Friday morning, the Associated Press dropped a bombshell report: “Trump administration considers mobilizing as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants,” the new agency’s Twitter account announced.
The hubbub that followed, as the White House denied the report, is a case study in the strange dance between the press and the Trump administration, and the complicated environment of information asymmetry, and misinformation, that characterizes the current moment in American politics. And it shows how the Trump administration deflects genuine reporting by caricaturing it, sometimes clumsily, as “fake news.”
The AP tweet came at 10:12 a.m. Eastern time, with the full story coming a few minutes later:
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.
The story is a classic Trump administration story: a sweeping, surprising move; a leaked memo substantiating the story, emerging from a very leaky administration; and a policy in keeping with the president’s campaign promise to deport illegal immigrants.
The story quickly mushroomed online and in social media, with stunned reaction at the idea of the U.S. government deploying a hundred thousand armed troops around the country, away from the border. Reporters scrambled to figure out what the legal authority for the move would be, and to figure out how state governments might react.
And yet some people immediately sensed that something about the story seemed off:
How long before this turns out to be highly exaggerated/not true at all? https://t.co/inuI9vIhYL— neontaster (@neontaster) February 17, 2017
Within minutes, in fact, Trump officials denied the story, on the record, to reporters. Press Secretary Sean Spicer spoke to a White House reporters as President Trump prepared to leave for a trip to South Carolina, saying, “That is 100% not true. It is false. It is irresponsible to be saying this. There is no effort at all to round up, to utilize the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants.”
But Spicer’s comment added two interesting wrinkles. First, he scolded the AP for not seeking comment before publishing the story. But as a reporter responded, the AP had asked both the White House and the Department of Homeland Security for comment multiple times before publication, and had received nothing.
Spicer also said, “It is not a White House document.” That statement was intriguing, because Spicer wasn’t denying that the memo was real; he was only saying it came from outside the White House. But that didn’t conflict with the AP report, which said the memo was written by Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. “I don’t know what could potentially be out there, but I know that there is no effort to do what is potentially suggested,” Spicer added.
Meanwhile, other reporters were trying to get DHS to explain what was going on.
DHS confirms that the memo reported by AP did exist; but they said it was "never seriously considered" https://t.co/4kB6rLfyCX— Jamie Dupree (@jamiedupree) February 17, 2017
In other words, the memo was in fact real. The full text was available online within about 90 minutes of the original AP tweet. It is hardly a skimpy document—it’s full of bullet points, legal citations, and footnotes. And it also offered some clarity. The clause the AP report referenced involved inviting states to enroll guardsmen in the existing federal 287(g) program that authorizes state law-enforcement officials “to perform the functions of an immigration officer” with respect to “the investigation, apprehension, and detention of aliens.” Notably, that would require the governors of individual states to decide whether or how to participate, and it is framed as an expansion of current efforts rather than a dramatic shift in policy.
Still unresolved is the question of how serious a proposal the memorandum may be, or whether it remains under active consideration. There are a range of possibilities: It had been considered but rejected as outlandish. It’s part of a plan that’s still in drafting. Maybe someone asked Kelly what it would take to expel a huge number of immigrants, and this was his back-of-the-envelope calculation. This is a question that DHS could have resolved by commenting to the AP before publication.
Spicer and the Trump administration were quick to dismiss the report as shoddy work, just more example of the “fake news” that the president so enjoys deriding. But underneath his denials, there is the uncomfortable fact that DHS confirmed the memo as real. The press comes out of this looking bad, too, offering more fodder to critics who are convinced that reporters will go to any length to tear down the Trump administration. Yet, again, the memo was real, and the AP sought comment.
As with so many other incidents, it’s a Rorschach test for views on the administration. If you’re inclined to view the Trump team as bumbling and incompetent, then this shows their foolishness in not simply resolving the AP’s questions ahead of time, and suggests that Spicer is out of the loop on what’s going on inside the government. If you’re inclined to view the Trump team as evil geniuses, then it’s a brilliant gambit, suckering the AP into looking bad by reporting the memo, and only denying it after the fact, thus undermining trust in the media.
The DHS memo is not the first time we’ve seen this pattern. In January, The New York Times obtained a draft memo about reinstituting CIA “black sites” and potentially bringing back torture programs. Then, too, Spicer said it was “not a White House document” and said he had “no idea where it came from.” Little has been heard about the black-site plan since then.
The challenge for the press, operating in a low-information environment where the White House comments slowly or never, is challenging. If the administration were really considering deploying 100,000 National Guard troops, it would be a major story, of importance to all readers. Washington veterans are inclined to see this memo, like the black-site one, as a trial balloon, in which the administration allows a proposal to leak, gauges reaction, and then either disclaims it or moves forward depending on what sort of reception the idea receives. But just because something is possibly a trial balloon doesn’t mean that it’s not newsworthy and important.
Yet there’s a risk, too, of outrage exhaustion. Having big blowups over draft memos, which Spicer can then deny, goes some way to inoculating the administration against further damage, because the story has already been in the public domain. The final result may not be quite as outlandish as it initially appeared, but it might be important—yet by then, exhaustion has set in. Here’s a pithy summary of the cycle:
Leak Outrageous Thing— Kilgore Trout (@KT_So_It_Goes) February 17, 2017
Fake news outrage
Actual thing is 35% of original Outrageous Thing
Outrage all burned up https://t.co/CpAaF1a9SP
The rub is that the exhaustion is real whether the outrage is justified or not. It’s hard to divine whether this is the White House’s intent, but it is clearly the case that the constant stream of scandal and controversy emitting from the president has in some ways helped him. As a candidate, Trump survived multiple scandals and gaffes that were worse than fatal missteps for other candidates. Yet he kept plugging, in part because there was never time for a story to really settle in before the next one arrived.
As for the memo itself, it is probably most interesting as a window into how Kelly will try to turn Trump’s campaign promises, and his notably vague border-security executive order, into actions. Some of them will likely prove impossible, beginning with a true wall along the dimensions Trump suggested during the campaign. Others, like the memo’s discussion of adding 5,000 new border guards, are fairly easily realizable. These questions will determine whether Trump can keep his promises about the border, and the memo is one useful tool in trying to answer them. But it’s hard to puzzle those answers out when the memo has already been weaponized in the war between press and president.