On Friday morning, The Associated Press reported that it had obtained an 11-page draft memo that suggested the Department of Homeland Security was contemplating a National Guard mobilization to round up unauthorized immigrants en masse across several states.
The White House almost immediately denied the authenticity of the memo. And with that, the press was back in a wilderness of confusion, asking, “How did this memo come to exist, then?”
I doubt the American political scene is full of 12-dimensional chess grandmasters, leaking memos and then denying them to make the press look bad. Most politicians are shallow and stupid! But the chaos surrounding the memo story shows the deep need for journalists to think carefully about how to approach big, breaking news in the age of President Donald Trump.
AP’s story hit Twitter like a neutron bomb. It’s easy to see why — the AP’s tweet read: “BREAKING: Trump administration considers mobilizing as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants.” Madness, right? Time to gravely intone, “And so it begins,” for the 900th time!
Pause a minute. Right now, the media is probably more primed for a freak-out than we’d care to admit. And that’s led to mistakes. Here are some stories you might recall over the past few weeks: The Treasury Department is going to ease sanctions that allow companies to pursue transactions with the Russian security service! LGBTQ issues pages have suddenly vanished from the White House website! Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was in a “Fascism Forever” club!
These are just a few stories, off the top of my head, that ended up getting “Donald Trump is breaking democratic norms and we’re heading for all sorts of crises” treatment that actually had completely different explanations or were merely quotidian events that could have safely escaped mention. That Treasury decision? It was an adjustment that was initiated before Trump took office. Those White House webpages? Part of a standard, administrative changeover. Neil Gorsuch’s club? It wasn’t a real club — just a lighthearted joke made up for high school yearbook laughs.
You can see some of this when you start to examine the fundamentals of The Associated Press story on this draft memo. The AP reports:
The Trump administration is considering a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border, according to a draft memo obtained by The Associated Press.
The 11-page document calls for the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement as far north as Portland, Oregon, and as far east as New Orleans, Louisiana.
Four states that border on Mexico are included in the proposal — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — but it also encompasses seven states contiguous to those four — Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The AP goes on to report that the memo was “written by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly” and that while “National Guard personnel have been used to assist with immigration-related missions on the U.S.-Mexico border before, they have never been used as broadly or as far north.”
So, here is what appears to be the draft memo. (I say “appears to be” because I have no way of knowing whether this is precisely what the AP received, or if the memo has been revised since the AP obtained it.) Nowhere within will you find anything about 100,000 National Guard troops being mobilized to round people up. As near as I can tell, that figure seems to have been derived by totting up the number of available National Guard troops in the states affected by this draft memo. That may be close to the number of National Guard troops available — certainly the AP hedges by saying “as many as 100,000” troops might be potentially involved.
I might have refrained from offering this estimate, however, for two reasons. First, it would be up to the discretion of the governors in these states to deploy their National Guard troops. It’s not clear whether they would choose to do so. Second, it would seem rather sensible to imagine that if the governors affected by this memo did choose to deploy National Guard troops to pursue this mission, they would likely not assign the entirety of their states’ contingents to this task. So, in theory, sure, “as many as 100,000.” In practice, no.
Knowing this, it won’t just be White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s stringent denials that will make the AP story look oversold. The AP has opened itself to criticism from the White House, and may have spread unnecessary fear among immigrant communities and their advocates. Like some of the previous stories I’ve cited, AP is a bit out over its skis on this — unnecessarily so — and leaves itself exposed to a credibility hit.
This “primed for freakout” condition is common in the Trump-era press. And before you accuse me of being up on a high horse about this, let me confess that I’ve had to confront this tendency in myself as well, and I am, at this moment, always on the verge of lapsing. What happened today fits a pattern. We’ve seen this whole “draft order of dubious origin gets leaked and denied” game on two previous occasions. On Jan. 25, The New York Times obtained a draft of an executive order that would revive CIA “black sites.” It was reported that Trump was “poised to lift the ban” on these practices. But the White House very quickly countered that the draft order was “not a White House document,” and for a while, no one was sure from where it had originated. Eventually, the Times got the origin story sourced to the White House, which had “circulated the draft order among national security staff members.”
Ultimately, however, no executive order on black sites was signed. Similarly, a draft executive order curtailing the rights of the LGBTQ community ended up being reported in February. According to accounts, this draft was “circulating in the Trump administration,” and when news of this broke, it touched off another round of jump-scares about the White House adopting and enshrining discriminatory policies. Again, no executive order ended up getting signed, and like the black sites memo, this policy prescription ended up vanishing in the ether of the news cycle.
The AP’s National Guard story is shaping up to be the third such example, officially making this “trend piece-eligible” at the very least.
Some have suggested these leaks are some sort of by-design bait-and-switch, wherein the White House gets a “Donald Trump is mulling doing something extreme” story, then denies it, leaving the news organization that reported on it sandbagged and exposed. Meanwhile, the White House is suddenly in a stronger position to do what they actually want to do.
Here’s how this would work:
1. The White House lets it be known that they might do something crazily extreme.
2. Which allows the media’s reporting to sow outrage.
3. Allowing the White House to back up onto a policy that’s less crazily extreme.
4. Leaving everyone feeling relieved about the bullet that was dodged and proud of themselves for having backed Trump down. Also, the media looks stupid.
5. But the less crazily extreme plan was what they wanted all along!
The AP reported it attempted to get clarification from the White House several times before it went to press, affording the administration the opportunity to disown the policy entirely. That means the White House could have nipped this story in the bud, but opted not to. What does the White House gain from that? Well, additional ammunition to make the case that the media is being unfair, for a start.
But even if this is what’s happening — and the White House says it’s definitely not — this game is not new. It’s basic as hell, and used in American politics all the time. Why does anyone propose a six-week abortion ban? To make it more palatable to pass a 20-week abortion ban.
Considering an extreme policy to make political room for a slightly less-extreme policy isn’t some crazy-new innovation that Trump and his cabal of super-geniuses came up with, nor is it something they’ve imported from the Kremlin. As much as it might feel right to believe that, the assumption that you are forever tunneling through a Twilight Zone is going to lead you to paint everything with a paranoid brush and make you more likely to equate the truly extreme ideas of Trump’s White House with every other trivial action the administration undertakes. All things cannot be equally momentous or pernicious. If you can’t make that differentiation, you’ll harm your readership ― training them to either panic at the drop of a hat, or to disregard the dire import of bad policy.
Here’s the real takeaway: The media should be awake to the possibility that the breakneck speed of our industry, the norm-breaking and erratic tendencies of the president, and the very real stakes of outlandish policy decisions combine to provide the White House with opportunities to kill us with paper cuts. Self-awareness, in this instance, will strengthen our hand.
There are a lot of things for which Trump plainly has no respect: the media, civil society, democratic norms, the truth itself. This White House is going to make some bad decisions. This is a time for the media to have those cat-like reflexes. But we need to be the cat that carefully sizes up its prey and sets every muscle precisely before it pounces, not the cat that catches sight of its own tail and goes spiraling and tumbling after it, to the mocking delight of its masters.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat the Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.