Last Sunday, on President Donald Trump’s third consecutive weekend visit to his private country club in Florida, the White House told reporters traveling with him that, among other activities, he’d played “a couple of holes” of golf. By Monday, professional golfer Rory McIlroy spilled the beans that he and the president had played a full round—all 18 holes—at the president’s invitation.
Asked to square the initial false claim with McIlroy’s account, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told pool reporters in a statement, “As stated yesterday the President played golf. He intended to play a few holes and decided to play longer. He also had a full day of meetings, calls and interviews for the new NSA, which he is continuing today before returning to Washington, D.C. [t]onight.”
Whether the president played two or four or 18 holes isn’t the most important detail in the world, but Trump and his aides have been so unreliable with details, that an error like this raises bigger questions like, Why was the press pool misled? Was it intentional? How often are such details wrong?
Following the president around in case news breaks is a frequently thankless but important job, and when the president does something casual and uneventful like playing golf, the pool is often only able to report whom he played with, how many holes, and so on. Was the error a result of sloppy miscommunication between the press team and the president? Was the White House growing sensitive to criticism of Trump’s busy, expensive, and profitable recreation schedule, and trying to downplay it? Was it an outright lie?
The truth is, we don’t know and probably never will. In most contexts, this would be a fairly insignificant snafu, but in this case it underscores a larger epistemic folly. No administration is completely honest, but Trump’s is the first to be built on the premise that lying to the media (while engaged in a public battle to discredit it) is a sound way to advance the president’s agenda. Under the circumstances, reporters can’t make what once seemed like safe assumptions and inferences about the White House’s claims. We need fresh tactics.
The leaks began as soon as Trump took up residency in the White House, and they have been nothing short of astonishing—both for the hilarious indifference leakers have shown to the administration’s reputation and the degree to which they reflected infighting at its highest levels.
Among my favorite episodes (and there are many) was the time an anonymous and not particularly self-aware White House official claimed that “under-competence and a slight amount of insecurity” had bred “paranoia and backstabbing” in none other than chief of staff Reince Priebus, who is supposed to be basically everyone’s boss. Shortly thereafter, the agitprop website Breitbart reported that Priebus might be out of a job, leading Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, who used to be executive chairman of Breitbart, to wonder aloud where in hell Breitbart got such an idea.
It’s all pretty amusing if you don’t think of the human toll this administration will take over four or eight years. But it’s also unclear how literally to interpret the implications of all of this reporting. The quantity of leaks, and the different directions in which these anonymous fingers point, do seem to reflect an operation with multiple, competing power centers. But the power centers are themselves composed of unreliable narrators, many of whom have proven willing to lie on the record, let alone off.
Before he was fired, former national security adviser General Michael Flynn lied to the public about whether he’d discussed sanctions relief during conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. He may have lied about it to the FBI as well. As the administration now tells it, Flynn also misled Vice President Mike Pence and press secretary Sean Spicer, who went on to feed the public more false information. But it’s a mistake to report the White House version of events as anything other than a claim, leaving open the possibility that Pence and Spicer knew the truth longer than they say. Which may be why they can’t seem to get their story straight. In Flynn’s final hours in the administration, some aides suggested he was likely to be fired, while others said he enjoyed Trump’s full confidence. Different accounts held Flynn had resigned of his own accord and that Trump had requested his resignation, until Trump last week blamed Flynn’s fate on the fake media.
If Flynn had been an unexpectedly bad apple, this episode might pass like any other, but he was a known bad apple in an administration that’s full of them. Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen has told four different stories to four different news outlets about whether, earlier this month, he delivered to the White House a Russian-Ukranian peace proposal from a shady Trump business associate.
Meanwhile nobody in the White House has enough credibility to deny that anything untoward happened here, though that is what they are trying to do.
Every turn in every story opens up a new hall of mirrors, and there is at least some indication that this is sometimes by design—that sowing confusion is an underlying goal. And if discrediting the media is part and parcel of that goal, what better way than to seed the “fake news” with details about the administration that contradict one another? Trump knows well, perhaps better than anyone, that most outlets can’t resist publishing these supposed “scoops”—even when the accuracy of said information is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify.
For all the high-minded talk of journalism in the Trump era (much of which has been excellent) a scoop-driven collective action problem has driven reporters most deeply embedded in the Trump universe to repeat his administration’s lies verbatim. First-but-wrong is still beating late-but-right. And in the meantime (thanks to the same administration) the cascade of news almost guarantees that by the time the old lies have been corrected, new ones are leading the headlines.
How should journalists respond? Under the circumstances, they should demand more concrete proof of plausible claims, and present unproven claims as presumptively in doubt. This may doom the palace intrigue genre, where colorful details are presented with a voice of omniscience. But the greater folly is using age-old tricks of the political journalism trade—like attributing alleged facts to a single senior official, or writing beat sweeteners—and expecting them to yield truth and greater credibility for the media in the Trump era. In many cases, this approach to covering the president will do just the opposite.