Donald Trump: The Great Mis-Communicator
By Madeleine H. Burnside
Great is the power of steady misrepresentation
Donald Trump liked to tweet before he announced his presidential candidacy. Used to the brief format, he began with exploratory statements. Could a few tweets rile pent-up emotions and draw people to his campaign? Could his tweets convince people that Hillary Clinton was not only his opponent but a malevolent threat to America’s national security? Shouts of “Lock her up!” said he could. It was a chant he basked in once more at the Pennsylvania rally he held in opposition to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last month, his second such gathering since gaining office. There he allowed “Lock her up!” to resonate again, only days before firing FBI Director James Comey, ostensibly based on a recommendation from the Attorney General’s office naming last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Self-contradiction does not faze him, nor does it deter those in his orbit. As early as the first week of January, Kellyanne Conway (she of “alternate facts”) gave a garbled defense of Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter. "You can't give him the benefit of the doubt on this, and he's telling you what was in his heart? You always want to go by what's come out of his mouth rather than look at what's in his heart."
Trump seems disturbed by the fact that the established media take his utterances seriously. He dubs it fake news when journalists report his actual words and compare them to his previous statements. It gives him no leeway and his blustering falls flat.
He has no idea how to help his staff prepare for press briefings. He arms them with half-truths or outright lies, as he did on his very first day in office, describing the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Someone smarter at PR would have skipped the topic altogether, but instead it continues to haunt him and he, a man with few filters, still can’t stop talking about it. Most recently, confused that his assertions might be subject to fact-checking, he seems to avoid preparing his staff for press briefings altogether, only one example of which is Sean Spicer’s having to hide behind the White House shrubbery when he found himself unprepared to answer reporters’ questions about Comey’s abrupt dismissal.
Instead, Trump has developed a news delivery system with which to disperse his own personal truths. Twitter is a way to relay a succinct message to millions of people instantly. If mainstream media doesn’t like him, he can do better without them. He can control his information flow, and drive the larger media narrative, with one-hundred-and-forty characters that say everything he needs you to know. As he has come onto the full power of his personal pronouncements, he’s achieved a measure of something previous presidents could not—the manipulation and marginalization of the press.
It’s simple, and it could be brilliant, but Trump’s not a strategist, just a tactician savvy enough to spot what works momentarily to his advantage. No need for precedent or legal procedure when he has the power to temporarily nullify the First Amendment from the keypad of his Android. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is now little more than a ratings-driven sideshow because he’s not how Trump’s news gets spread—he’s the court jester, and the president is King.
On May 10th Trump engineered a sideline-the-press-corps coup again while meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Russian Ambassador. No members of the U.S. press were allowed in the Oval Office, only the official White House photographer and Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS. Ironically, another Presidential debacle has followed, when it was revealed this week that during the same meeting, Trump blurted out sensitive classified information collected from a crucial foreign ally, and bragged about personally interfering with the ongoing FBI investigation into his ties to Russia.
So the mainstream media is doing a fine job of surviving. Sales are up in print, network news, and digital formats. If anything is going to rescue these outlets from extinction or lead them to develop new approaches, it will be Trump’s shenanigans. Formerly complacent citizens have found the time and patience to read complex analyses, and want well-researched coverage of the White House’s ambitions, antics, and embarrassments. Bring it on HuffPo, WaPo and NYT!
Meanwhile, Trump tweets. He re-tweets. He issues declarations and accusations, then denies them, then reboots and starts again, as though his earlier words were not already etched in virtual stone. Ill-conceived as many of his tweets are, he reveals his weaknesses just as openly in person. Even the ACA’s detractors now realize it “wasn’t easy” to take on our nation’s healthcare infrastructure—nor is handling North Korea or Syria or Iran. But who really knew? Trump asks—the surprise he communicates is daunting.
Insensible to the effects of bloviating, the White House has offered a multitude of conflicting rationalizations of the Comey Affair. The FBI Director was fired on May 9th, and the explanation originally given addressed his mishandling of Hillary Clinton’s email security. This was met with universal disbelief. Consequently, the next day, Trump ignored that rationale, stating that Comey “Wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply, he was not doing a good job.” When that didn’t wash, he alleged that Comey was “a showboat, a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil.” Next, Sean Spicer read a release placing responsibility for the firing back on the Department of Justice. Within twenty-four hours, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made another contradictory announcement that Trump had asked the DOJ for their recommendation, but it was his initiative.
To only the White House’s surprise, the campaign/Flynn/Russia debacle re-emerged in force the minute Comey was fired. Kellyanne Conway said that it “had nothing to do with Russia.” In an attempt to stem the controversy, the president himself weighed in with a tweet: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself that ‘Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’ ” (A truly strange conversation with himself, as you think about it.) Huckabee Sanders was soon back to state that the FBI had lost confidence in Comey. This last assertion was testily rebutted by the bureau’s Acting Director, Andrew McCabe, as well as many in the FBI’s rank-and-file.
Donald Trump likes to compare himself to Ronald Reagan, a sadly apt comparison in terms of self-deception. Here’s a snip from Reagan’s address to the nation as he tried to elucidate his role in the Iran-Contra Affair on November 13, 1986: "A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not." At the time Reagan’s demeanor appeared bewildered and sad—what passes for foolish in a president. Now it seems refreshingly candid, and a lot more than we expect from the current inhabitant of the White House. Ronald Reagan, address to the nation on Iran-Contra, 13 November 1986, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1986/111386c.htm