President Trump claims to regard CNN, in general, and Jim Acosta, in particular, as peddlers of “fake news” who fabricate sources and should not be trusted.
Yet when his administration wanted to push back against Russia's assertion that Trump accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin's denial of election meddling during a meeting Friday, it turned to Acosta to report its side of the story.
The selection of CNN's senior White House correspondent shows that Team Trump, despite all the bluster, believes that Acosta and his network are generally credible — that a report with CNN's name on it carries enough weight to help counter the Kremlin, even with a single, unnamed source as its basis.
That does not mean Trump's frustration with CNN's critical coverage is entirely manufactured. It means that when he says “they've hurt themselves very badly,” as he did Thursday in Warsaw, he doesn't actually believe that the network's reputational damage is serious enough to render its reporting meaningless.
If that were the case, providing information for Acosta's coverage would be a waste of time.
Comparing actions to rhetoric is a worthwhile exercise as Trump thrashes CNN for recent missteps, including a prominent retraction that prompted resignations by three journalists and an online article in which the network withheld — but threatened to publish in the future — the name of the meme maker who inspired this:
Trump's words often project a level of ferocity that his behavior does not match. He rails against news outlets' practice of granting anonymity to certain sources yet sometimes demands that administration officials not be quoted by name in media reports, for example.
Trump included ABC News in that memorable “enemy of the American people” tweet and spent much of the presidential campaign complaining about journalists' alleged favoritism of the Clintons, but he respects George Stephanopoulos, the ABC anchor who was Bill Clinton's communications director.
Trump blasts the “failing” New York Times on the regular, but he still grants interviews to the paper's journalists and seems to hold Maggie Haberman in especially high regard, despite her tough coverage.
The president's broadsides against the media are strategic and effective, but whether they are fully authentic is another matter.