President Donald Trump’s communications strategy requires the White House to delegitimize all sources of information that provide unfavorable facts about the administration. The press, the bureaucracy, the Congressional Budget Office, and the judiciary have all been cited as unworthy of the public trust because they dared to contradict the White House line.
Now Trump is claiming that his own spokespeople also can’t be trusted to provide the real story about his actions.
This week has seen not only a near-constitutional crisis, but also a cataclysmic communications disaster after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been investigating whether the president’s associates had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. First, prominent Trump administration figures -- including the vice president -- offered up the obvious lie that Trump fired Comey in response to a recommendation from the Justice Department because Comey had been unfair to Hillary Clinton during the presidential election. Then the president himself admitted that he actually had planned to fire Comey anyway and was acting in response to the FBI director’s handling of the Russia probe.
With the White House taking heat for promoting what were obvious lies, the president this morning tweeted that it is “not possible” for his surrogates to accurately convey the facts, and that he is considering ending press briefings in favor of sending written statements.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer proved that his office was unworthy of trust the day after the president was inaugurated, and he lies frequently from the podium. But it’s still remarkable to hear this coming from Trump himself. The comments are significant for several reasons.
First, it’s an acknowledgment that the president believes that his own top aides can no longer be counted on to accurately convey information about his actions. He is establishing himself as the sole source of truth regarding his administration’s decisions. And given the president’s pattern of lying on a near-constant basis, and shifting his positions with the wind, his statements set up a scenario of perpetual gaslighting.
Second, it suggests that he may shift the role of the White House Press Office to simply providing propaganda. Traditionally, there is an understanding that the White House has a responsibility to provide information on the administration's positions and responses to events, gained through press briefings where members of the media can ask questions. The fact that the press secretary and deputy press secretary have constantly lied from the podium doesn't mean that the briefings don't serve a purpose in allowing the media to publicly and regularly ask questions of the administration. A shift to a press-release-only model would allow the White House to provide only the answers it wants to the questions it deems worthy of a response, with no opportunity for reporters to ask follow-ups.
Third, there is no reason to think that White House press releases would be more accurate than comments from the briefing podium. In fact, the official written statement from Spicer provided the same false claims about Comey’s firing that Trump has now renounced.
Fourth, it's a confirmation that the president believes the real thing that went wrong was that the White House failed to adequately defend his actions, not that he did anything wrong by firing the FBI director because of the way the director was investigating his associates.
These are dangerous steps that suggest the president is seeking drastic changes in order to better control and manipulate the press. Following Trump’s open admission that he fired the FBI director in part to bring an investigation to a favorable conclusion, reporters should be worried.
UPDATE: In an interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro set to air Saturday, Donald Trump says he thinks “it’s a good idea” to eliminate press briefings, in part because his aides get "beat up.”
Earlier today, White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said that “doing away with briefing would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned.”