The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dear media: The Trump White House has total contempt for you. Time to react accordingly.

Trump questions media reports of inauguration crowd size (Video: The Washington Post)


Here is one thing we learned about the new Trump White House this weekend: It views the institutional role that the news media is supposed to play in our democracy with nothing but total, unbridled contempt. We may be looking at an unprecedented set of new challenges for the media in covering the new president. What remains to be seen is how it will respond.

The New York Times reports this morning that journalists are deeply alarmed by statements made by Trump’s top advisers over the weekend, in which they faulted the media for reporting accurately on his inaugural crowd size. Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, is quoted lamenting that the Trump White House must “get started” on a more constructive basis with the media.

How to deal with the lying liars

But I fear these journalists are understating the problem. This isn’t simply a matter of signaling bad relations. Rather, what Trump and his advisers are doing is explicitly stating their contempt for the press’ institutional role as a credo, as an actionable doctrine that will govern not just how they treat the press, but how they treat factual reality itself.

President Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer made public statements questioning the media on Saturday, Jan. 21. The following morning, Trump's White House team, his supporters and his opponents responded to the controversial day. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

On Saturday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer shocked the news media by reading them a prepared statement in which he accused the press of deliberately minimizing impressions of Trump crowd sizes, before saying:

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” 

This was absurdly, preposterously false, but then top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended it yesterday by saying that Spicer had merely provided “alternative facts.” Meanwhile, Trump himself accused the press of lying about his crowds while pointedly noting that he and the media are in a “running war.”

All White Houses spin and try to pressure the media into reporting stories their preferred way. But this looks like something considerably more: A concerted effort to erode the core idea that the news media is legitimately playing its role in informing the citizenry. If the media challenges or factually debunks the fabricated, Trump-aggrandizing narrative that is coming out of the Trump White House, it will respond by simply repeating relentlessly that the fabricated story-line is the truth. Needless to say, there cannot be any shared agreement on facts or reality, except on the ones that the Trump White House has validated. This is why the most important thing about Spicer’s statement is the word “period.” When the Trump White House declares what the truth is, the discussion is over.

Here’s the statement Sean Spicer should give

This is not a conventional dispute over the facts. It is not about “relations” between the press and the White House. It is about truth and power. The message this is designed to send is that Trump has the power to declare what the truth is, and the news media does not. The Trump White House is maintaining this posture while telling enormous, demonstrable lies, but no matter — according to the new White House Ministry of Disinformation, the truth is what Donald Trump says it is. Bank on it: This will hold true even when Donald Trump contradicts Donald Trump.

Remember the larger context: For many months during the campaign, Trump not only told lies to a degree that was unprecedented in volume and egregiousness; his staff also mostly refused to engage fact checkers at all when they questioned his claims, showing he felt no obligation whatsoever to back them up. And then, even when they were widely debunked, he simply kept on repeating them. Then, and now, this was, and is, an assertion of the power to declare what the truth is regardless of what is empirically, demonstrably true.

Anyone who is not considering the possibility that this may be an outgrowth of Trump’s well-established authoritarian streak is missing what may be happening here. As libertarian writer Jacob Levy has written, Trump may be experimenting with a time-tested tactic, in which a leader “with authoritarian tendencies” will regularly lie in order to get others to internalize his lies, as “a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.” It is hard to say how deep Trump’s authoritarianism runs and how it will impact his presidency. But this is something worth being prepared for. What’s more, all of this cannot be disentangled from Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and lack of transparency about them. The press is going to dig up all manner of conflicts and potentially corruption, and the White House’s gaslighting now lays the groundwork to discredit any such efforts later.

Here’s another worrisome thing about all of this. One would hope President Trump has advisers around him who are willing to offer a forceful check on him when he flies off the rails of reality. Some advisers were reportedly worried about Trump’s flights of fancy about crowd size and attacks on the media. But needless to say, they did not win out: Two advisers went out there and flatly declared that his reality is impervious to challenge.

What can the media do about this?

* HOW THE MEDIA SHOULD RESPOND: Margaret Sullivan lays out a path for journalists to follow:

Recalling at all times that their mission is truth-telling and holding public officials accountable, they should dig in, paying far more attention to actions than to sensational tweets or briefing-room lies — while still being willing to call out falsehoods clearly when they happen.

Yes. And as Jay Rosen writes, the media must direct more resources into investigative reporting, because that is where the real action is. Indeed, as noted above, the new White House strategy is preparation to discredit that reporting later.

* SORRY, SUCKERS, NO TAX RETURNS FOR YOU: Kellyanne Conway was asked on “This Week” to respond to public pressure on Trump to release his tax returns, and she replied:

“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him.”

The issue is not settled for the public — big majorities still want him to release them. But this means no transparency that would enable us to track Trump’s conflicts. And needless to say, congressional Republicans won’t do a thing about it.

* TRUMP AIDES ‘TROUBLED’ BY HIS CROWD SIZE CRAZINESS: The New York Times reports that there’s some internal angst over Trump’s rage at the media for accurately reporting on his inaugural crowd size:

The lack of discipline troubled even senior members of Mr. Trump’s circle….Mr. Trump grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama’s in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the Executive Mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury.

Have we mentioned that this thin-skinned megalomaniac now controls the nuclear codes?

* OBAMACARE REPLACEMENT WILL BLOCK GRANT MEDICAID: Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has said everyone who currently has coverage under Obamacare will have it under the GOP replacement. But she said this on “Face the Nation”:

“For the 20 million who rely upon the Affordable Care Act in some form, they will not be without coverage during this transition time….he wants to make sure that through his plan you can buy insurance across state lines, you have health savings accounts, we block Medicaid grant to states.”

Now all of Obamacare’s beneficiaries will keep their coverage during the transition, not necessary under the GOP replacement. Also, block granting Medicaid likely means an end to the guarantee of coverage.

* NEW LEFT WING PRESSURE GROUP LAUNCHES TODAY: Cenk Uygur of “The Young Turks” and a trio of former Bernie Sanders advisers today will announce the formation of a new group, “Justice Democrats,” which argue that the Democratic Party needs to shed its corporate wing to succeed. It will pressure the party to hew to, among other things, universal health care and college education; much tougher Wall Street accountability; a much bigger boost in the minimum wage; and renegotiated trade deals that favor American workers.

The group describes itself as “a catalyst to rebuild the party from the ground up” at a time of debilitating weakness on the state and national level. The left’s pressure on Dems to be unyielding and stick to clear principles in opposition to Trump will be a key story to watch.

* ETHICS WATCHDOG TO MEET WITH TOP REPUBLICAN: NPR reports that House oversight chair Jason Chaffetz will meet today with Office of Government Ethics chief Walter Shaub, after Chaffetz summoned Shaub to discuss his heretical criticism of Trump’s joke of an ethics arrangement for his businesses. Hopefully we will learn what is discussed — perhaps Shaub will try to persuade Chaffetz why Trump’s arrangement is woefully short of standards.

As of now, the House Republicans’ idea of oversight during the Trump Era is to keep a close eye on the ethics watchdog who is criticizing Trump’s ethical problems.

* WOMEN’S MARCHES REVEAL A MOBILIZED OPPOSITION: E.J. Dionne nails it on the meaning of the millions marching over the weekend:

Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington and its counterparts in cities and towns across the country drew millions who signaled plainly that they would not be cowed into silence or demobilized into a sullen indifference. If power shifted decisively Friday to Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, passion switched sides as well. As the marches showed, the political energy in the country is now arrayed against Trump and his agenda.

One big question will be whether Democrats and liberal groups can sustain and channel this passion through organizing as Trump’s agenda becomes more concrete.

* AND TRUMP’S DENIAL OF REALITY WILL ONLY GET WORSE: Paul Krugman looks at Trump’s refusal to accept reality about his inaugural crowd side, and asks what will happen if data show his presidency failing:

The insecure egomaniac-in-chief will almost surely deny awkward truths, and berate the media for reporting them…how do you think the man…will react when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first reports a significant uptick in unemployment or decline in manufacturing jobs? What’s he going to do when the Centers for Disease Control and the Census Bureau report spiking numbers of uninsured Americans? You may have thought that last weekend’s temper tantrum was bad. But there’s much, much worse to come.

Luckily, Trump is surrounded by aides who are willing to forcefully talk reality to him when he loses touch with it. Oh, wait…