Donald Trump entered public life on the strength of the lie that Barack Obama was born outside the United States and ineligible to be president, and even after disavowing it at the last possible moment of his presidential campaign, Trump has continued to say things for which — to put it as generously as possible — there is no discernible evidence.
As a private citizen, he was rarely held to account for anything he said, and on Twitter — which by its nature doesn’t lend itself to nuance or elaboration — he could drop bombshells as he saw fit and move on. But now, as president, he is at least in principle responsible for what he tells the American people. And he has an entire staff of White House assistants, counselors and spokespeople to defend, justify and explain away his misstatements, attack the credibility of his critics and deflect additional questions.
There’s nothing necessarily novel about this. It was Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, who took back a year of lies about the Watergate burglary with the airy remark, “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” But for the Trump White House, defending the president’s claims has required some particularly advanced rhetorical gymnastics.
The difficulty for the administration officials begins with the fact that the president bases his messaging as much around what he’s watching on cable news as he does on any sort of strategy or policy briefing. The White House didn’t even have a communications director — whose job is to coordinate the administration’s messaging — until nearly a month after the inauguration. In the administration’s rocky first few weeks, that role was filled by press secretary Sean Spicer, whose performance reportedly displeased Trump early on.
One of Spicer’s favorite fallbacks when challenged is a variation of, “The president’s tweet speaks for itself,” as if the 140-character firebombs dispatched in response to “Fox and Friends” segments or Breitbart stories require no further context. He’s also leaning on more traditional Washington tactics, such as simply refusing to answer a question, such as this example when asked about whether the president would apologize to Heidi Cruz during a White House dinner:
Q from @HallieJackson: Is Trump going to apologize to Ted & Heidi Cruz at dinner tonight?
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 8, 2017
The one thing Spicer has not done is admit that the White House made a mistake, even if it requires him to deny the plain meaning of something the president said. Perhaps the most conspicuous example is this tweet, blaming Obama for releasing prisoners from Guantánamo who returned to the battlefield:
122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 7, 2017
Confronted by the inescapable, mathematical truth that the great majority of those prisoners were actually released under President George W. Bush, Spicer said Trump “meant in totality the number that had been released on the battlefield” under both presidents, as if he were simply clarifying Trump’s completely unambiguous statement. He passed up a reporter’s invitation to apologize.
Vice President Mike Pence has been attempting to deal with questions about the president’s words since Trump accepted the former Indiana governor’s pitch to fill out the Republican ticket, often going with a “Let Mike Be Mike” strategy that put Pence at odds with the top of the ticket. Pence has also leaned on his evangelical background to spin some of Trump’s more controversial statements. One example is his response to the leaked “Access Hollywood” tapes in which Trump made a series of lewd comments about women, after which Pence said that Trump showed “grace” in his apology and deserved “forgiveness.”
Pence has remained active through the transition and start of the administration.
In a December interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Pence suggested that Trump stating things he believed to be true without offering evidence — in this instance, the claim that millions of people had voted illegally — was “refreshing” to the American people:
STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s his right to make false statements?
PENCE: Well, it’s his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States.
I think one of the things that’s refreshing about our president-elect, and one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country is because he tells you what’s on his mind.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But why is it refreshing to make false statements?
PENCE: Look, I don’t know that that is a false statement, George, and neither do you. The simple fact is that. …
STEPHANOPOULOS: I know there’s no evidence for it.
PENCE: There is evidence, historic evidence from the Pew Research Center, of voter fraud that’s taken place. We’re in the process of investigating irregularities in the state of Indiana that were leading up to this election. The fact that voter fraud exists is. …
STEPHANPOULOS: But can you provide any evidence — can you provide any evidence to back up that statement?
PENCE; Well, look, I think he’s expressed his opinion on that. And he’s entitled to express his opinion on that. And I think the American people — I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what’s on his mind. And I think the connection that he made in the course. …
STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether it’s true or not?
PENCE: Well, they’re going to tell them — he’s going to say what he believes to be true, and I know that he’s always going to speak in that way as president.
Pence echoed those comments in February when defending Trump’s use of the term “so-called judge.”
“I think the American people are very accustomed to this president speaking his mind and speaking very straight with them,” said Pence.
Spicer and Pence are far from the only two voices attempting to clean up the president’s statements; there is a small army of cabinet officials, and there are former campaign surrogates on cable news programs and White House staffers at the ready. One advantage for the Trump surrogates is that they generally only have to dodge a single issue for a few weeks before their boss drops another bomb, requiring a different test of the pliability of the truth. Consider three claims from the president that would be massive news stories requiring intense government and media scrutiny if true:
- Millions of people voted illegally, thus invalidating potentially hundreds of races across the country
- There was an imminent national security threat that required his executive order restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries
- Former President Barack Obama personally ordered an illegal wiretap of his campaign
The problem with all three statements is that there’s been no legitimate evidence offered to support any of them. State election officials — Republicans and Democrats alike — have unanimously disputed Trump’s allegations about the magnitude of voter fraud. In lieu of evidence, the White House announced it would form a special commission — chaired by Pence – to investigate illegal voting. That was in early February, and thus far, there’s been limited movement on the fraud investigation, with a Pence spokesman telling NPR last week that the vice president was “still doing the necessary groundwork.” Millions of instances of voter fraud should be the biggest story in the country, but because so many other purported issues have cropped up since — the travel ban, the wiretapping accusation, the fight over health care reform, etc., etc. — it’s been buried.
Another White House advantage is a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of people to throw at the media. Each month, the administration has found a new face to feed to the Sunday morning shows — each delivering questionable results. On January 22, the second full day of Trump’s term, Kellyanne Conway coined the now-infamous term “alternative facts” in her attempt to defend Spicer’s statements about the size of the crowd at the Trump inauguration.
After mockery about the use of the term “alternative facts,” it only got worse for Conway, who managed to couple the citation of a nonexistent “Bowling Green massacre” in multiple interviews with a potential ethics violation by plugging Ivanka Trump’s fashion products. The string of missteps continued when she said National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had “the full confidence of the president” hours before Flynn resigned. “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski said Conway was no longer welcome on the show, and CNN also cut back on her appearances.
With Conway’s credibility apparently depleted, the White House dispatched policy adviser Stephen Miller to the February 12 Sunday shows. His performance was viewed so poorly in some corners that Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough got in a spat over the latter’s criticism, with the MSNBC host calling Miller “awful on every level.” The critique came about Miller’s tactics on the show, which was essentially to double down on everything the president had said and talk up the power of the executive branch.
When asked by ABC News about Trump’s claims of rampant voter fraud, Miller insisted that it was essentially a known secret in some states.
“I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” said Miller. “It’s very real. It’s very serious. This morning, on this show, is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence.”
When pressed about the claim, Miller tripled down:
“George, it is a fact and you will not deny it — that there are massive numbers of noncitizens in this country who are registered to vote. That is a scandal.”
Miller hasn’t appeared on a Sunday show since, although the president tweeted that he had done a “great job” representing him. This meant another surrogate was forced to draw the shortest of straws this month after Trump accused Obama of ordering a wiretapping of the Republican’s campaign with zero evidence. The White House turned to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy press secretary and daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Sanders’ tactic to defend the accusation was to cite a number of mainstream outlets and say that they had already confirmed what Trump had tweeted. The only problem was that none of the cited news organizations had actually reported that. This tactic — deferring to an authority that viewers would conceivably trust — might have worked in some venues, but ABC News’ Martha Raddatz pushed back, which led to Sanders using Spicer’s “The tweet speaks for itself”:
RADDATZ: OK. Let me just say one more time. The president said: I bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October. So the president believes it is true?
SANDERS: I would say that his tweet speaks for itself there.
RADDATZ: And Sarah, I just want to go back again to the president’s tweet one more time. And Sean Spicer tweeting today as well — reports that potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of 2016 election are very troubling. Sounds like the White House is really doubling down on what President Trump says happened.
SANDERS: As we should, Martha. If this happened, once again, this would be the greatest abuse of power and overreach that’s probably ever occurred in the executive branch. And something that certainly —
RADDATZ: Well, what about these accusations? You keep saying, if, if, if. The president of the United States said it was a fact. He didn’t say, ”I read a story in Breitbart” or “The New York Times” or wherever else. He said: “Just found out that Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower.” That’s not an if.
SANDERS: Look, I — I will let the president speak for himself. But in terms of where we are in the White House, our ask —
RADDATZ: You’re his spokesperson.
SANDERS: And I’m speaking about it right now.
RADDATZ: But you’re backing off of it. You’re backing off of it.
SANDERS: How am I backing off of it while I’m saying that I think that this happened —
RADDATZ: Because you’re saying “if.”
SANDERS: And I think the American people have a right to know. And I think that we should get definitive answers. I think we need to put out hard facts that show that this happened.
RADDATZ: OK, that’s what President Trump was clearly doing in those tweets. Thank you very much for joining thus morning, Sarah. Appreciate it.
Just as Trump supported Miller despite criticisms of his Sunday morning appearances, Sanders was dubbed “a rising star” in the administration in an Associated Press story last week. Conway has been given further chances, and on Monday she told CNN, “I’m not in the job of having evidence” when asked to defend the wiretapping charges. Trump appeared to have her back, tweeting shortly after her appearance that the media had been “rude” to his representatives and that they’d do “much better” by being nice.
If you attempted to describe the White House tactics in bullet points, it would probably look something like this:
- Hope that there are enough stories in the mix that you never have to defend individual claims for an extended period of time
- Rotate voices as others potentially lose credibility
- Rely on the traditional respect afforded to the occupant of the Oval Office, and say that Trump obviously must have a good reason for anything he says
- Argue that even the most outlandish claims had already been confirmed by other outlets or are common knowledge
- Say that the American people love that the president says whatever is on his mind, regardless of what he’s saying
- When all else fails, ignore the fact that you’re speaking for the president and say that Trump’s words — and especially his tweets — speak for themselves, even if they don’t
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who was interviewed by CNN last week about the Obama wiretapping claims, perhaps best expressed the view that the president is entitled to the presumption that he knows what he’s talking about.
“I don’t know anything about it,” said Kelly. “If the president of the United States said that, he’s got his reasons to say it.”
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