One of the best sub-genres of Trump reporting is “leaks from Trump staffers that suggest the president is an overgrown toddler.” We learned last week that Trump receives two scoops of ice cream for dessert while guests receive only one scoop. The newest entry to this budding literature is just as pathetic, but infinitely more troubling.
Politico’s Shane Goldmacher has a great story about Trump’s media diet—and the ease with which fake news has slipped in to it. Trump is barely computer literate (and that’s being charitable) and he explodes when presented with negative coverage. These two characteristics have made him enormously susceptible to manipulation. During the campaign, for instance, his aides learned that they had to mix in positive coverage, or Trump would become unhinged—and then start ranting on Twitter. The Twitter rants would then produce more negative coverage, creating a vicious cycle of idiocy. This was bad enough, but now Trump has significantly more power and he’s presiding over a dysfunctional White House where staffers are constantly fighting with each other. As a result, his aides have used Trump’s media diet to do two very unnerving things.
The first is to use media to turn the president against their enemies inside the administration—or against people they don’t want joining the team. “A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda,” Goldmacher writers. “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.” Trump aides circulated a story from right-wing troll Charles Johnson to drive deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, who Johnson accused of being behind leaks, out of the White House.
The second is to use fake news to manipulate Trump himself. K.T. McFarland—who currently serves on the national security council but is expected to be appointed ambassador to Singapore—presented Trump with two Time magazine covers. One, which was presented as being from the 1970s, “warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming.” It was a juxtaposition tailor-made for Trump—the media’s hypocrisy in two images. The problem, Goldmacher writes, is that the ice age cover was a hoax. Trump was predictably irate, but staffers intervened before he could act—and embarrass himself and the administration by tweeting fake news. The White House doesn’t seem to see the problem here. One official told Goldmacher that this wasn’t a big deal because the story was “fake but accurate.”
The problem is Trump, certainly, who doesn’t seem to be able to discern the difference between real and fake news, and whose chaotic managing style has resulted in a system in which staffers are given incentives to provide the president with fake news. But the other problem is with the staffers themselves. There are no adults in the room with the president: Instead one unhinged conspiracy theorist is being manipulated by dozens of other conspiracy theorists.