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.