The New York Times had what appeared to be a big scoop earlier this month. President Trump, it reported, was considering shaking up the legal team advising him on the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Within hours of the story’s publication, however, Trump himself threw cold water on the Times. He tweeted, “The Failing New York Times purposely wrote a false story stating that I am unhappy with my legal team on the Russia case and am going to add another lawyer to help out. Wrong. I am VERY happy with my lawyers, John Dowd, Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow. They are doing a great job. . . . The writer of the story, Maggie Haberman, a Hillary flunky, knows nothing about me and is not given access.”
Except the story, and a second one earlier this week updating Trump’s legal search, turned out to be accurate. On Thursday, Trump’s lead attorney, John Dowd, resigned three days after Trump added Joseph diGenova, a former federal prosecutor and sometime Fox News commentator, to his legal team.
Last week, too, The Washington Post broke some news about a forthcoming shake-up among White House advisers. Trump had decided to remove national security adviser H.R. McMaster, the paper reported.
Within hours, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rejected that very idea. “Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster — contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes” at the National Security Council, she tweeted.
That denial stood up until Thursday, when the White House announced McMaster’s departure and Trump named as his replacement former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, also a sometime Fox News commentator.
White House officials say it’s possible for events to change rapidly, and a denial at one moment is, in fact, an accurate and truthful reflection of the immediate state of play. Until the president actually makes a decision, a news story projecting the course of events can be speculative and even inaccurate, they said. This is especially true of personnel decisions because new events can intervene, undermining the president’s previous confidence in a top aide.
As an example, one official alluded to President Barack Obama’s expression of confidence in his embattled veterans affairs secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, in May 2014. But later that month, under mounting congressional criticism of Shinseki, Obama reversed course and accepted Shinseki’s resignation.
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in an interview that reporters have their own form of denial — by speculating about events and then never correcting the record when things don’t pan out as they had first described. “I’ve seen plenty of reports saying so-and-so is going to be out by the end of the week,” he said. “And then so-and-so is still there a few months later. No one admits they got it wrong.”
Yet last week’s Times and Post stories suggest that some of Trump’s claims about “fake news” don’t hold up. In many instances, the news isn’t “fake” — just inconvenient and ill-timed for the White House.
That’s why some White House reporters view the administration’s denials of otherwise well-sourced information with skepticism.
“Unfortunately, this happens often enough that reporters have learned that we can’t trust the denials,” said Peter Baker, a veteran Times White House reporter. “It doesn’t help anyone when reporters have to assume that what the White House tells us may not be true or that a White House statement will prove inoperative just days or even hours later.”
Baker’s colleague Haberman, who co-wrote the stories about Trump’s legal team, reacted to Trump’s denials with the verbal equivalent of a sigh. “He denied [the two stories] both times,” she tweeted on Thursday . “It all stems from him. People can focus on staff and I certainly have, but at the end of the day it’s the president who runs things this way and makes the choices to deny true stories and attempt to confuse people.”
Trump’s administration has been strewn with similar denials of stories that eventually came to pass. During the post-election transition, for example, a spokesman denied a Washington Post report that Gen. Jim Mattis would be his nominee for secretary of defense; Trump confirmed it hours later at a public appearance. In October, the White House denied a Post story that Trump would decertify the Iran nuclear agreement as not in the national interest. He ended up doing so.
Reporters say they believe Trump sometimes employs denials to maintain an image of orderly calm until it’s no longer possible to do so. It could also be a delaying tactic, aimed at holding off a news report until the White House is ready to announce it. In fact, some outlets reported Thursday that Trump was angry that Bolton walked through the White House’s front gate and was spotted by reporters, thereby spoiling a big “reveal.”
Or it could just be Trump’s way of confusing the issue and playing to his loyal base, said Nikki Usher, an associate professor in the school of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
“Even introducing something that turns out to be false into our information system means that it’s out there, and the vast majority of people will never hear the correction,” she said. “Or if they do hear the correction and acknowledge it to be factually accurate, we now know this doesn’t even matter because their enduring partisanship remains. It is the best tactic, actually, to introduce false information into the news ecosystem because most people will never notice that it has been corrected. If they do, they’ll find reasons to dismiss the correction as insignificant, leaving their underlying support intact.”