The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What it really means when Trump calls a story ‘fake news’

President Trump at the White House news briefing Friday. After the president spent Easter trashing media investigations that found his coronavirus response slow and lacking, a few things became clear. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

President Trump has rhapsodized in recent weeks about how special Easter is for him. He never quite specified why that is, but for a while it was the date he had in mind for ending the national shutdown — the day on which he envisioned Americans crowding the church pews once again.

And yet he spent much of the holiest weekend on the Christian calendar in an uproar over crushing news reports that make it clear his early response to coronavirus warnings was a failure — that cost thousands of human lives.

On April 4, The Washington Post reported that it took 70 days from the time Trump was first notified of the seriousness of the coronavirus threat for him to treat it “not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens.” The Post detailed how that 10-week period “now stands as critical time that was squandered.”

This landmark piece of reporting was followed a week later by a New York Times investigation based in part on a stunning chain of emails from dozens of experts in government agencies, health organizations and universities. The “Red Dawn” emails make it undeniable that the alarm was raised months ago, while Trump was assuring the nation that the virus was nothing more serious than the flu and would soon disappear.

The U.S. was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged

These two pieces of journalism “are the real-time Pentagon Papers of this administration’s pandemic disaster,” wrote journalist James Fallows.

In other words, they are the historic documentation of devastating failure at the highest level.

At some level, the president knows just how bad they make him look. And so, he lashed out in all directions, relying on his tried-and-true technique of trying to shoot the messengers.

The Times reporting, he tweeted, was “fake, just like the ‘paper’ itself.” He took aim at Fox News’s well-respected Chris Wallace (who had cited the Times report on his Sunday show) in juvenile terms that compared him to other Sunday hosts and his journalist-father, Mike Wallace. He managed a shot at The Washington Post, and at Fox News overall.

In short, he was on a tear — badly rattled by what he knew of the reporting, whether he had read it himself or not.

As the weekend came to a close, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired another tough piece of reporting. This one drove home the appalling spectacle of American health-care workers who lack the basic protective equipment that they need to do their front-line jobs — some of whom have been issued a single mask for the entire week or are forced to wear garbage bags instead of surgical gowns.

It featured an interview with Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser, who gushed about how the government is moving on “Trump Time” — that is, swiftly and efficiently, at least in Navarro’s rosy view. He dismissed the reports of the administration’s lengthy delay on the coronavirus response as “fake news,” and demanded that interviewer Bill Whitaker “show me the money.”

CBS apparently didn’t have the smoking gun in time for Whitaker’s sit-down with Navarro, but there it was on Sunday’s broadcast — a late-January memo from Navarro himself warning that the coming pandemic could cause $5.7 trillion economic loss and the deaths of “half a million souls” in America.

Wearing a face mask is humbling and generous. That’s not how Trump defines leadership.

Historians will turn to this documentation when they evaluate how the administration responded. The president doesn’t seem to care about that, or may consider it a lost cause. What he hopes is that Americans — voters — will believe him when he says the news is fake.

But the history of the Trump administration has shown that the loudest cries of “fake news” accompany the most damning journalism. Coming from him, the phrase now dependably has another meaning: “all-too-accurate reporting that damages my reputation.”

The coronavirus pandemic is too serious to let the president hold freewheeling press briefings in real time, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

A sizable segment of the nation has been willing to believe the president who tells them to believe only him, even when the proof is right there before their eyes.

A memo, an email chain, dozens of sources inside government — for some, none of it matters.

In January 2016, at an Iowa rally, Trump famously quipped that his base of loyalists would stay with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. He wouldn’t lose one voter, he predicted.

His constant disparagement of the traditional news media has been a key element of that loyalty: Journalists are the enemy. They are to be hated, not believed.

Now that more than 22,000 Americans have died, with slow response and denial at least partly to blame, “fake news” has gotten all too real.

Americans who care about the truth would do well to remember what the president’s favorite phrase really means.

READ MORE from Margaret Sullivan:

New Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany could do the impossible: Make us miss Sean Spicer

The Cuomo brothers put on quite a show. Should the journalism-ethics police shut it down?

Dr. Fauci symbolizes everything about the Trump-era media climate

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit