We can offer just two short vignettes from the past 24 hours as background to the issue of confidence in the honesty of the White House.
President Trump announced to the country on Tuesday morning that his national security adviser John Bolton had been fired. The only problem with that? Bolton says he offered to resign. What actually happened remains murky, but it’s not as though the scales here are even. Trump has said untrue or misleading things more than 12,000 times as president, often things meant to make himself appear more successful or tough than might actually be the case. So who to believe?
The Post had reported at the end of August that Bolton was on the outs with Trump. A staffer for the National Security Council, though, insisted that our report was “based solely on unconfirmed leaks & written with an apparent bias against” Bolton and that one could find “more truth in the National Enquirer.” In Trump’s tweet announcing the firing/resignation, he made clear that he and Bolton had frequent disagreements. So how much credence should we give administration staff?
A new CNN poll, conducted with SSRS, suggests that the above undercurrent of skepticism is not something unique to this moment. More than two-thirds of respondents said that they had, at most, confidence in only some White House communications. Three in 10 said they had confidence in nothing at all that came from the administration.
As might be expected, there were significant differences by party and depending on whether the respondent approved of the job Trump is doing as president. More than half of Democrats said they had no confidence in anything the White House had to say. Three-quarters of independents said they had confidence in only some of it. More than half of Republicans trust most or all of what the White House puts out.
Notice, though, that even among Trump supporters — members of his party and those who approve of him — confidence was fairly low. More than a third of each group have confidence in only some of what the White House has to say, at most.
Broken out by demographics, the divides aren’t that big. Groups that are consistently more skeptical of Trump — women, blacks, Hispanics and younger people — are only a bit more likely to say that they don’t have much confidence in the White House than groups that are more broadly supportive of the president.
Trump blames the media for this. He did so Wednesday morning, tweeting an excoriation of the unfair media even before offering any recognition of the fact that the day was the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
There’s some truth to this, of course. The media’s job is to point out accurate information, particularly when people in positions of power represent things incorrectly. But that’s not how Trump presents it: The media, in his formulation, are the dishonest ones, tamping down his electoral prospects.
An obvious Catch-22 presents itself. Those who believe Trump will believe Trump’s assertions about the media. Those distrustful of Trump will distrust this assertion, as well. Most Americans, CNN’s poll suggests, fall into that camp.
It’s long been the case that confidence in the presidency is wavering, just as trust in government is lower today than it was several decades ago. But CNN’s question gets at something more direct and specific: confidence in official White House communications.
That question dates back to only 2017 in CNN’s polling (at which point, the numbers were similar). This is, in part, because America’s never seen a president such as Trump, someone so willing to consistently offer misleading or untrue information and to stand by false statements even after they are proved false.
What does it mean when Americans are this distrustful of the president and his team? The answer isn’t clear. Will the next occupant of the White House simply revert to the presidential norm, and this moment will be a blip? Or will Americans simply view any president with similar skepticism moving forward?
There has been no moment at which America has had to look to the White House for critical information in a moment of emergency. (Trump’s false pronouncement about Hurricane Dorian heading toward Alabama was quickly corrected by authorities on the matter.) Hopefully no such emergency befalls the country. But if it does, how will the response be shaped by America’s broad distrust in what the White House has to say?