The Trump Administration Shows The Carrot To Its Delegitimization Stick

UPDATE: The CBO’s score of the GOP health care bill is out, and it’s apocalyptic news for Trump and the legislation’s other supporters. The CBO estimates that if it becomes law, 14 million more people would be uninsured next year, increasing to 24 million more uninsured in 2026.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will release its score of the Republican health care bill today, in all likelihood landing a devastating body blow to the legislation by predicting that millions of Americans will lose health insurance under the plan. And so President Donald Trump’s administration, which supports the bill, spent the weekend telling the American people that the CBO can’t be trusted to properly do its job.

Mick Mulvaney is the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Projecting the impact of proposed legislation on the economy is a key part of his agency’s role. He does not believe the CBO can credibly score the health care bill, and in fact he says the agency shouldn’t even try.

“If the CBO was right about Obamacare to begin with, there'd be 8 million more people on Obamacare today than there actually are,” he said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “I love the folks at the CBO. They work really hard. They do, but sometimes we ask them to do stuff they're not capable of doing, and estimating the impact of a bill of this size probably isn't the best use of their time."

“In the past, the CBO score has really been meaningless. They have said that many more people will be insured than are actually insured,” White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn said on Fox News Sunday. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told NBC’s Meet the Press that “the CBO has been very adept in not providing appropriate coverage statistics.”

Trump’s aides are not simply saying that the CBO’s score might not be accurate while providing credible analysis to support their conclusion that millions of Americans won’t lose their health insurance if the bill they back passes. Instead, they are suggesting that a) it might be impossible to accurately predict the results of the legislation using actual numbers, and b) everyone should trust their predictions about the results of the legislation, which they are making without actual numbers.

As I discussed last week, such attacks foster an authoritarian process in which the White House tells the American people that only Trump and the sources he approves can be trusted. The president and his team constantly delegitimize independent sources that produce information that defies the administration’s worldview -- be they the CBO, or the press, or other members of the government.

By delegitimizing sources it doesn’t like -- and lifting up sycophants and propaganda outlets -- the administration creates an information ecosystem that favors its own claims over objective reality.

The AARP also came out in opposition to the bill, saying that it “would hike premiums for older Americans, weaken Medicare and put at risk the 17.4 million low-income seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicaid.” And so that group, too, must be discredited. Asked about the criticism on Sunday, Mulvaney promptly smeared the AARP and said that it is “unfortunate that that’s where a lot of folks will get their information”:

MICK MULVANEY: I think that’s the same group, AARP, that did the television ads of -- of a guy that looks a lot like Paul Ryan pushing Granny off the edge of a cliff back when we first started talking about budgetary reforms back in 2010. And my guess is that the millions of e-mails that that group and other groups are sending out today have a little “click here to donate” button at the bottom. They’re not in the news business; they’re not in the business of fixing things; they’re in the business of trying to protect their own self-interests and to raise money, and that’s unfortunate that that’s where a lot of folks will get their information.

The intent behind Mulvaney’s comments is clear: He wants the audience to hear that AARP is unreasonably opposed to Republican health care proposals, and so should be ignored.

But Mulvaney is wrong: It was the progressive advocacy group Agenda Project, not the AARP, that produced the television ads in question. Mulvaney, it should be noted, is not in the news business; he’s in the business of trying to protect the administration’s interests.

The good news for the AARP is that all will be forgiven if the organization changes its tune. Sources can move from “credible” to “not credible” depending on whether they produce information that supports the administration.

On the campaign trail, Trump frequently said that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) job numbers were “phony” and had been manipulated by the Obama administration for political gain. These claims were baseless, conspiratorial, and economically illiterate.

Asked about those past comments on Friday, in light of a new BLS report that the economy added 235,000 jobs in February, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly: 'They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.’”

Now that Trump likes the numbers and thinks he can benefit from them, the numbers are great. A message has been sent to BLS: As long as they stay that way, Trump will say the numbers are real. If the economy starts to falter, the president will say the agency is cooking the books again.

It’s a lesson for the media as well: There’s a carrot available for them, not just a stick.

If reporters and outlets stop asking so many pesky questions and just accept what they are given, maybe Trump will stop calling them “fake news” and telling his followers that they can’t be trusted.

The president has the biggest microphone in the country and millions of devoted fans; with a few favorable tweets, maybe he can boost the press’s ratings and page views.

It seems unlikely. But with NBC building a Trump normalization machine and CNN hiring pro-Trump advocates, some news executives seem to be making the effort.