President Donald Trump knows the value of a good headline. Luckily for him, the press has spent the past several decades willingly providing Trump with the splashy front-page stories that have helped fuel his rise to power.
In his pre-politics life as a real estate magnate and reality TV star, Trump planted stories about himself with New York tabloid reporters. In the 1980s, Trump leaked numerous stories claiming members of the British royal family were interested in joining one of his various properties. While the stories weren’t true (or were at least emphatically denied by the royal family), they served their purpose and built Trump into a larger-than-life figure.
Facts be damned, he talks a big game. It’s that disregard for reality -- and the understanding that journalists always look out for easy stories about controversial public figures -- that helped prepare Trump for the presidency (or at least his version of the presidency).
Little has changed for Trump since he became president. He’s still making promises he can’t keep and bragging about things that never happened, and he knows that none of this matters so long as he gets a few good headlines along the way. One way he’s done this is to promise that action is just around the corner.
Recently, Trump promised to sign an executive order requiring health insurers to cover preexisting conditions, something that is already required under the Affordable Care Act. Aside from the fact that insurance companies are already providing coverage for preexisting conditions, it’s not entirely clear that Trump had the legal authority to do this. But that important point didn't make it into headlines.
“Trump teases order requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions,” wrote The Hill. “Trump says he's working on health insurance executive order on pre-existing conditions,” Reuters reported. “Trump Plans Order to Require Pre-Existing Condition Coverage,” read a Bloomberg headline.
Trump makes wild promises, gets a bit of positive press, and doesn’t follow through. By the time his failure to make good on his promises should be sparking stories on their own, he’s already moved on to something new. There is a clear pattern to his actions, and it helps explain why he’s earned a reputation as a master media manipulator. During his campaign and presidency, Trump has regularly promised answers to uncomfortable questions within “two weeks.” In August 2016, Trump promised his wife Melania Trump would address reports in a press conference that she had violated immigration laws along the way to becoming a U.S. citizen. While the press conference never materialized, Trump was able to kick the issue down the road a bit and get a few headlines giving the impression that the issue would be easily clarified without having to actually explain it.
In June 2017, Axios published a piece highlighting some of the early “two weeks” promises Trump had made in the first five months of his presidency, including claims about rolling out a tax bill, a promise to provide evidence in support of a bizarre claim that President Barack Obama had illegally spied on the Trump campaign, and multiple promises on unveiling a nonexistent infrastructure bill.
“Trump promises ‘phenomenal’ announcement on taxes in coming weeks,” read a February 9, 2017, headline in The Hill. “Trump suggests more information coming about wiretap claim: Fox news interview,” wrote Reuters in a headline on March 15, 2017. On May 1, 2017, CNN published the headline “Trump: Infrastructure plan ‘largely completed,’ coming in 2-3 weeks.”
In each instance, the headline was based on a quote that contained nothing more than a promise of future news. In each case, future news never arrived -- or, in the case of tax policy, came several months down the line.
In June, Trump gave an interview to Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart in which he made sweeping claims about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children: “The deal was done. DACA is going to be just fine. We’re putting it in. It's going to be just fine. And I am going to be, over the next few weeks, signing an immigration bill that a lot of people don't know about. You have breaking news, but I'm signing a big immigration bill.” As there is no secret DACA-inclusive immigration bill waiting in the wings for Trump’s signature, Díaz-Balart asked if Trump meant an executive order. Trump twisted himself into a pretzel, saying, “I’m going to be signing a very major immigration bill as an executive order.”
Bills and executive orders are two completely different things; one cannot sign a bill “as an executive order.” Regardless, Trump got a handful of headlines that made him come off as solutions-oriented and in line with public opinion on the DACA issue, even though he’s gone to great lengths to try to end the program. The White House soon clarified that a path to citizenship would not be in any executive order.
In an October 2018 interview with Axios, Trump floated the idea of eliminating birthright citizenship with an executive order. Birthright citizenship is guaranteed under the 14th Amendment and cannot simply be revoked by a president by decree. Even so, Axios published the headline “Trump targeting birthright citizenship with executive order.” NPR followed that up with a piece first labeled “Trump Says He Will Void Birthright Citizenship Law Through Executive Order.”
“Trump: End birthright citizenship for some US-born babies,” read the original headline of an Associated Press story. Bloomberg reported, “Trump Says He'll End Birthright Citizenship With Executive Order.” “Trump plans executive order to end birthright citizenship for some U.S.-born babies,” said CBS News.
At best, the threat of action was of dubious legality. Generally speaking, if a president claims that he will issue an executive order to gut a constitutional amendment, it’s probably best if mainstream media outlets resist the urge to uncritically parrot his words. Unfortunately, parroting this president’s outlandish claims seems to be what the mainstream press is built for, as has been apparent since Trump’s first day in office.
On that day, Trump signed a largely symbolic executive order announcing the new administration’s intention to make good on the campaign promise to wipe out the Affordable Care Act. Nothing in the order actually changed the law or how it was applied. Even so, he was showered with headlines that gave the impression that he was taking tangible action.
“Trump issues executive order to start rolling back Obamacare,’” wrote CNN on the day of Trump’s inauguration. “Trump Signs Executive Order To ‘Ease The Burdens of Obamacare,’” went another at NPR. The sloppy media coverage may have left audiences with misunderstandings about the state of U.S. health policy.
As the 2020 election inches ever closer, it’s long past time for journalists to see through Trump’s game. News organizations must understand that this is a man who values publicity over reality. He cannot simply be taken at his word, and the promise of action shouldn’t be placed in a headline without proper context. The best time to see through his game would have been in the 1980s; the second best time is today.