Monday, February 06, 2017

Trump Cries "Fake News"...But What He Really Thinks Is More Important

Last night, the New York Times added yet another volume to what is becoming, after less than three weeks, a growing journalistic genre: the Dysfunctional Trump White House Chronicles. (Previous installments can be found here, here, here, and here, among other examples.) Predictably, the Washington community immediately began to feast on the juicy anecdotes the Times provided: did Steve Bannon really hornswoggle Trump into appointing him to the National Security Council without knowing it? could it really be true that the staff can't even figure out how to turn on the lights in the Cabinet Room?

Just as predictably, the new president took to Twitter this morning to angrily dismiss the story as "total fiction" and "FAKE NEWS" from a "failing" newspaper. Trump's ebbing credibility ensures that such responses are in turn treated by the press as desperate denials of reality. To be fair, however, any presidential administration would publicly challenge the accuracy of damaging media coverage like this, whether or not it were true—though a more measured pushback delivered indirectly through a press secretary is, admittedly, the more traditional means of doing so.

In the long run, it's less important what Trump says about these stories that what he really thinks. Does he actually believe, as he claims, that the Times simply made the whole thing up? Or does he continue to rail against media bias in public while realizing that his own top employees are repeatedly using the press to send up warning flares about alarming dysfunction within his shop? The sheer volume of leaks alone confirms that this White House is far from running smoothly and is particularly beset by the kind of internal infighting that often springs up in government, especially in the absence of an attentive and engaged leader.

If Trump comes to understand that there really are serious problems with the way his administration operates, he won't acknowledge as much in public—but he will privately order changes designed to address them. (Whether those changes are actually effective is another question.) In the best case scenario, Trump responds by defining clear administration objectives and lines of authority that invest primary decision-making responsibility in the most experienced and competent members of his staff and cabinet, reducing the squabbling and elementary errors that have plagued the first weeks of his presidency.

More troublingly, Trump could decide instead that the biggest challenge facing his administration was not its bumpy record of governing but rather the tendency of some of his aides to pop off to the Times or Post whenever they lose an internal debate or turf battle. When a president decides that the mere existence of leaks themselves is the real problem to be solved, history suggests that big trouble is around the corner.