On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to President Donald Trump, attempted to justify the administration’s restrictions on refugee admissions and travel from several predominately Muslim countries by citing a massacre that never happened.
“I bet it’s brand-new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green Massacre. Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered,” Conway said during an interview on MSNBC.
Conway herself more or less admitted that on Friday morning when she tweeted that she “meant to say ‘Bowling Green terrorists’” instead. In 2013, the Justice Department announced the sentencing of two Iraqi citizens living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to federal prison after they confessed to attacking U.S. soldiers in Iraq and tried to assist al-Qaeda in Iraq by sending money and weapons. But that is quite different, of course, from a massacre.
Beyond what Conway said about the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre, the rest of her statement was misleading as well. As The Washington Post’s fact checker has documented, President Obama did not impose a formal six-month ban on Iraqi refugees, though there was a decline in the admission of Iraqi refugees in 2011 and the Obama administration did revamp its vetting procedures in response to the arrest of the two Iraqis, who later pled guilty to federal terrorism charges.
Conway’s false statement stands out because it is simultaneously inaccurate and has the potential to be extremely inflammatory. But it fits a broader pattern of high-profile Trump administration aides marshaling inaccurate information in an attempt to defend the president, his policies, or the extent of his support, and then remaining defiant when challenged on their claims.
In this, Conway has led the charge. Most notably, she famously defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer after he made a series of false or misleading statements about the inauguration crowds by insisting that he had merely been providing “alternative facts.”
Similar to Conway’s admission on Friday that she meant to say something else, Spicer later appeared to acknowledge that some of his misstatements had been incorrect, but he, like Conway, did not seem penitent. “We were trying to provide numbers that we had been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air,” Spicer said during a subsequent White House briefing, referring to his misleading citation of Washington Metro ridership statistics.
Conway similarly attempted to deflect her misstatement by noting that “honest mistakes abound” on Twitter Friday morning. That defense, however, fails to take responsibility for the inaccuracy and even suggests it will keep happening again. It’s a framing that makes it sound as though mistakes are an inevitability, rather than something to be guarded against or prevented.
Top Trump White House aides are asking for the benefit of the doubt when they get information wrong, but the pattern of false statements that has already emerged so early into the new administration suggests that not much has been done to correct the problem. It’s also remarkable to hear an “everyone makes mistakes” defense from aides to the president who are charged with communicating information about the White House and its mission to the public. It is their job not to make mistakes when they do that.
In the end, the Trump administration probably has little incentive to prevent misstatements––especially those that are useful for justifying their preferred policies. The American public has very little trust in the institution of the media, and Republicans have even less faith than Democrats do. A Gallup poll from 2016 found a record low in public confidence in mass media’s ability to “report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Fifty-one percent of Democrats reported a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, but only 14 percent of Republicans said the same.
Each time the Trump administration gets something wrong and the media points it out, that creates a confrontation that Trump aides can use to their advantage, to suggest they have been unfairly attacked by playing on public distrust of the media.
Conway quickly turned to attacking the credibility of the media on Friday morning, suggesting that an NBC reporter had disparaged her without first asking for clarification about what she had said in the original interview about the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre. “Not cool, not journalism,” she tweeted.
Spicer has also been highly critical of the media, and has taken to blaming organizations for their coverage. During one of his first press briefings, he lamented that it’s frustrating to “turn on the television over and over again and get told that there’s this narrative that you didn’t win.” And he recently insisted that the Trump administration’s order barring travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries did not constitute a “ban,” arguing that term had been invented by the media, despite the fact that both he and the president had used the term “ban.”
Trump himself apparently believes that the media is “the opposition party,” a statement that’s been expressed by his adviser Steve Bannon. The question now is how successful the administration will be in convincing the American public that’s the case.
The erosion of trust in the media, and the frequency with which Trump aides have taken to making false statements in televised settings, creates a challenge for reporters attempting to cover the administration. Pointing out falsehoods may go unheeded if many Americans don’t trust reporters in the first place. And as the MSNBC interview with Kellyanne Conway and Chris Matthews shows, journalists don’t always react quickly enough to challenge a misstatement immediately after it is made.
Taking Trump aides off the air because of their track record of misinformation might deprive the public of a chance to see how the administration conducts itself in front of the cameras. But if the pattern of false statements continues, or even intensifies, more media outlets may take the approach that CNN did in deciding not to air Spicer’s post-inauguration meeting with the press live. Instead, the network watched what happened and then reported.
In the meantime, an administration that accuses the media of creating “fake news” seems to have no trouble generating its own.