President Trump thought he was in friendly territory when he decided Thursday to give an exclusive interview to Britain’s Sun newspaper, a racy, pro-Trump tabloid owned by friend-of-Trump Rupert Murdoch.
It all went bloody well wrong. At least according to Trump.
The president on Friday hauled out a familiar Trumpism — “fake news” — to describe the Sun’s write-up of Trump’s own words knifing British Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling of Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit. “I didn’t criticize the prime minister,” he said at a joint news conference with May, a few hours after the Sun splashed the story across its front page. He called the Sun’s account “fake news.”
One problem: A recording plainly demonstrated it was anything but.
Trump told the newspaper that May had failed to take his advice for managing her country’s divorce from the European Union and said her approach “will probably kill” the prospects for a U.S.-U.K. trade deal. He further undermined her already shaky grip on power by saying her former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who resigned in protest of her plans this week, would “make a great prime minister.”
Trump apologized to May, but his blatant effort to rewrite reality — and blame the news media in the process — created a bit of discombobulation in Murdoch’s media land, which is adjacent to, and has extremely friendly relations with, Trump World.
Trump’s latest invocation of “fake news” put Murdoch’s media empire on two continents in the position of having to tell their readers and viewers that the president’s characterization of one of their sister outlets was, as the British like to say, bollocks.
The Wall Street Journal, owned by Murdoch’s News Corp., said the day was “overshadowed” by Trump’s interview with the Sun and said it could undermine May at a time when she is struggling to gain Parliament’s support for her plans for Brexit.
Murdoch’s British flagship, the Times of London, reported that Trump “frantically tried to repair the damage” from the interview with an apology and effusive praise of May. It called Trump’s hour-long joint news conference with May “surreal” and said he “referred repeatedly yet obliquely to ‘a suggestion’ he had given Mrs. May for handling the Brexit negotiations.” It noted that the Sun interview had already been released online, thus impeaching Trump.
Fox News carried the news conference live, but its account afterward only briefly touched on the fake-news comment. “He called it fake news and then offered an apology to her earlier today and apparently her response was, ‘It’s just the press,’ ” said anchor Bill Hemmer. “So they are in lockstep on that idea.”
Co-anchor Sandra Smith then quoted the president directly. “I didn’t criticize the prime minister. [The Sun] didn’t put in what I said about the prime minister. It’s called fake news and we solve a lot of problems with a good old recording instrument. Let’s see it, let’s hear it.” They then moved on to other aspects of the news conference.
The network’s news site, FoxNews.com, avoided mentioning Trump’s labeling of the Sun interview in its account of the news conference.
The Murdoch-owned New York Post said Trump’s apology to May and his openness to her approach to Brexit was “a reversal from the previous day.” Its story added, “The president said his interview in the Sun was ‘fake news’ because the story didn’t include his glowing remarks about her.”
The Sun — Britain’s largest-selling paper — offered its own statement after Trump’s remarks. “We stand by our reporting and the quotes we used — including those where the President was positive about the Prime Minister, in both the paper and in our audio — and we’re delighted that the President essentially retracted his original charge against the paper later in the press conference.”
It added, “To say the President called us ‘fake news’ with any serious intent is, well . . . fake news.”
Glenda Cooper, a journalism lecturer at City, University of London, said in an interview that the Sun was a logical place for Trump to give an interview. The tabloid “is raucous, anti-establishment, pro-U.S. and anti-Europe, and it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News, Trump’s favorite channel.”
She said the pro-Brexit Sun, and Trump, succeeded in planting more doubt about May’s “soft exit” plans for leaving the European Union.
Although the Sun has been criticized for its journalism in the past, Cooper said, “Trump’s explanation that comments in the interview were ‘fake news’ was greeted with derision by British journalists. . . . The U.K. media [is] usually fiercely competitive [but] it closed ranks when faced with a president trying to call an on-the-record interview fake.”
In addition to bashing the Sun at Friday’s news conference, Trump resumed his usual role of hammering the American news media.
He attacked NBC News reporter Kristen Welker when he didn’t like a question she asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You see, that is such dishonest reporting,” Trump said. “Of course, it happens to be NBC, which is possibly worse than CNN.”
He swatted CNN while declining to take a question from its White House reporter, Jim Acosta. “CNN is fake news,” he said. “I don’t take questions from fake news.” He then called on John Roberts of Fox, saying, “Let’s go to a real network.”