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Trump’s Advisers Are Feeding Him Genuinely Fake News, And That’s A Problem

Donald Trump Oval Office

President Trump’s staff appears to be slipping him news items that aren’t entirely accurate, and it’s likely having an impact on his state of mind and the decisions he makes:

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a stern warning at a recent senior staff meeting: Quit trying to secretly slip stuff to President Trump.

Just days earlier, K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, had given Trump a printout of two Time magazine covers. One, supposedly from the 1970s, warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming, according to four White House officials familiar with the matter.

Trump quickly got lathered up about the media’s hypocrisy. But there was a problem. The 1970s cover was fake, part of an Internet hoax that’s circulated for years. Staff chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it.

The episode illustrates the impossible mission of managing a White House led by an impetuous president who has resisted structure and strictures his entire adult life.

While the information stream to past commanders-in-chief has been tightly monitored, Trump prefers an open Oval Office with a free flow of ideas and inputs from both official and unofficial channels. And he often does not differentiate between the two. Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.

The consequences can be tremendous, according to a half-dozen White House officials and others with direct interactions with the president. A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda. Current and former Trump officials say Trump can react volcanically to negative press clips, especially those with damaging leaks, becoming engrossed in finding out where they originated.

That is what happened in late February when someone mischievously gave the president a printed copy of an article from GotNews.com, the website of Internet provocateur Charles C. Johnson, which accused deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh of being “the source behind a bunch of leaks” in the White House.

No matter that Johnson had been permanently banned from Twitter for harassment or that he offered no concrete evidence or that he’s lobbed false accusations in the past and recanted them. Trump read the article and began asking staff about Walsh. Johnson told POLITICO that he tracks the IP addresses of visitors to his website and added: “I can tell you unequivocally that the story was shared all around the White House.”

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon defended Walsh, who has since left the administration to advise a pro-Trump group, in a statement to POLITICO: “Katie was a key member of the team and is a trusted friend and ally of the White House. No one in the White House took that article seriously.” Walsh declined to comment.

But the smear of one of Priebus’ closest allies – Walsh was his chief of staff at the Republican National Committee – vaulted from an obscure web posting to the topic of heated conversation in the West Wing, setting off mini internal investigations into who had backstabbed Walsh.

When Trump bellows about this or that story, his aides often scramble in a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out who alerted the president to the piece in the first place given that he rarely browses the Internet on his own. Some in the White House describe getting angry calls from the president and then hustling over to Trump’s personal secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, to ferret who exactly had just paid a visit to the Oval Office and possibly set Trump off.

Priebus and White House staff secretary Rob Porter have tried to implement a system to manage and document the paperwork Trump receives. While some see the new structure as a power play by a weakened chief of staff – “He’d like to get a phone log too,” cracked one senior White House adviser—others are more concerned about the unfettered ability of Trump’s family-member advisers, Jared Kushne and Ivanka Trump, to ply the president with whatever paperwork they want in the residence sight unseen.

“They have this system in place to get things on his desk now,” the same White House official said. “I’m not sure anyone follows it.”

Lisa Brown, who served as White House staff secretary under President Barack Obama for two years, said it can be “dangerous” when people make end-runs around paperwork procedures, leaving the president with incomplete or one-sided information at key junctures.

“It’s even more important with someone like this,” she said of Trump, a president notoriously influenced by the last person he has spoken to, “but the challenge is he has to buy into it.”

“You know that people are going to go around the system. But then it’s up to the principal to decide how to handle it,” Brown added. “You need the president to say ‘thanks, I appreciate it’ [when he receives stories] and to hand it off to get it into a process.”

McFarland, who is expected to leave the NSC for the ambassadorship to Singapore, did not respond to requests for comment about bringing the president a fake news magazine cover. But another White House official familiar with the matter tried to defend it as an honest error that was “fake but accurate.”

“While the specific cover is fake, it is true there was a period in the 70s when people were predicting an ice age,” the official insisted. “The broader point I think was accurate.”

The article goes on to repeat the reports that we’ve read before regarding how the President’s news consumption habits have impacted his public statements both in Twitter, in speeches, and in later television interviews. For example, it’s known that the President spends most of his evening, and even a good part of the working day, obsessively watching cable news, especially CNN and the evening opinion show lineup on Fox News Channel that now consists of Tucker Carlson, a panel show called The Five, and Sean Hannity. Ever since that report went public, several news organizations have been able to document times when a story reported on one program or another would be followed by some statement or action from the Administration, or by statements made by the President via Twitter or somewhere else. Whether these statements were accurate or not would end up being something that White House staffers, spokespersons, and surrogates would be left to deal with when confronted with a media that would raise obvious questions that would arise in wake of anything a sitting President says. Earlier this year, for example, the newly inaugurated President made mention in a speech about what he referred to as “what happened last night in Sweden,” by which he meant an apparent terrorist attack that the American media declined to report. As it turned out, there was no attack in Sweden, as the Swedish government made clear in a statement shortly after the President’s comments. Instead, Trump’s apparently stream of consciousness mention of an incident in Sweden was based on a report he had seen on Fox News Channel earlier in the week regarding Sweden’s Muslim immigrant community that has been debunked by fact checkers.

In the recent past, of course, we haven’t really had a President who is obsessed with consuming news as Donald Trump. Instead, most President got their news and information mostly through a process that was closely monitored by their Chief of Staff and other close advisers and who maintained an Oval Office in which access to the President was tightly restricted unless necessary and usually only available with the consent of the Chief of Staff or other senior advisers. Trump, by contrast, seems to be running an “open door” policy not dissimilar to the one that he maintained as a businessman in which access to the inner sanctum was far more widely available than it has traditionally been in the Oval Office in recent times. In some sense, perhaps, there is some value in this in that there’s an obvious danger for a President who news is mainly filtered through his or her adviser, that’s why most recent Presidents have also maintained their own news consumption habits once they took office. Presidents such as Reagan, both Bush 41 and Bush 43, Clinton, and Obama, were known for reading several newspapers in the morning prior to heading down to the Oval Office for the start of the day. More recently, of course, the Internet has meant that a sitting President can do that more easily via a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Trump apparently reads newspapers in the morning as well, but he also spends what seems to be far more time watching cable news shows than his predecessors, although perhaps the fact that he’s largely alone in the evenings given that his wife and youngest son are still in New York City until the end of the school year has something to do with that. In any case, that habit, combined with the fact that Trump’s “open door” Oval Office access policy is apparently allowing aides to put information before him from questionable news sources that haven’t been vetted by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus or anyone else creates obvious problems.

Commenting on the Politico report, Philip Bump raises important questions:

That’s the question underlying McFarland’s action. Why? What point was she trying to make to the president? Was she simply passing on something funny that she’d seen online? Was she actively trying to influence his decision-making process? If the latter, why, then, not rely on the experts who study the issue within the government? (We’ll note here that McFarland was closely allied with former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn who, during the 2016 campaign, shared a fake news story about Hillary Clinton.)

More broadly though: What if McFarland is passing along a spurious rumor that hasn’t been widely debunked online? The picture Goldmacher paints is of a quick scramble to fact-check the subject of Trump’s furor in the moment, before he seized his phone and tapped the Twitter icon. If McFarland, or anyone else, is presenting Trump with unverifiable rumors in any other context — such as, say, that Trump Tower was wiretapped during the presidential campaign — what’s the fail-safe?

In this scenario, McFarland was bringing Trump untrue information that he wanted to hear. What happens in the mirror-image case: when you bring Trump true information that he doesn’t want to hear?

More importantly, what happens if the President is making important policy and action decisions based on what he believes to be true, but that what he believes to be true has been unduly influenced by inaccurate news sources, “news” items that are really nothing more than opinion pieces such as the speculative “Got News.com” report about leaks in the White House that resulted in the departure from the White House or news that that is just plain inaccurate? Potentially, the consequences could end up being quite serious, which is one reason why those closest to the President ought to be responding to reports like this by taking better control of how information gets to him.

Interestingly, all of this comes on the same day that other news outlets are reporting on rumors coming out of the White House of major shakeups in the White House staff, with everyone from Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer to senior advisor Steven Bannon reportedly to be potentially on the list of people who could be let go. These rumors aren’t uncommon for an Administration that’s obviously in a state of crisis of course, and they’re often an indication that there are advisers close to the President using leaks to the media to advance their own interests and push out the people on the other side. In this White House, that would usually mean that Bannon and Priebus are once again jockeying with each other for position as they were shortly after the Inauguration. It’s also possible that these reports are being spread by people close to Jared Kushner and Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who may be seeking to enhance their own influence over who has the President’s ear. Whoever ends up winning that battle will have major implications for the future direction of the Trump White House, especially if it does end up being Priebus, because he’s the one who’s in the position traditionally charged with controlling access to the President. As these reports show, though, either Trump isn’t letting his Chief of Staff do his job, or Priebus isn’t doing it very well. Whether he stays or goes, and who might replace him, will tell us alot about where the Trump Administration may be headed.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Un-flipping-believable.
    The most gullible man in the world has the keys to the nukes.
    We are so fwcked.

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  2. CSK says:

    What did you expect from someone who gave press credentials to The Gateway Pundit?

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  3. Argon says:

    Note that during The Economist’s interview with the President, Mnuchin chimed in to support Trump when he said they didn’t need to fight China over currency manipulation because China stopped after Trump came into office. Complete BS. Nothing changed in China’s policies.

    Trump: You know, since I’ve been talking about currency manipulation with respect to them and other countries, they [China] stopped.

    Mr Mnuchin: Right, as soon as the president got elected they went the other way.

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    There’s a fair amount of reporting to the effect that Bannon and his clique were not part of the Comey decision, but that Ivanka and Jared were. Take that data on board. Bannon is a Nazi, but he’s not part of the core Trump Crime Family, and probably unaware of their need to cover up Trump’s dirty deals with Moscow. Unlike Kushner who is in it up to his preppy tie.

    Generally the factions in a White House are ideological, radical and moderate. Now the two dominant factions are ‘Nazi’ and ‘Criminal.’ The man in the middle has no capacity to separate truth from lies, and will back a lie or fantasy to the hilt – see Susan Rice, Obama’s Wires, Biggest Inauguration Crowd Ever, biggest EV win ever, Birtherism. The people around Trump can use outright lies to drive American policy, and they know that once they’ve implanted a lie it will live on forever, rattling around inside the empty space between Trump’s ears.

    So, yes, we are at the point of hoping that people like Xi and the Mullahs and even Kim are more rational and competent than our imbecile president, and we have ceded the moral leadership of the West to Angela Merkel and Emanuel Macron. MAGA!

    ReplyReply

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  5. CSK says:

    @Argon:

    The Trumpkins will, however, take this as gospel.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  6. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    You know, Republicans are already predisposed to believing complete nonsense…tax cuts pay for themselves, climate change is a hoax, we’d all be safer if everyone had a gun, death panels, the minimum wage kills jobs…So I’m not sure how big a deal this really is. Republicans are already delusional. The problem is a lot bigger than this fat orange buffoon reading some fake news. His entire campaign was based on nonsense and still 63,000,000 Americans voted for him. He told 495 lies in his first hundred days in office; still his approval rating is around 40%.
    We are so fwcked.

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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:
    This is why election day depressed me. It wasn’t Trump per se, but the sudden stark reality that 46% of voters were absolute fwcking idiots. That’s what has me looking at overseas property.

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  8. CSK says:

    What will be interesting–in the horrifically fascinating way any slo-mo disaster is–to watch is what happens when Infowars, Breitbart, The Conservative Flophouse, and Gateway Pundit, Trump’s favored sources of news, turn against him. Ann Coulter’s on a rampage because the wall hasn’t been built, and that’s the only reason, she claims, that she voted for him.

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  9. Franklin says:

    it is true there was a period in the 70s when people were predicting an ice age

    Yes, technically true that there was a very small minority of scientists predicting something less than warming. From this link, “A survey of peer reviewed scientific papers from 1965 to 1979 show that few papers predicted global cooling (7 in total).” Wow, 7 whole papers in 14 years???

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    @CSK:

    Ann Coulter’s on a rampage because the wall hasn’t been built, and that’s the only reason, she claims, that she voted for him.

    Presumably she doesn’t quite realize that this is like saying that the only reason you carried your life savings to Nigeria in cash is because their Minister of Finance promised you something you really wanted…

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    Honestly, the internals of this White House remind me more of a particularly dysfunctional state school fraternity house than anything else. Banana republic status would be a step up.

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  12. Pete S says:

    Of course it would be nice if there was a reason to have confidence that the President would see through the fake news report. Or at least be able to question something that doesn’t seem quite right.

    It would be great if someone would print THIS story and slip it in his briefings for the day, just to test his comprehension and to find out if he actually gets through anything that is brought to him. It can’t really be good for his ego to read that his staff are essentially mocking him because they think he won’t get the joke.

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  13. David M says:

    We’ve known that Trump is basically a comment board troll for a long time. This is less an indictment of him, than the entire GOP. They are the ones covering for him, while he damages our country and our institutions.

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  14. teve tory says:

    @Franklin:

    Yes, technically true that there was a very small minority of scientists predicting something less than warming. From this link, “A survey of peer reviewed scientific papers from 1965 to 1979 show that few papers predicted global cooling (7 in total).” Wow, 7 whole papers in 14 years???

    Yeah, and those papers were good scientific examinations of the effects of things like aerosols, which could have a cooling effect.

    There’s a mountain of data for anthropogenic global warming. Conservatives are just opposed to it because Cleek’s Law.

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  15. Hal_10000 says:

    So Trump spends his days watching Fox News and his weekends playing golf. He’s basically retired, then, right?

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  16. Hal_10000 says:

    American history, incidentally, is littered with giant policies based on fakes news and myths. From the Spanish-American War to the War on Drugs to the satanic ritual panic to the superpredator panic to the Iraq War to today’s hysteria about sex trafficking, we have frequently committed trillions of dollars, billions of man-hours and the freedom/lives of hundreds of thousands to things that turned out to be a bunch of BS. Trump is the worst at this, but it’s not unprecedented. I worry way more about fake news about ISIS than I do about fictional White House leakers.

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  17. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @Hal_10000:

    He’s basically retired, then, right?

    And, I’m absolutely convinced, suffering from the early stages of Alzheimers.

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  18. reid says:

    @Franklin: Plus, in the 1400s, people thought the earth was flat. By the 1500s, people figured out it wasn’t. Things change. The idea that climate change is nonsense because of ideas decades apart is truly disturbing. So many fools, and so many fools in high places these days. I don’t know who McFarland is or why they did what they did, but there’s apparently still one fool who defends it. (Who am I kidding, I’m sure the whole bunch feel that way.)

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  19. Bill says:

    @Hal_10000:

    So Trump spends his days watching Fox News and his weekends playing golf. He’s basically retired, then, right?

    So if you spend your days watching reruns of Star Trek and Perry Mason, and live Florida Panthers hockey games and your weekends going to Sunday Mass and watching Miami Dolphins football and pro golf, what does that make you- A writer of ebooks for sale at Amazon?

    I better stop reading OTB threads and go book to finishing ebook #19 of mine.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 8

  20. Bill says:

    As with most politicians, Trump is surrounded by people who tell him what he wants to hear and believes already. The difficulty is- Trump ‘s thinking leaves a lot to be desired.

    Dear wife voted for Trump and was thrilled by his win the day after the election. She is now growing disillusioned. BTW I voted for Johnson.

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  21. Mr. Bluster says:

    test

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  22. Lit3Bolt says:

    Sounds like the Rush Limbaugh and Fox News chickens are coming home to roost.

    Conservatives and Libertarians were ok with slanted news that coddled their fee-fees and confirmed their biases.

    Now you have a President raised on that diet, and that’s all he wants, 24/7.

    You could bring back the Fairness Doctrine and regulate the news with the FCC, but something something tyranny to shareholders originalism.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Hal_10000 says:

    the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.

    Look, it’s absurd to compare the Trump Administration to Game of Thrones.

    GoT has women in it.

    ReplyReply

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  24. Kari Q says:

    @reid:

    Plus, in the 1400s, people thought the earth was flat. By the 1500s, people figured out it wasn’t.

    I agree with the point that even if scientists in the 70s believed we were headed for another ice age, it would be irrelevant today, but just FYI, this is not true.

    Humans have known that the Earth is round for around 2000 years. The ancient Greeks certainly knew it, and it was never really forgotten.

    Eminent scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1997 essay that “there never was a period of ‘flat Earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

    Trivial point, but a pet peeve nonetheless.

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  25. DrDaveT says:

    Is “genuinely fake” the oxymoron of 2017?

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  26. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Well, it’s up there with “alternative facts,” I suppose.

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  27. MarkedMan says:

    I’m beating the same old drum here, but it’s important: in this respect Trumpmis no different from any of the other leaders of the modern Republican Party, he’s just more obviously stupid about it. Since Reagan, the Republicans have been the Party of Lies. At the highest level of the Party they repeat things over and over which they know not to be true and are in fact absolutely the opposite of true (“highest murder rate ever”, “most taxed country in the world”, “no scientific consensus on global climate change”).

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  28. reid says:

    @Kari Q: Heh, thanks for clarifying. I vaguely recall doing a term paper about Aristotle when I was a little kid, so I knew part of that. I have to admit, I wasn’t aware of how accepted the “round earth” theory was by the years I listed.

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  29. Tyrell says:

    “Questionable news source”: CNN
    “Breaking news” It’s not breaking, and it is not news

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  30. CSK says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    Posssible. But he’s always been like this: no attention span, an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, no capacity to absorb and assess information, paranoia, obsession with revenge, and pathological solipsism.

    The man’s a positive festival of psychological disorders.

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  31. Jen says:

    Good lord. The man is a complete and total idiot. According to the WaPo, he released classified intel to the Russians–offhand.

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  32. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:
  33. DrDaveT says:

    @Jen:

    he released classified intel to the Russians–offhand.

    I’m sure the GOP curia will be along any moment to explain how it wasn’t really ‘classified’, and if it was it isn’t a big deal, and besides HILLARY’S EMAILZ! BENGHAZI!!!

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  34. CSK says:

    And, to top it all off, Jim Bakker hath just proclaimed that those who maketh fun of Trump are possessed by the spirit of the Anti-Christ.

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  35. JohnMcC says:

    @Kari Q: Yeah, the way I hear it even the ancient Greeks knew that if the earth was flat cats would have knocked everything moveable off the planet into space.

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  36. Jake says:
  37. Davebo says:

    @Jake:

    Obviously the Post should have released the story at 4:00AM on a Saturday.

    But I do love the kids that hang out in the wing nut tree house! Wish I knew the secret handshake.

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  38. Davebo says:

    @Jake: And better than the post. Those comments! Hilarious.

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  39. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Hal_10000: The Trump administration has Ivanka; isn’t that close?
    BTW, who would Ivanka be in GoT? I’ve never followed the show and only read one volume of the books, but I am curious because all you guys seem to follow it closely.

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