As soon as President Trump tweeted Sunday night that it was fake news that he would meet with Iran without preconditions, journalists pointed out that both he and two of his top Cabinet officials have contradicted that claim. The Washington Post’s John Wagner points to two occasions Trump said he would meet without preconditions, along with when both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said it at a briefing.

But even that might undersell how jaw-droppingly bogus this media criticism is.

Not only has Trump’s media gripe been contradicted by Trump and top Trump administration officials, but it’s clear that this has been a concerted, administration-wide talking point for months. And it was a talking point as recently as a week ago.


This wasn’t something Pompeo and Mnuchin were asked about at Tuesday’s briefing, you see; it’s something they said unprompted. Here’s the transcript:

Q: With John Bolton out of the picture, is it now possible to see some less hawkish Iran policy? And does this open the path for the President to meet with Rouhani?
MNUCHIN: I would say Secretary Pompeo and myself and the President are completely aligned on our maximum pressure campaign. I think you know we’ve done more sanctions on Iran than anybody. And it’s absolutely working. Now, the President has made clear he is happy to take a meeting with no preconditions, but we are maintaining the maximum pressure campaign.
Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
Q: So, Secretary Pompeo, for clarity on this, can you foresee a meeting between President Trump and the Iranian leader later this month surrounding the United Nations?
Q: Would the President support that, and do you support that actively?
POMPEO: The President has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions.

Notice that they weren’t asked about preconditions. Yet both of them went directly for that talking point. It was something they were proactively putting out there.

Pompeo did the same just two days earlier in a Fox News Channel interview:

CHRIS WALLACE: But [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani says no meeting until all U.S. sanctions are lifted first, and President Trump says there’s no way that’s going to happen. What do you put the odds of a Trump/Rouhani summit this month at the U.N.?
POMPEO: I’ll leave that to the folks in Vegas. Here’s how I know we’ll think about it: President Trump will think about whether it’s appropriate to meet based on whether he thinks we can get an improved outcome for the American people. He has said he’d meet with him with no preconditions.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus was asked to follow up on this at a briefing on Thursday, at which point she explained that the administration’s demands of Iran were not preconditions for negotiating:

Q: So if you’re referring to the 12 demands that the secretary, I believe, spoke at the Heritage Foundation, does not contradict exactly what he said two days ago from the White House -- that the president is willing to negotiate with the Iranians without conditions? How come you have 12 demands and yet he’s willing to sit down with them with no conditions?
ORTAGUS: We – the 12 demands, we – again, we’ve talked about all of these things from this podium before. We never said that they were preconditions, and the President has often said, not just in relation to Iran but in North Korea – I mean, you could go around the world – the President puts diplomacy first. He puts peace first. He always says that all options are on the table in whatever conflict that he has to deal with or whatever resolution he is working on.
Q: I see. So this is just to lift the sanctions and not as precondition to negotiation.
ORTAGUS: Right, yeah.

Go back a little further, and it wasn’t just the State Department and the treasury secretary actively pushing this line; it was also Hogan Gidley, a deputy press secretary at the White House. Here’s what he told Fox News on Aug. 28, less than three weeks ago:

SANDRA SMITH: The president also spoke at length at the G-7 on the stage, giving a news conference to reporters talking about Iran. And he seemed to set an optimistic tone. What is next with Iran?
GIDLEY: Well, listen, he has been clear that he wants to have conversations with the leaders of Iran without preconditions. He’s been very clear about that. He was clear in the G-7 as well. But the fact is, Iran is under a maximum pressure campaign by this president because of its decades’ worth of malign behavior.

Also using this talking point: Vice President Pence in June. And again, he wasn’t even asked about it. Here’s his interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

Q: But my question was, are they reaching out too? Did you get that message from the Swiss that the Iranians delivered?
PENCE: I’m not aware of any outreach from the Iranians.
PENCE: I know there was communication. Prime Minister Abe was actually in Tehran not long ago.
PENCE: And he encouraged them, as President Trump has done publicly, to engage the United States. The president of the United States has made it clear we’re prepared to talk to Iran without preconditions.

Trump is certainly no stranger to easily contradicted claims and bad-faith media criticism, but it’s difficult to think of a more egregious example. It’s one thing for Trump’s own rhetoric to be inconsistent; it’s another for this to be a talking point that was clearly settled upon by the administration long ago and repeated as many as four times just last week. It’s possible Trump has changed his mind about preconditions, but attacking the media for accurately relaying what he and so many others in his administration have said makes no sense.

This was one of two big media criticisms Trump lodged over the past 24 hours, the other being an attack on the New York Times for a poorly handled piece — and accompanying tweet — that included a new sexual misconduct allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh dating to his college days. The Times eventually appended an editor’s note that said the new allegation wasn’t corroborated even by the woman who was the alleged target. It apologized for the tweet.


Trump’s supporters are likely to lump all of this together: Trump’s claim may not make sense, but look at how badly the media handled the Kavanaugh story! The difference is that it’s almost impossible to argue that Trump’s claim was in good faith. If it wasn’t gaslighting, then Trump is truly very confused about what his own posture is toward Iran. And that’s not really a more reassuring explanation.