What Will Trump's Fake-News Habit Mean in a Crisis?

The president’s consumption of information is already worrying—but could prove catastrophic in the face of events beyond his control.

Joel Page / Reuters

A president is only as effective as his staff, and a story in Politico Monday helps explain why Donald Trump has been such an ineffective president. Shane Goldmacher writes:

While the information stream to past commanders-in-chief has been tightly monitored, Trump prefers an open Oval Office with a free flow of ideas and inputs from both official and unofficial channels. And he often does not differentiate between the two. Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.

Goldmacher tells several anecdotes that show the problems of this information ecosystem. In one case, K.T. McFarland, the deputy-national security adviser, reportedly gave Trump a pair of Time covers, one from the 1970s, forecasting a new ice age, and another, more recent one focusing on climate change. The problem was that the older cover was a hoax. Other aides scrambled to intercept the president before he spoke or tweeted about the bogus story.

The Politico story points to three concerning tendencies that have emerged about the president.

He is unable to tell fact from fiction.

As I wrote last week, presidents consistently struggle with how to avoid being caught in a White House “bubble,” where the information they receive doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on outside the bounds of the executive residence. Barack Obama asked staffers to pick through letters to the White House so he could read them—but even those were screened before they reached him. In theory, Trump’s free flow of information might help circumvent the bubble.

The problem is that Trump is unable to tell real information from fabricated stories. This tendency has led him to repeatedly make false claims, even as he criticizes accurate stories as “fake news.” This involves both a failure to separate reliable outlets from propaganda, as well as difficulty spotting stories that are simply hoaxes. He is evidently unable to differentiate between a reported article in The Wall Street Journal and a hit piece by the agitprop huckster Charles C. Johnson. Nor does he take the time to investigate something like the ice-age hoax to see if it’s real.

The president’s uncommon media illiteracy is a serious problem—his ignorance has also meant that by his own account, a world leader like China’s Xi Jinping can convince him to change his position after just 10 minutes of conversation. But it might be mitigated by careful staff work, if not for the fact that some of his staff seems to suffer from similar problems. Fired National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn was infamous for glomming onto nonsensical reports, while his son was dismissed from the Trump transition after passing along conspiracy theories like a false claim of a child-sex ring running out of a D.C. pizzeria.

Giving this president a Time cover is the equivalent of a targeted strike: Trump is weirdly obsessed with the newsweekly’s cover, repeatedly and falsely claiming he holds the record for appearances. Whether McFarland was nefarious or naïve about the fake Time cover is unclear, but neither is a good sign: A top security aide should neither be trying to fool the president, nor so credulous.

He is hot-tempered and hates to hear bad news.

“The best way to focus the president’s attention on any story is to tell him about it personally, even if it is in one of the papers he’s already thumbed through,” Goldmacher writes. “But officials say it’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition because Trump’s frustrations at bad stories can easily boomerang against those delivering him the news.”

Trump has raged about leaks and stewed when his press team is unable to spin stories more favorably. When they were unable to garner better coverage of the firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, Trump took it upon himself to speak to NBC’s Lester Holt. But Trump merely poured gasoline on the fire, contradicting his vice president, his staffers, and his own stated rationale in a letter and in conversations with members of Congress, and confirming the suspicion that Trump fired Comey to stifle an investigation into Russia interference in the election.

Cowed by Trump’s temper and his allergy to bad news, staffers are forced to become yes-men and -women. As a businessman, Trump was known for demanding loyalty and affirmation, and he has brought that tendency to the White House. Thus Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who certainly knows better, sat by during an Economist interview last week as Trump claimed he had invented the phrase “priming the pump.” When Trump said he’d intimidated China into ceasing its currency manipulation, Mnuchin quickly affirmed that “as soon as the president got elected they went the other way,” although the change dates back to 2014.  The problem is especially acute when so much news about the administration is bad news. That only encourages staffers to hand Trump positive, but affirming, fake information.

One of the few people willing to deliver harsh truths to Trump is Flynn’s successor as national-security adviser, H.R. McMaster. The general has told Trump that his focus on the phrase “radical Islamic terror” is counterproductive, and smoothed over tensions with South Korea after the president threatened to make Seoul pay for a missile-defense system. The result was that Trump has, according to Eli Lake, come to dislike McMaster. (Trump denies this.) Perhaps not coincidentally, McMaster has tried to push out McFarland, whom Flynn hired, though a long-rumored job for her as ambassador to Singapore has yet to materialize.

Trump has no interest in policy.

In late April, Trump surprised advisers by saying publicly that he’d announce a tax plan within a week. When the so-called plan arrived, it barely fit the descriptor. It was only about 100 words long, and was nearly identical to what he’d put out on the campaign trail. During his Economist interview, Trump showed he was unable to answer, and uninterested in answering, any detailed questions about the plan, repeatedly changing the subject or deferring to Mnuchin.

Politico fills in some of the backstory. In April, four Trump-aligned economic commentators published a New York Times column pushing for a new tax plan. “Trump summoned staff to talk about it,” Goldmacher writes. “His message: Make this the tax plan, according to one White House official present.” That meant the president got his tax plan quickly, but it was also nearly useless as a blueprint for actual changes to the tax code.

* * *

Each of these three tendencies has had dangerous effects for Trump during a time when the crises that befall him are largely of his own making. Eventually, though, a crisis will arrive from outside. “President Trump and his team are going to have to prepare for UFOs—unforeseen occurrences,” warned former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty earlier this year. For President Bill Clinton, whom McLarty served, that took the form of a North Korean weapons threat. The moment helped gel a White House that had struggled to find its footing.

The question is what happens when Trump confronts such a crisis. Will the president be able to sort misinformation and bad information from real data? Is he prepared to make real policy, or will he try to lead the country with op-ed solutions? Will his aides be willing to tell him harsh truths, or will they buckle in the face of his temper? The indications during a time of comparative calm are not heartening.