Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton talk frequently with President Trump, whether in the Oval Office or via phone during their travels. Their effectiveness at implementing the administration’s foreign policy has prompted Trump to refer to Pompeo and Bolton as his “two great stars.” When they have something to say, foreign officials know to listen closely, because a message about the president’s intentions and capabilities is being conveyed.
“Messaging” is the opposite of spontaneity. The former requires focus and a grinding commitment to one fact, one proposition, one conclusion.
Spontaneity is the mortal enemy of messaging. The spontaneous public figure generates a vast buffet of stories from which reporters, pundits and political opponents can choose. Trump is the modern era’s most spontaneous of presidents — and that’s both a political strength and weakness.
He presents a challenge for the United States’ allies and enemies. Many foreign leaders must rely on translations, a challenge in any context but especially so with this president’s idiosyncratically staccato delivery and frequent changes of subject.
Add to the mix the deep hostility of most of the Manhattan-Beltway elite media. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has said he doesn’t share the president’s view that the mainstream media are “the enemy of the people,” but Graham does think they are “allies of the Democratic Party.” A large slice of the press seems to be, in the view of many Trump supporters, intent on toppling this president. Most journalists are old-school, straight-arrow reporters of events and statements, but some are deep into the fight against Trump even while denying it. Not a few absolutely loathe him. So when Trump leaves himself vulnerable to interpretations of his spontaneous statements, that slice of the press that hates him will pounce, along with opinion journalists and Democratic politicians. The old-school scribblers then report the facts of the controversy. The cycle is on.
The president’s statements on Syria — broad brushstrokes about withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria — unleashed an avalanche of negative commentary, including from me. Not surprisingly, U.S. allies were confused by the president’s spontaneous declaration.
This week, Trump dispatched Bolton and Pompeo to deliver a message to the world and to the press. To the former, the message was clear. The United States is not suddenly retreating from the region or abandoning the Kurds, though it will be drawing down troops and reconfiguring placements of forces. There will be no hard and fast timetable for doing so, despite the president’s initial pledge to get the job done in a month. The physical Islamic State caliphate will be destroyed. And Bolton and Pompeo pounded home the message: Iran is the evil, destabilizing force in the region, threatening everyone, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the mullahs’ massive ambition will be contained.
The second, subsidiary message was for the media: The quick, and often negative, interpretation of every Trump statement has real-world consequences in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Regarding coverage of Trump’s Syria policy, a senior administration official told reporters accompanying Bolton on his trip that media coverage has exacerbated the problem of understanding the United States’ Syria policy. Hair-trigger “hot takes” can be totally wrong but still widely read and believed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan follows the American media; he declined to meet with Bolton. But we have no way of knowing what message he was acting on.
“There’s been a lot of noise about this withdrawal from Syria,” Pompeo told the media accompanying him on Wednesday. The implication that the “noise” was neither accurate nor helpful couldn’t be missed.
Pompeo and Bolton allow no daylight between themselves and the president. They are the twin broadcast towers of U.S. intentions abroad, and they are on the same frequency. Both have clearly raised the question about how much of the confusion about the Syrian withdrawal is on the shoulders of the media, who built narratives too quickly and then clung to them, even as the facts changed, as a way of diminishing Trump.
The message from Bolton and Pompeo was different from the standard-issue media-bashing from the right. They know and defend the First Amendment and thus the right of the media to write whatever they want. Both nevertheless used their trips not only to communicate about dangers posed by Iran but also to implicitly caution the scribblers and talking heads about facile conclusions concerning national security.
Many in the media reflexively reject this criticism. But some self-reflection is in order. If we pull the trigger on a story or lock into a narrative too quickly, real triggers could be pulled around the world based on fractured accounts and incomplete assessments. That should be a sobering thought across the vast militarized media complex.