The Donald Trump who arrived at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa on Monday was subdued and dark, promising to keep the United States against “radical Islamic terror” through a strong defense, and accusing the press of willfully refusing to report on terrorist attacks.
But first, as he is wont to do, Trump let his mind drift back to a happier time, before he was ensconced in the White House with a passel of quarreling advisers, an unrelenting chorus of critics, and a federal judiciary stymieing his agenda.
“We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” the president said as he began his remarks. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I like you. That’s the way it worked.”
He then introduced Governor Rick Scott, thanking him for his endorsement with a little backhanded threat. “If they don’t endorse, believe me, if you’re ever in this position, it’s never quite the same,” Trump said. “You can talk, but it never means the same.”
That was about as sunny as things got, although Trump has great praise for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both of which are housed at MacDill. Trump did boast about pressuring Lockheed Martin to knock nine figures off the cost of the F-35, and he took a moment to boost his nominee for a vacancy on the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch—though, weirdly, he did not mention Gorsuch’s name.
“Great, great Supreme Court nominee, you all saw that, but I said to myself, Perhaps the only thing more important to me definitely is the defense of our nation. Supreme Court’s so important, but we have to defend our nation, and we will do that, believe me.”
The threat to the U.S. is great, in Trump’s telling.
“The challenges facing our nation nevertheless are very large. Very, very large,” Trump said. “We’re up against an enemy that celebrates death and totally worships destruction. You’ve seen that. ISIS is on a campaign of genocide, committing atrocities across the word. Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our nation as they did on 9/11, as they did from Boston to Orlando to San Bernardino and all across Europe.”
He continued: “You’ve seen what happened in Paris and Nice. All over Europe, it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”
The last few sentences there are staggering: Trump’s assertion that there are attacks that the press is not reporting, and furthermore is not reporting for political reasons. In fact, the media love reporting on terrorism stories, following the old news adage that “if it bleeds, it leads.” One might argue, in fact, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf has, that America already overreacts to terrorist attacks, instilling undue public fear relative to the number of Americans actually killed in terror attacks.
But never mind that: Just what attacks is Trump claiming have not been covered? He did not name any, and a request to the White House for a list was not returned. It’s a safe bet there are not any. Trump might prefer more frequent, or more salacious, coverage of European attacks, but that’s a different complaint.
Then there is the accusation that the press is intentionally covering up, for some nefarious reason that his audience will understand but need not go stated, a classic example of dogwhistle politics. That’s in keeping with his longstanding assault on the press, though when combined with the implication that they are doing so to undermine the nation’s security, it takes on an even darker shade. (Claims of a media coverup of terrorism are a staple of conspiracy-theory outlets like Alex Jones’s Infowars.)
Once again, the nation is left to ask whether Trump’s wild deviation from reality is intentionally misleading or simply sloppy and careless. The natural comparison is to comments last week by senior Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, who claimed that Trump’s immigration executive order would have prevented the “Bowling Green massacre” that was not covered. There was, of course, no such massacre, although the hubbub distracted somewhat from Conway’s other false claim that President Obama had issued a similar six-month moratorium on refugees entering the U.S. from Iraq.
In reality, two Iraqis living in the Kentucky town were arrested for attacking U.S. forces in Iraq and attempting to aid al-Qaeda. In response, the Obama administration reworked its vetting procedures, slowing but never stopping the admission of refugees.
Conway excused her false claim as a simple misstatement. Yet since then, it has emerged that she referred to the fictitious massacre in at least two other interviews, too. At what point does Conway stop getting the benefit of the doubt? (For CNN, that point has apparently already passed: The network says it passed up an offer to interview her on Sunday due to “serious questions about her credibility.”)
Intentionally or not, Conway’s “Bowling Green” fabrication and Trump’s claim of unreported attacks begin to create a pattern. The Trump administration has already asserted blatant lies as truth, then excused them as “alternative facts.” Together these new statements push toward a specific pre-debunking of any media coverage of terrorist attacks, and allowing Trump to push his own counternarrative.
Jack Goldsmith, a former top lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, argued that Trump’s attack on “so-called” Judge James Robart is a prelude to blaming the independent judiciary in the event of a deadly attack. If so, then Monday’s claim about the media could been seen as a prelude to scapegoating the press, too.
As if all that were not strange enough, there’s Trump’s choice of venue. Like his speech to the CIA the day after his inauguration, in which he made his controversial assertion that the U.S. “should have kept the oil” after invading Iraq, this speech was made to a military audience. Even General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was present.
This creates an uncomfortable dynamic, because the armed forces are a captive audience being addressed by their commander-in-chief. That leaves them in an awkward spot—more or less obligated to applaud politely, and never to jeer or grumble at Trump’s strangest comments. Several of the retired generals in Trump’s Cabinet have already found themselves pushing back on his policy moves. One wonders how the brass who are still uniform, like Dunford, feel about being turned into unwitting cheerleaders for the president’s self-aggrandizement and attacks on his political enemies.