Donald Trump is such a consummate liar that in coming days and years our democracy will depend more than ever on the independent press – finding the truth, reporting it, and holding Trump accountable for his lies.
But Trump’s strategy is to denigrate and disparage the press in the public’s mind – seeking to convince the public that the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him. And he wants to use his tweets, rallies, and videos to make himself the only credible source of public information about what is happening and what he’s doing.
It is the two-step strategy of despots. And it’s already started. It was officially launched the first full day of the Trump administration.
Step 1: Disparage the press and lie about them: At a televised speech at the CIA, Trump declared himself to be in a “running war” with the news media, and described reporters as “the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Trump then issued a stream of lies about what the press had reported.
Some were seemingly small. For example, Trump claimed that the crowd for his swearing-in stretched down the National Mall to the Washington Monument and totaled more than 1 million people, and he accused the media of reporting falsely underreporting the number. “It’s a lie,” he said. “We caught [the media]. We caught them in a beauty.”
Trump is wrong. Even independent observers reported that attendance was sparse, far smaller than the outpouring of people who attended the first Obama inauguration.
More importantly, Trump told CIA employees that agency has been losing the battle against the Islamic State and other terror groups. This assertion runs counter to every intelligence report that has been publicly issued over the last six months.
Trump insisted that he has always valued the CIA. “They sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community,” Trump said, continuing to criticize the press for its “dishonest” reporting.
In fact, Trump has repeatedly vilified the CIA and the entire intelligence community for what he claimed were politically charged conclusions about Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election in order to help Trump. At a Jan. 11 news conference, Trump even accused intelligence officials of being behind a “Nazi-like smear campaign” against him. And in his tweets he put quotation marks around the word “intelligence” in referring to the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
The weekend before his inauguration he even attacked CIA Director John Brennan (who resigned at the conclusion of President Obama’s term), suggesting he was “the leaker of Fake News.”
In his talk at the CIA Trump also claimed, as he’s done before, that the United States bungled its exit from Iraq by not taking Iraq’s oil. “If we kept the oil, we wouldn’t have had ISIS in the first place,” Trump said, asserting that this is how the Islamic State terrorist group made its money.
Rubbish. As has been well established and as the media has fully reported, taking Iraq’s oil would have violated international law (both the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1907 Hague Convention).
Step 2: Threaten to circumvent the press and take the “truth” directly to the people. At Trump press secretary Sean Spicer’s first televised news conference, Spicer castigated the press for its “dishonest” and “shameful” reporting, lied about the inauguration day events and numbers, and took no questions. (When confronted with Spicer’s outright lies, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told NBC that Spicer had merely given “alternative facts.”)
Then Spicer issued a dire warning: “The American people deserve better,” he said. “As long as [Trump] serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people.”
We’re not talking Roosevelt-like “fireside chats” here. Trump’s tweets have already been firestorms of invective directed at critics, some of whom have been threatened by Trump followers stirred up by the tweets. And CEOs pray their companies aren’t targets, because stock prices of the companies he’s already vilified have dropped immediately after his diatribes.
Trump and his advisors – Steven Bannon, formerly of “Breitbart News” as well as Spicer and others – understand that if a significant portion of the public trusts Trump’s own words more than they do the media’s, Trump can get away with saying – and doing – whatever he wants. When that happens, our democracy ends.