False Prophet

Media-bashing robocalls, chloroquine Twitter trolls, briefing-room propaganda—how the president and his allies are trying to convince America he was right all along.

Adam Maida

On February 28, Donald Trump stood before a crowd of supporters in South Carolina and told them to pay no attention to the growing warnings of a coronavirus outbreak in America. The press was “in hysteria mode,” the president said. The Democrats were playing politics. This new virus was nothing compared with the seasonal flu—and anyone who said otherwise was just trying to hurt him. “This is their new hoax,” Trump proclaimed, squinting out from behind a podium adorned with the presidential seal.

Six weeks later, the coronavirus has killed more than 25,000 Americans, the U.S. economy has been crippled—and Trump is recasting himself as a pandemic prophet. At Monday’s White House briefing, the president responded to questions about his handling of the crisis by dimming the lights and playing an Orwellian campaign-style video: “THE MEDIA MINIMIZED THE RISK FROM THE START,” the onscreen text read, “WHILE THE PRESIDENT TOOK DECISIVE ACTION.”

This flagrant recasting of recent events wasn’t a fluke. For the past several months, I’ve been reporting on the “disinformation architecture” that Trump’s coalition of partisan media, propagandists, operatives, and trolls are relying on to reelect him. Their strategy has always been to drown out inconvenient facts with a noisy barrage of distortions—to “flood the zone with shit,” as Steve Bannon once put it. But in recent weeks, the president and his allies have been waging a dystopian campaign of revisionist history more brazen than anything they’ve attempted before.

If you’ve tuned in to one of the daily coronavirus-task-force briefings, you’ve likely seen Trump himself make the case. “I knew it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” the president boasted last month. “I knew everything,” he reiterated a couple of weeks later. Asked to assess his response to the virus, he responded emphatically, “I’d rate it at 10.”

Cable-news outlets have struggled with how to responsibly handle these briefings, which intersperse valuable updates from public-health officials with the president’s free-wheeling insult-comedy and medical misinformation. But the briefings command huge ratings—viewership at times rivals that of The Bachelor, as Trump has gleefully noted—and coverage of them trickles down into local newscasts and social media.

This dynamic has effectively enabled the president to narrate America’s national trauma, while editing his own role in it. There are signs that his efforts are working: One Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to describe private research, told me that when voters were shown 90 seconds of a recent Trump briefing, his performance in a general-election matchup against Joe Biden improved by more than two percentage points.

Meanwhile, Trump and the party he’s remade in his image are working overtime to undermine the journalists who are uncovering damaging details of his pandemic response. Late last month, as shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the country, people began to receive robocalls purporting to administer a “poll” focused on press coverage of the president. After giving their answers, respondents heard a sympathetic female voice express frustration with the media’s unfair treatment of Trump. The call was described to me by a 64-year-old woman in rural Texas who believed at first that she was talking to a real person.

When I asked Transaction Network Services, which tracks robocalls, to look into it, the company traced the call back to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and said it had been sent to 120,000 numbers over a three-day period. (Reached for comment, a spokesman for the NRCC confirmed it was responsible for the call but declined to play the audio for me. He said it was intended to identify prospective donors.)

Media-bashing is nothing new for the president, but in recent weeks it’s taken on a more frenzied quality. Trump now routinely derails his daily briefings by barking at White House reporters to rephrase their questions in more flattering ways. On Twitter, he has giddily celebrated recent declines in advertising revenue at disfavored outlets. And his campaign—apparently eager to memory-hole his now-infamous “hoax” sound bite—has started to send menacing cease-and-desist letters to local TV stations that air an attack ad highlighting the comment. (The campaign contends that the ad, created by a liberal super PAC, takes the clip so far out of context as to make it defamatory; fact-checkers aren’t so sure.)

In the conservative media, talking heads and talk-radio hosts have labored to convince their audiences that—despite what they may have heard—the president never doubted the gravity of the coronavirus. Central to this case is Trump’s decision in late January to restrict travel from China, when the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan was becoming clear.

Skeptics on both the right and the left have dismissed the move as a token measure that did little to prepare the U.S. for an imminent outbreak. A more generous assessment may be that while restricting travel from China slowed the spread of the virus on the West Coast, Trump’s delay in restricting travel from Europe helped turn New York into the pandemic’s global epicenter. In any case, the policy is cited incessantly on Fox News as proof of Trump’s prescience. Sean Hannity has predicted that it will “go down as the single most consequential decision in history,” and mused, “How [much] worse could this have been if the president didn’t act that quickly?”

To sharpen their narrative, Trump’s allies have taken to juxtaposing his travel restriction with cherry-picked clips of journalists downplaying the threat of the virus earlier this year. Donald Trump Jr. recently shared such a supercut with his 2.6 million Instagram followers alongside an all-caps message: “THE MEDIA WANTS YOU TO THINK MY DAD DIDN'T TAKE CHINA VIRUS SERIOUSLY. WELL LISTEN TO THIS.”

Perhaps the strangest subplot in the crusade to vindicate the president has revolved around a once-obscure anti-malaria drug. Last month, Trump latched onto the idea that chloroquine, and the related hydroxychloroquine, held the key to combatting the coronavirus. This theory had little evidence to support it beyond a handful of anecdotes and flawed studies. But the drug was being touted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, a TV star and Fox News regular, as well as Rudy Giuliani—and the allure of a miracle cure was apparently too tempting to resist. The president hyped the drug in one briefing after another, dubbing it a potential “game-changer,” and urging sick patients to take it. “What do you have to lose?” he mused.

When these presidential prescriptions drew criticism from some in the medical community—who noted, among other things, the drug’s potentially fatal side effects—Trump was defiant. Overnight, hydroxychloroquine was transformed into a right-wing weapon of culture war. The drug became a prime-time staple on Fox News, and a fixation of MAGA memes. A conservative group called the Job Creators Network launched a digital campaign to promote the drug using targeted texts and Facebook ads.

As the drug grew more controversial, false claims about its effectiveness circulated widely on social media. To see where the chatter was coming from, Graphika—a data firm that tracks online disinformation—used suspicious Twitter accounts identified by an independent security researcher named Eric Ellason to map the conversation. The firm told me that the drug appears to be especially interesting to conspiracy theorists: Among those discussing hydroxychloroquine in the U.S., the most common hashtags included #Gates, #Soros, and #darktolight, a QAnon rallying cry. But the “vast majority” of the conversation, Graphika found, was taking place among right-wing users, many of whom are invested in making the president look like a visionary.

For now, the facts on the ground remain the greatest obstacle to Trump’s revisionists. In Detroit, people are dying in emergency-room hallways. In New York City, bodies are loaded into refrigerated trucks and buried in mass graves. Field hospitals have sprouted up in parks and convention centers. Meanwhile, damning reports in the press detail how Trump’s stubbornly cavalier attitude toward the pandemic hobbled his administration’s response.

As reality continues to assert itself in the coming months—whether in the form of rising death tolls, or clinical drug trials, or shifting White House policy—Trump’s information warriors will likely retreat from some of their current positions. (They may also notch a few “wins” as the facts catch up to their narratives.) In the meantime, they are staying cautiously on message.

In a recent episode of his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson—who was ahead of the curve on this story—ridiculed The New York Times’ coverage of the virus, while ignoring his own network’s failures and giving the president a pass. “As you know, the establishment media has been screwing up coronavirus stories from day one,” he told his viewers.

Hannity concluded his own takedown of the “media mob” with a carefully caveated declaration of victory: “They were wrong. The president—on January 31st—was right.”

While these shows generally don’t mention that Trump and Fox News were playing down the pandemic long after the mainstream media realized its danger, that fact hasn’t been entirely forgotten.“I want to defend every single person who was wrong on this,” Greg Gutfeld, a co-host of The Five, said last week. “Because I think the best analogy for dealing with this pandemic is a sports car. You have to shift gears depending on the terrain.”

Related Podcast

Listen to McKay Coppins discuss this story on an episode of Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about living through a pandemic:

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