In the Trump White House, “Good enough for government work” has developed a whole new meaning.
Politico’s Shane Goldmacher has outlined a remarkable scenario that unfolded recently in the West Wing. Deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland apparently provided President Trump with copies of two Time magazine covers depicting scientific concerns about a changing climate: Worries about a new ice age in the 1970s and then global warming in 2008. Trump fumed — until staff members poked around on the web and realized that the “ice age” cover was fake. A White House official defended McFarland’s raising the issue to Goldmacher: Although the cover was not real, “it is true there was a period in the ’70s when people were predicting an ice age.”
It’s worth running though all of the points of failure that occurred, leading to Trump raging against a hoax.
1. Obviously, that the deputy national security adviser was sharing an Internet hoax. And not just any Internet hoax, but one of the most pernicious rhetorical “rebuttals” to the idea of climate change of the past decade.
2. That she — an adviser to the president on national security! — was sharing it with Trump without having taken any steps to verify its accuracy.
3. That Trump reportedly accepted the story uncritically.
4. That, when confronted, a White House official defended the underlying premise of the fake cover — which itself is misleading.
If you’re curious, the original “an ice age is coming” trend trickled through the popular media at the time in the way a story about a wacky mug shot might today. It was not a consensus view in the scientific community, nor was there sustained reporting or research supporting the idea.
“The broader point I think was accurate,” the official told Politico, calling the cover “fake but accurate.” It isn’t. There was no casual flip-flop on the nature of the shifting climate, although those looking to undercut the current consensus clearly have sought to uncover one.
That’s the question underlying McFarland’s action. Why? What point was she trying to make to the president? Was she simply passing on something funny that she’d seen online? Was she actively trying to influence his decision-making process? If the latter, why, then, not rely on the experts who study the issue within the government? (We’ll note here that McFarland was closely allied with former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn who, during the 2016 campaign, shared a fake news story about Hillary Clinton.)
More broadly though: What if McFarland is passing along a spurious rumor that hasn’t been widely debunked online? The picture Goldmacher paints is of a quick scramble to fact-check the subject of Trump’s furor in the moment, before he seized his phone and tapped the Twitter icon. If McFarland, or anyone else, is presenting Trump with unverifiable rumors in any other context — such as, say, that Trump Tower was wiretapped during the presidential campaign — what’s the fail-safe?
In this scenario, McFarland was bringing Trump untrue information that he wanted to hear. What happens in the mirror-image case: when you bring Trump true information that he doesn’t want to hear?
Axios reports that Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with some members of his Cabinet. “Either they’re tooting their own horns too much,” Mike Allen writes of Trump’s frustrations, “or they’re insufficiently effusive in praising him as a brilliant diplomat, etc.” The extent to which members of the Cabinet are buffeted by Trump’s whims was made clear in an interview that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave over the weekend.
“I understand I have to earn his confidence every day,” Tillerson said about Trump, “with how I go about those affairs and how I go about conducting the State Department’s activities consistent with the direction he wants to take the country.”
If that’s your understanding of your role, that your boss might fire you on a whim despite how effective you may have been in the past, what’s the incentive for presenting information to him that will displease him?
The White House official quoted above — whose own position is presumably subject to the same vagaries as Tillerson’s — described the Time-magazine-cover incident as being “fake but accurate.” “Fake” because it was caught in time; “accurate” because the White House wants it to be.
Accurate enough for Trump administration work, if you will.