She was asking about the treachery of the “left-wing media.” One of his favorite subjects.
“It amazes me when I read the Wall Street Journal, which is always so negative,” he began. “It amazes me when I read the New York Times, it’s not even — I barely read it, you know, we don’t even distribute it in the White House anymore, the same thing with The Washington Post . . .”
Behind him stood the surgeon general, the FDA commissioner and other officials waiting to field questions about the pandemic that experts fear could kill millions worldwide and crash the global economy. But not even the defining crisis of his presidency would permit a cease-fire in Team Trump’s 24/7 multifaceted, asymmetrical war on the media.
In fact, Trump’s initial downplaying of the coronavirus was due in part to his belief, stoked by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that the media was using the pandemic as yet another way to attack him, according to four Trump advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal discussions. A spokesperson for Kushner did not reply to a request for comment.
The anti-media antagonism can manifest like an organized crusade in some cases but also more like a culture — a vernacular shared by the president and his allies on the right. Their battles are waged in the courts, on social media and at rallies where Trump’s rants against the journalists who cover him goad his fans into taunting the camera crews and booing the press pens.
This war often seems intended to inoculate the president from criticism or scandal by undermining the public’s confidence in the news they see reported by traditional media. The best-organized efforts include a blitz of defamation lawsuits, well-financed undercover stings to capture video evidence of media bias and troll-ish campaigns to embarrass individual reporters.
But the tone is set by the commander in chief, for whom it all often seems like a grand sport. Trump was just getting warmed up on his anti-media rant that day — a day when, as it would turn out, the tally of U.S. coronavirus infections would actually surge past 13,000. (By the time this story published, it had passed 136,000 cases, with more than 2,400 deaths.) He spent nearly three minutes regurgitating conspiracy theories and disses, streamed live on broadcast and cable news channels and websites of news organizations he considers the enemy.
“I think I came up with this term, ‘Fake News’ ” he went on. “It’s corrupt news. . . . They’re saying we’re doing a great job, everybody’s saying, then you’ll read this phony story. . . . The press is very dishonest — they are siding with China, they are doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”
Two years after Trump praised a congressional candidate for body-slamming a reporter, his increasingly aggressive verbal assaults on reporters — many of whom he calls out by name — have prompted concerned executives to post armed guards outside newsrooms, for fear that he could inspire deranged people to lash out at journalists.
“The president’s way of personalizing these attacks — targeting particular journalists — is dangerous,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said in an email. Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, said in a statement in response to Trump’s attacks on journalists that the attacks were “clearly for the purpose of subjecting them to harassment and threats.” Both said the president’s persistent jabs won’t affect coverage, however.
But inside Trump circles, there’s a sense that criticizing the media has served him well with his base, who see it as fair pushback against a journalism establishment they are convinced is unduly harsh on their leader. “There is no question,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s 2020 campaign, “that the hostility of the mainstream media towards the president is something that gets the president’s supporters fired up.”
“I don’t think it’s good for democracy that we’re branding an entire industry as an enemy,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary. “But is it effective? I think so. I’m not saying it’s right.”
Trump used to love the media. He courted reporters by giving them access and coaxing positive coverage. His path to celebrity was sprinkled with glowing profiles and glitzy magazine spreads that promoted a portrait of a self-made real estate savant, rather than the scion of a successful business built by his father.
“He is tall, lean and blond with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford,” read a 1976 New York Times profile. By the 1980s, Trump had graduated to the cover of Newsweek, appearing with his hands on his hips, a smile that seemed to say he was on top of the world and the headline: “Trump: A billion-dollar empire and an ego to match.”
As president, Trump has sometimes lamented the end of his love affair with the profile writers and headline stylists who used to find him so irresistible.
“I had a 45-year good relationship with the press, and what the hell happened?” Trump asked Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House communications director, who recalled the moment in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I told him, ‘You declared war! You had Steve Bannon declare war,’ ” recalled Scaramucci, referring to Trump’s former campaign chief and White House adviser. (Scaramucci left the Trump administration after 11 days in office when a tape surfaced of him berating a reporter.)
Some in the White House tried to push back at his broad-brush “fake news” characterizations. Spicer recalled going over stories with the president that had displeased him, assessing them section by section. “We would talk about it,” Spicer told The Post. “He then typically branded it fake.”
Trump spent much of his 2016 campaign beating up on the media. But it wasn’t until after he was inaugurated that he issued something like a formal declaration of war.
One afternoon in February 2017, ensconced at Mar-a-Lago, he deployed his Twitter account to declare with all-caps bombast that the “FAKE NEWS media” is “the enemy of the American people.” He specifically cited the New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS.
His statement on that day generated shock in the media world and among his critics. But it caught on with conservative fans who have long nurtured a belief that the mainstream media tilts to the left.
Three years later, the smear has taken hold on conservative websites and in the long lines of supporters outside Trump rallies, functioning like an Internet GIF that cycles endlessly on the screens of the national consciousness.
A master of catchphrases, Trump had created a rallying cry in “enemy of the people” that seems to have penetrated a large part of the national psyche. Already, according to a recent poll, one-third of Americans agree with him that the media is the people’s enemy.
It was certainly a message that resonated with some industrious allies of the president.
Covering the New Hampshire primary in February, ABC News correspondent David Wright found himself in a candid conversation about the media business. “I don’t think we’re terribly interested in voters,” he griped to his new acquaintance. He mused that the media doesn’t do enough to hold Trump to account, but “we also don’t give him credit for what things he does do.”
Wright didn’t realize his conversation was being recorded. Weeks later, the hidden-camera footage was released to the world as a scandal: “Senior ABC Reporter Reveals Top Bosses Spikes News Important to Voters . . . Network Refuses to Acknowledge Trump’s Successes.”
It was the work of Project Veritas, a group of conservative provocateurs that for a decade has run sting operations to embarrass left-leaning groups and seek evidence of political bias among top media organizations — with substantial financial support from a charity backed by the conservative oil baron Koch brothers.
The campaign is representative of the right’s new willingness to tar not just an industry but its individual members, and it has put some newsrooms into a heightened state of wariness. Wright, who was also caught on tape criticizing ABC News for promoting the entertainment offerings of parent company Disney, was suspended after the Project Veritas release. “Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved,” the network said in a statement.
Another guerrilla offensive was mounted last year by Arthur Schwartz, a friend of Donald Trump Jr., who set out to find journalists’ most deeply shameful social media posts. Schwartz, who declined to comment for this story, used an algorithm to scan for the posts, often going back as far as the journalists’ teenage or college years, according to a person familiar with his efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to reveal strategy.
Among Schwartz’s efforts — a CNN photo editor who resigned after 2011 tweets about “Jewish pigs” surfaced (he apologized, saying he had been stupidly repeating slogans he’d heard as a teenager), and a New York Times editor, who apologized after the revelation of decade-old anti-Semitic tweets (which he chalked up to “lame attempts at edgy humor”). Schwartz vowed to unearth more embarrassing social media posts. “Lots more where this came from,” he tweeted.
Schwartz and his allies at one point discussed raising money to expand the campaign, according to his associate. Instead, he has relied on his own energetic Twitter use and the amplification effect of right-wing media. “I’m basically a . . . troll,” he told the Daily Beast last year.
For all their hype, the biggest scoops of both Schwartz’s effort and Project Veritas have involved fairly obscure journalists and did little damage to the newsrooms in question — if anything, Wright’s garden-variety griping about corporate bosses suggested a healthy diversity of newsroom thinking. In 2017, a Project Veritas operative approached The Washington Post in 2017 pitching a hoax story about conservative Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, a Trump ally, but The Post’s journalists instead spotted the holes in the story and exposed the Veritas ties. (Project Veritas head James O’Keefe later said the goal was not to plant a bogus story that would embarrass The Post but “to draw the reporter out in order to extract comments.”)
But Project Veritas maintains friends in high places: The New York Times reported that Erik Prince, the security-contractor brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has recruited ex-spies to help Project Veritas infiltrate Democratic groups. (Prince did not respond to a reporter’s calls; asked to comment, Project Veritas did not address the Prince connections.) And a new Trump campaign lawsuit against CNN cited one of its undercover videos that captured a man described as a “CNN insider” — actually, a freelance satellite truck operator, according to the network — speculating that CNN President Jeff Zucker has a “vendetta” against the president.
“People need to understand the way this works,” Zucker said in an email to The Post after the lawsuit was filed. “The president and his associates make deceptive statements and threats against the media only moments before his campaign blasts a fundraising email referencing those attacks. It’s not a coincidence, it’s an orchestrated PR stunt to intimidate the press, raise money and pander to an audience willing to accept fiction as fact.”
It's hardly unusual for a president to clash with the press. Richard Nixon kept journalists on his enemies list, while his vice president, Spiro Agnew, dubbed them "nattering nabobs of negativism." Bill Clinton griped openly about coverage of his White House sex scandal, and candidate George W. Bush was caught on a hot mic calling a New York Times reporter a "major league asshole." Barack Obama's administration brought a record number of prosecutions against journalists' sources for leaking government information, according to the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
But on Feb. 26, Trump found a novel way to bedevil the media when his reelection campaign sued the New York Times. The suit claimed that an opinion piece published 11 months earlier had defamed the campaign by asserting that “the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy . . . had an overarching deal.” It demanded millions of dollars in damages.
The filing attorney was Charles Harder, the hard-charging lawyer who won the $115 million judgment that ran the Gawker website out of business for publishing a sex tape involving the wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Days later, Harder sued The Washington Post in federal court, taking issue with opinion pieces written last June by Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman, who both argued that the Trump campaign had signaled a willingness to accept assistance from foreign governments. The Post’s publisher, Fred Ryan, called the suit “a shameful ploy designed to intimidate news organizations as they work to inform voters on the important issues at stake in this election.”
Four days after the Post suit, Harder filed the suit against CNN, over an opinion column by Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission who also painted the Trump campaign as open to Russian assistance.
Katherine Bolger, a partner at the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine specializing in First Amendment issues, called the lawsuits “bordering on frivolous” and likely to be dismissed. “These articles are critical of the president, not his campaign, so in some ways the wrong plaintiff sued,” she said. And the articles “are largely opinion, based on disclosed facts,” and thus are protected speech.
“We were founded on the ability to criticize our political leaders,” Bolger said. “You are allowed to communicate truthful things that are critical of our government.”
In a statement, the campaign’s senior legal adviser, Jenna Ellis, maintained that while the articles in question were presented as opinion pieces, “the statements themselves are false factual assertions, not opinions, and as such are subject to defamation law.”
But Ted Boutrous, a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who specializes in First Amendment law, says the suits offer thin arguments to support a defamation claim and have little chance of prevailing. Instead, he said, they are more likely intended to inspire Trump fans to donate to his reelection campaign. Trump “has the greatest soapbox in the world but instead resorts to frivolous lawsuits,” Boutrous said.
Bolger predicts that the eventual dismissal of the suits is part of the Trump camp’s political strategy. “And then the president is going to be able to tweet about the Democratic judges who have dismissed the cases.”
And some worry that the president’s repeated public assaults on the media could eventually have a chilling effect in the courtroom — that “judges and juries are likely to be more skeptical of the case being made by publishers,” said David McCraw, the deputy general counsel for the New York Times.
Indeed, the efforts by Trump's allies to attack the media may pale in impact next to the off-the-cuff onslaught from the president himself.
In recent months, Trump called Chris Wallace, the widely respected host of Fox News Sunday, "nasty and obnoxious," sniping that he will "never be his father, Mike," a legendary "60 Minutes" correspondent. He also tarred Peter Baker, a star Times reporter, as "an Obama lover." And as his Senate impeachment trial got underway, he took a break from the World Economic Forum in Davos to call The Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig "stone cold losers" on Twitter.
On March 20, NBC's Peter Alexander asked Trump if his administration had offered "a false sense of hope" in talking up the potential of untested drugs, but then segued to a softball: What would he say to citizens who are afraid of the coronavirus crisis?
"I say that you're a terrible reporter, that's what I say," the president responded. "I think it's a very nasty question."
The late Roger Ailes built a whole network in Fox News out of the conservative sense of grievance toward mainstream media. But Trump has taken that mind-set to even greater extremes. “He’s now gotten everyone on the right to use the same terminology and that’s the big change,” Spicer noted.
Trump’s quickness to label stories fake has created new peril for media organizations: Any journalistic misstep or factual error, even if it is speedily corrected, can become a talking point in service of the notion that the media is out to get the president.
“You can’t afford to make mistakes because they will be weaponized against you,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist and Trump critic, who fears the president’s rhetoric could imperil the lives of journalists.
The irony is that Trump himself makes false statements — more than 16,000 since taking office, according to a Washington Post Fact Checker tally — that he almost never corrects. Nonetheless, he and his friends and family are quick to pounce on any media stumble — even if the journalists involved have corrected it — and their scorn can ripple out in ever-expanding circles, repeated and re-repeated by his political allies and his 70 million-plus million Twitter followers.
One example was a much-criticized obituary headline in The Washington Post, which appeared online only briefly Oct. 27, but lives forever in the images taken by Post critics. It referred to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State” when he was killed. Conservatives blasted the headline for not specifically describing him as a terrorist, though the Islamic State is well-known in the United States as a terrorist organization.
A statement by The Post acknowledging that the headline was a misstep did little to quell the furor. In a profane tweet, Donald Trump Jr. accused The Post of producing “fawning headlines” about “a serial rapist and murderer,” and of “literally doing PR for a terrorist scumbag.”
“Screw you Wa Po!” Trump Jr. wrote.
Michael Caputo, who served as a communications official in Trump’s 2016 campaign, believes the White House and its press corps “have reached a point of no return.” But he finds what he calls the “defensive attacks” on individual reporters “unnerving. We understand that at some point this could go too far.”
Yet attacking the media is now broadly regarded as a smart move by conservatives. In January, while rebuffing his questions about the impeachment proceedings against Trump, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) called CNN congressional reporter Manu Raju “a liberal hack” — for which the Trump reelection campaign hailed her as a hero (“THIS is how you handle FAKE NEWS”) with a tweet linking to McSally’s campaign fundraising page.
“All of those punches have landed,” said Caputo, who has remained in touch with the president. “In an election cycle, the president will be able to touch some already softened skin.”
Caputo says he has heard references to the term “Fake News” almost everywhere he goes — in Puerto Rico, Germany and Ukraine. An African diplomat recently used the phrase in a conversation with him. “I don’t know if ‘Make America Great Again’ will last forever as a catch phrase,” Caputo said. “But ‘Fake News’? It will endure forever.”