In a shocking story titled “How Trump gets his fake news,” Politico’s Shane Goldmacher exposes a new and unprecedented level of dysfunction in the West Wing. The president’s staff specially curates Trump’s news consumption to cater to his obsessions and flights of paranoia, even priming him with hoaxes to stimulate his affinity for conspiracy theories.
Tales of West Wing dysfunction have become standard media fare during Trump’s short presidency. But this one should strike terror into the heart of every American. Even as we face real crises, the president is being coddled by staff who believe he needs to be shielded from reality — and acts accordingly.
According to Goldmacher’s reporting, the curation of Trump’s “news” is sometimes done by insecure staffers who wish to curry favor with the mercurial president. But at times, this can also be aimed at sidelining a rival staffer, focusing Trump’s wandering attention on an important issue, or even soothing the president’s delicate ego. While Trump does receive a binder of clips daily, Goldmacher writes, no one seems to know whether he actually reads it. What’s more, his staffers “have tried to make sure Trump’s media diet includes regular doses of praise and positive stories to keep his mood up — a tactic honed by staff during the campaign to keep him from tweeting angrily.”
That’s all absurd, shocking and should be cause for Republicans to finally start questioning in public whether the president is fit to serve. But we can count on them not to do that. So what might happen in a real crisis, if top national security staff cannot be relied on to provide the president real facts, while other staffers are afraid to tell him the truth, or have an agenda in shielding him from it?
Consider these possibilities, in light of threats that are very real:
- Ongoing ransomware attacks. After Friday’s cyberattacks on Britain’s National Health Service and other computer systems in 150 countries provoked worldwide awareness of widespread vulnerabilities in cybersecurity, the pace of these hacks seems to have slowed Monday. But as Zeynep Tufekci warns, preventing future attacks will require a concerted and robust government response. Trump would be particularly ill-prepared to handle such a complex challenge if denied basic facts about it, particularly because, as the Politico piece notes, he barely surfs the Internet and is prone to accepting conspiracy theories.
- Syria. As the six-year-old civil war rages on, Trump’s greatest interest in the war-torn country has been his April order of a military strike following a government chemical attack on Syrian citizens. Do we even know what the president truly understands about the humanitarian catastrophe, the possible outcomes of the civil war, and the geopolitical ramifications for the region? If Trump’s staff merely gives him the most simplistic and favorable explanation of the facts here, he can easily stumble into misinformed tweets or worse, misguided military adventures.
- The Middle East in general. As Trump heads to Israel next week, we are reminded how little he grasps about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he has vowed to resolve through dealmaking magic. It’s unclear whether Trump is finally realizing that deploying his business dealmaking prowess to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is harder than he thought it would be. But if he’s unsuccessful, the Politico piece raises serious concerns about whether his staff will show him only coverage that describes what a great job he’s doing. Denying Trump basic facts about how seemingly small missteps can trigger an escalation of tensions in this volatile conflict could make it more likely that his statements or tweets could undermine the purported reason for the trip — laying the groundwork for a peace deal.
- North Korea. North Korea on Monday announced that it launched what is described as a new ballistic rocket that could “carry a heavy nuclear warhead,” the Associated Press reports. While Pyongyang’s propaganda should be treated with skepticism, Trump’s own reactions to its bellicosity have been unpredictable and ill-informed, creating the potential for escalation rather than deescalation of nuclear crises. As North Korea intensifies its propaganda, the risks of Trump living in a news bubble that prioritizes his ego over facts become more severe, increasing the possibility that Trump could escalate conflict with, say, an errant tweet.
- Imagine any natural disaster at home. Hurricane season begins June 1, a reminder that natural disasters can strike at any time, with little warning. While natural disasters bring loss of life and property, we have a president whose staff prioritizes news clippings that will be a salve to his ego. If a natural disaster were to strike, the American public should have no confidence that Trump’s reaction to it would be primarily concerned with helping its victims.
- Trump’s reaction to court decisions on his Muslim ban. On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard an appeal of one of the trial court rulings striking down Trump’s Muslim ban; last week, the 4th Circuit heard arguments in another such case. Given Trump’s previous reactions to adverse legal rulings, when these courts hand down their decisions, it’s entirely possible that he could once again engage in norm-shattering tirades against the courts, further undermining public trust in the separation of powers. We can have no confidence that Trump’s staff would try to stop him, as the Politico report describes a staff more anxious to soothe Trump over perceived personal slights than to impart hard realities to him about, say, how attacking the courts is ill-advised.
- Russia investigations. Given what we know about Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, his blaming of his communications staff for botching the spin, and his subsequent admission that he indeed fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, a crisis on this front seems likely to provoke the most volatile version of Trump. Given that Trump refuses to believe (despite the conclusion of 17 intelligence agencies) that Russia meddled in our election, he’s proved himself capable of very high levels of self-deception. Worse, when he senses intensified scrutiny, he lashes out. As Trump’s staff shields him from — or misleads him about — news on the Russian investigations, Trump will only entrench himself in his own reality, and spend more time churning out the disinformation that fuels the Trump-friendly coverage in the conservative media universe of Breitbart and Fox News.
There are countless reasons to be alarmed about Trump’s presidency, including his evident affinity for living in his own fact-free world. But knowing that his staff is not only acquiescent but complicit in creating that world for him elevates the risks in an inevitable crisis to an unparalleled and terrifying level.