This whole thing started Sunday morning with a tweet from President Trump about the path of Hurricane Dorian. Six long days later, that tweet has become central to the president’s politics, an emblem of his ongoing war against the media and a source of fundraising for his campaign.
If you’ve been near a newspaper, phone or a television over the past week, you’re probably aware of at least the broad strokes of what happened. Trump claimed that “[i]n addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” By that point, as the map above shows, Alabama wasn’t at risk, and the National Weather Service quickly made that clear.
The incident might have faded at that point but for an ABC News report noting that Trump’s assertion was incorrect. That prompted a tweeted rebuttal from Trump claiming (falsely) that his original tweet was correct.
The incident might have faded at that point, but Trump wasn’t done. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday, he showed an outdated map of Dorian’s anticipated path, adding a drawn-in loop to suggest that it had at some point been headed toward Alabama. The Post reported Thursday that Trump himself had drawn that loop, using one of his signature fine-tip markers. That change spurred an understandable amount of coverage, given how obviously Trump seemed to be trying to prove himself correct after the fact and how clumsily he’d done so.
Over the next two days, Trump repeatedly tried to prove that his warning to Alabama had been correct by noting that early forecasts suggested either that Alabama might be in Dorian’s path or, later, that it might see some higher wind as a result of the storm. But at the time of Trump’s tweet, it simply wasn’t the case that Dorian was headed to Alabama or that the state would be “hit (much) harder than anticipated.” At the time, in fact, there wasn’t even really much of a chance that Alabama would see any effects from the storm, as the National Weather Service suggested.
Why Trump thought Alabama was at risk wasn’t clear. He was briefed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency later in the day Sunday after spending a chunk of Saturday playing golf at his private course in Virginia. The idea that Alabama was at risk had faded by then.
Why he continued to insist that his tweet was correct is another question entirely. But on Friday morning, we got one answer, as Trump tweeted an excoriation of the media’s tedious insistence on reflecting reality.
“The Fake News Media was fixated on the fact that I properly said, at the beginnings of Hurricane Dorian, that in addition to Florida & other states, Alabama may also be grazed or hit,” Trump wrote — though the tweet came after Dorian was already threatening the Bahamas. “They went Crazy, hoping against hope that I made a mistake (which I didn’t)." He did.
“Check out maps,” he continued, though maps make clear that, at the time of his tweet, Alabama wasn’t at risk.
Then, a transition: This was just another example of the media being out to get him.
“This nonsense has never happened to another President,” he wrote. “Four days of corrupt reporting, still without an apology. But there are many things that the Fake News Media has not apologized to me for, like the Witch Hunt, or SpyGate! The LameStream Media and their Democrat partner should start playing it straight. It would be so much better for our Country!”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this and similar arguments to Trump’s politics. Trump, according to Trump, is uniquely targeted by the news media, a function of the media’s purported alliance with Trump’s political opponents. The reality, of course, is primarily that Trump is willing to make untrue and misleading claims with far less trepidation than past presidents. Or, really, mayors. Or dog catchers.
This serves him well in two ways: It misrepresents at-times unflattering information for his base of supporters; and it continues to foster the exact argument made above — that he is at war with the media, and vice versa. That sentiment then endears him to his base even more. To the extent that his appeal is rooted in a sense that cultural forces are pushing his supporters away, Trump’s battle with the media is a battle directly against those forces.
And we arrive at Friday, when Trump’s insistence about the threat faced by Alabama — a nearly paralyzing insistence that involved a personal appeal to a reporter from his favorite news outlet — has evolved into a by-the-book war between Trump and the press. Trump can’t win the debate on the merits, which has often proved to be the case in his battles with reporters. So it gets swept into this broader narrative of how the media is out to get him.
There’s a coda to this that was probably predictable from the moment that the media began focusing on Trump’s marker-altered map.
Buy the official Trump marker, which is different than every other marker on the market, because this one has the special ability to drive @CNN and the rest of the fake news crazy! #KeepMarkersGreathttps://t.co/eakgICM0LR
The Alabama fight is now about pitting Trump against the hated cultural elites and making a bit of cash for the campaign at the same time. If you can’t win a debate on the merits, you might as well put it to use in other ways.