Trump is now raging at the media for reporting on his botched claims about Google’s plans for a new website to steer people to testing options. Trump dramatically overpromised in this regard, forcing Google to scale down the expectations he had created.
But Trump is now blaming the media for supposedly getting this wrong, insisting the project is progressing just as he claimed. Trump tweeted: “Even in times such as these, they are not truthful.”
On the substance, this is nonsense. Trump claimed vindication based on a Google clarification that its efforts to develop the website are on track. This in no way contradicts what press accounts reported — that Trump vastly oversold how far along it was. This remains entirely true.
But also note Trump’s declaration that, in a larger sense, the media is not being truthful at a time of crisis. Trump is using his megaphone to tell the American people not to trust an institution they must rely on for information amid an ongoing public health emergency, all because that institution held him accountable for his own failures on this front.
Trump’s escalating attacks
This is part of a larger pattern that has escalated during this crisis. Early on, Trump raged at the media for supposedly hyping coronavirus to rattle the markets and hurt him politically. Here, too, Trump told the American people not to believe the press even as it accurately informed them about a severe public danger about which Trump himself was busy misleading them.
Then, on Friday, Trump unloaded in a fury at PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor. What triggered (dare we say it?) Trump was a perfectly reasonable question about whether he takes responsibility for the 2018 disbanding on his watch of the White House pandemic office.
“It’s a nasty question,” Trump sneered, before declining any responsibility for what his own officials do and heaping extensive praise on his own response.
But this was an appropriately aggressive question: As the former head of that office explains, this decision actually did make things worse, facilitating Trump’s decision to minimize the crisis without internal pushback and compromising efforts to coordinate the response.
Yet Trump in essence tried to place this decision beyond scrutiny entirely and lashed out at the media for trying to hold him accountable for it.
Trump rages at accountability
As it happens, Trump has repeatedly lashed out at reporters for the very same transgression — trying to hold him accountable for his own words and deeds.
In late 2018, Trump blasted Alcindor for asking if his rhetoric emboldened white nationalism, fuming that it was a “racist question.” But it was a perfectly reasonable one. Indeed, since then, some white nationalists themselves have rejoiced that Trump pushes their messages in coded form.
Trump also unloaded on Jim Acosta after the CNN reporter pressed Trump on his repeated lies about the “caravan” of migrants. This was a clear case where Trump’s demagoguery was utterly indefensible and threatened serious civic damage, yet Trump was enraged with Acosta for confronting him over it.
Trump vastly minimized a public emergency
These attacks on the media are even more potentially destructive than usual because of what has unfolded in the background: Trump’s relentless efforts to persuade the country that coronavirus is no big deal.
David Leonhardt has produced an exhaustive compilation of Trump’s many statements and actions along these lines. As Leonhardt summarized:
They show a president who put almost no priority on public health. Trump’s priorities were different: Making the virus sound like a minor nuisance. Exaggerating his administration’s response. Blaming foreigners and, anachronistically, the Obama administration. Claiming incorrectly that the situation was improving. Trying to cheer up stock market investors.
Crucially, these impulses on Trump’s part had serious consequences. They prompted health officials to mislead the public and fail to act with the requisite urgency.
The news media responded to this by informing the public about the gravity of the situation and by attempting to hold Trump accountable for those very same failures.
Yet all throughout, Trump has told the American people to dismiss what the media is telling them. First, Trump insisted initial reporting on the crisis was deliberately hyped to harm him. Now Trump is claiming efforts to hold him accountable for all the failings that flowed from that impulse are just more “fake news.”
The big story here is that we’re now seeing just how catastrophically unsuited Trump’s brand of autocracy truly is in the face of a crisis like this one. As Anne Applebaum details, Trump’s enforcement of a loyalty code against civil service professionals, and his retaliation against them for exposing inconvenient truths, paved the way for Trump’s pathologies to hamper the response, because “Trump has very few truth-tellers around him anymore.”
The relentless effort to discredit the very same news media that’s informing the public where he will not, and imposing a form of accountability on Trump that he would never dream of imposing on himself, is of a piece with all that. And we can only guess at how many people will be deceived and misled, at exactly the moment when they need good information the most.