CNN he also added that lapdog morning show Fox & Friends “is great!”)
Presidents from both parties have always enjoyed partisan cheerleaders in the press who will defend an administration from attacks and enthusiastically support its agenda. But what the Trump team is trying to assemble is something else entirely. It’s trying to build its own self-sustaining, hermetically sealed information bubble so that Trump, his aides, and his supporters don’t have to acknowledge everyday facts.
The conservative movement in the last year has forcefully shifted gears, accelerating its longtime goal of counterbalancing what it claims to be the liberal media by striving to replace the news media with its own pleasing version of reality.
In other words, the Trump team isn’t simply trying to raise doubts about the mainstream media; it’s trying to gut and replace the Fourth Estate. It wants to create a media environment where it can be immune to mainstream reporting and sustain itself -- and exist off of --“alternative facts. ”
Look at how the White House press briefings have dramatically changed this year in order to make room for Trump loyalists -- loyalists who play a key role in the administration’s push to undercut legitimate news outlets.
The White House strategy of media avoidance isn’t new. “Trump raised doubt about his willingness to face difficult questions when he didn't hold a news conference until Jan. 11, weeks after his election as president,” The Associated Press reported this week.
But what the Trump White House is learning this month is that loyalists and media sycophants have their limits. And those limits come in the form of reality, like Flynn being caught lying about his previous contacts with the Russian ambassador, contacts that reportedly date back to last year’s campaign. (Why would a top Trump surrogate be in contact with Russia’s ambassador during a U.S. election cycle where Russia was attempting to tilt the scales in Trump's favor?)
In the end, the White House’s cat-and-mouse game with the press didn’t work because the facts of the Flynn crisis overcame the administration’s attempts to ignore or wish away the story.
Today, the Trump team is left with a controversy that it still can’t explain away. And neither pushing fake news nor walling Trump off from reality will fix that.