The Trump White House isn’t big on sharing information or answering questions asked on behalf of the public.
The so-called daily briefings are not even monthly.
The “communications” office specializes in stonewalling, often not even deigning to issue a “no comment.”
So White House correspondents must rely on inside sources, direct observation, documents and other reportorial wiles to perform their jobs: informing citizens about what the executive branch is up to.
When they do, President Trump is quick to trash-talk them.
“The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House,” went one broadside after the many departures among his top appointees were reported.
“Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”
But the reporting he criticizes as false — he claims it is invented from sources that don’t exist — is validated when top officials leave the White House staff and give on-the-record interviews.
Take, for instance, an article based on an interview with just-departed Chief of Staff John F. Kelly by Molly O’Toole in the Dec. 30 Los Angeles Times, which carried some remarkable headline words: that Kelly’s time as Trump’s top aide “is best measured by what the president did not do.”
That Kelly was, in other words, often in the position of restraining a whimsical and incurious president.
If that sounds more like chaos than “great energy,” consider this passage from the same article:
Kelly faulted the administration for failing to follow procedure and failing to anticipate the public outrage for the two most controversial initiatives of his tenure: Trump’s travel ban in January 2017, and the “zero tolerance” immigration policy and family separations this year.
Shortly after taking office, Trump issued an executive order immediately suspending the entire U.S. refugee program for 120 days, indefinitely freezing the entry of refugees from Syria and barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Refugees already approved for resettlement, green card holders and others were turned away from flights, detained, and in some cases deported. Federal judges issued emergency stays, and several iterations of the travel ban have been challenged in court.
At the time, despite reports he’d been caught off-guard by the president’s order, Kelly gave a full-throated defense.
“I had very little opportunity to look at them” before the orders were announced, Kelly acknowledged in The Times interview.
In other words, media reports that Kelly, then secretary of homeland security, had been caught off-guard by this impetuous blunder were accurate.
And Kelly’s defense, at that time, was a charade.
“It’s remarkable that Kelly now admits the chaos of travel ban implementation . . . when he previously lied to the public and press,” CNN senior justice reporter Evan Perez said, responding on Twitter to the Los Angeles Times interview.
Perez added: “The reporting, it turns out, was spot on. Kelly was lying.”
And Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, made a broader point about the coverage overall: “The current theme out of some in the WH comms shop is ‘there’s no chaos to see in this White House,’ a narrative Trump has hoped will replace the actual reporting. This Kelly interview affirms most of the real-time reporting about how it is there.”
This is far from the first time that top Trump officials have validated real-time reporting in after-the-fact interviews.
Just weeks ago, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, in an interview with CBS News’s Bob Schieffer, described the president as someone who is “pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, isn’t interested in deeply understanding policy decisions, and who repeatedly attempted to do illegal things.” (Trump responded by calling Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, “dumb as a rock.”)
The situation Tillerson and Kelly have described is far closer to what the mainstream media reported than to what Trump claimed a few months ago: “The White House is truly, as you would say, a well-oiled machine. It is working so well.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every anonymously sourced White House report turns out to be accurate to the letter. (After all, rumors of Kelly’s departure circulated for months before he actually departed.)
But it does suggest that news reports describing high staff turnover, impulsive decision-making, an increasingly isolated chief executive and a chaotic atmosphere are valid. Far from being made up out of whole cloth, they are quite an accurate representation of an unsettling reality — despite what Trump would have us believe.
In a particularly unhinged-sounding tweet on Tuesday, the president sent New Year’s greetings to the nation, including “the fake news media.”
Presidential good wishes? Or just wishful thinking?
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan