White House press secretary Sean Spicer holds up paperwork highlighting and comparing language about the National Security Council from the Trump administration and previous administrations, at the White House on Jan. 30. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

The Trump administration has launched a raft of ill-considered, reckless and wrongheaded foreign policy initiatives in its first two weeks, from banning entry by citizens of a country that is its partner in war (Iraq) to needlessly alienating the leaders of two of the closest U.S. allies (Mexico and Australia).

One thing Trump has decidedly not done, however, is downgrade the participation of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the deliberations of the National Security Council.

You may have heard and read otherwise, repeatedly. Therein lies an illustration of how communication between the executive and mainstream media, and with it coverage of the Trump administration, has already come unhinged.

The problem originates in part in the blizzard of executive orders issuing or leaking from the White House — some of them signed and others mere drafts — that officials have done little to explain to Cabinet agencies, much less the press. Then there is the already established proclivity of press secretary Sean Spicer and other spokespersons to retail brazen untruths, at the apparent urging of the boss, amid a stream of insults directed at reporters.

(Reuters)

The result is that even when the White House does something ordinary, it may be portrayed as radical and dangerous, and even when it tells the truth, it is not believed. The story of the National Security Council reorganization is a good case in point.

A presidential memorandum released by the White House on Jan. 28 laid out the organization and functions of the NSC, which bureaucratically is the most important body for making decisions on matters of war and foreign affairs, as well as the Homeland Security Council, which manages issues such as borders and domestic counterterrorism. Every president issues such a memorandum.

Reporters scrutinizing the document quickly noticed one big anomaly: Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chief executive, was named as a regular participant in the Principals Committee, the second-tier body that feeds reports and recommendations to the NSC, which is chaired by the president. That, indeed, was and continues to be alarming to those who fear Bannon’s agenda of radical populist ethno-nationalism.

The second apparent piece of news in the document, however, was deceiving: A line said that the director of national intelligence and Joint Chiefs chair — who by law are permanent members of the National Security Council — would attend meetings of the Principals Committee only when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” In other words, concluded the first news reports, downgraded! Reactions quickly poured in from former senior officials, including President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice, who called the purported demotion “stone cold crazy.”

But there was no demotion. As former State Department legal counsel John Bellinger pointed out on the Lawfare website, the Principals Committee was tasked with reporting to both the NSC and the Homeland Security Council. That meant it might take up some domestic issues, such as disaster relief, outside the purview of the intelligence community and military. The point of the memorandum was that the two officials need not attend those meetings. As Bellinger pointed out, the George W. Bush administration had the same organization.

Normally, an honest misunderstanding of this kind would be quickly sorted out in normal contacts between reporters and White House staff. This one wasn’t. Instead, last Monday, Spicer opened his daily press conference by declaring that the reporting on the purported downgrade had been “utter nonsense.” He then delivered a lengthy explanation laying out how the composition of the Principals Committee was the same as it had been in 2001. He said that “we called several outlets who were misreporting the topic to better inform them.”

To no avail. “Trump downgraded two senior national security officials,” said a New York Times editorial the next morning. “The director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were stripped of their regular seats on the NSC’s principals committee,” wrote a Post columnist in a piece published Wednesday. Countless other editorials and op-eds slammed the “demotion.”

Mis-coverage of this kind — and there has been a reasonable amount of it in the past two weeks — is hurting both sides. Media organizations look less credible on the real Trump transgressions when they, inadvertently or otherwise, report the routine as scandalous. The White House, on the other hand, looks utterly unable to coherently explain its own policies. Some quiet, professional, off-camera communication between White House staff and reporters — the mechanism that has usually ensured that the truth eventually gets out in previous presidencies — would help.

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