Back on February 18, CBS News’s Major Garrett reported that Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as secretary of the Navy was likely to withdraw from consideration. Any withdrawal by a nominee is somewhat unusual, but it wasn’t a totally shocking story. Trump’s transition was somewhat chaotic due to the president-elect’s lack of political experience and the fact that he fired his transition director, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on the first day of the transition. A lot of traditional vetting was skipped, and so you run into some problems.
Press secretary Sean Spicer, however, angrily and somewhat obnoxiously denied the report. Then Sunday evening, it turned out that Garrett was right all along.
A lot of pixels been spilled on Trump’s over-the-top anti-media rhetoric and the administration’s general tendency to try to characterize the press as an “opposition party.”
But the Navy secretary situation highlights a Trump/media dynamic that is a lot more banal but arguably more consequential. There’s a certain amount of political back and forth between any administration and people in the press. But the federal government is also the conduit for an enormous amount of information about what’s going on in the world, and one core function of the press secretary and his team is to convey that information to the public.
If the press secretary habitually tells obvious lies (like about Inauguration Day crowd sizes) or says plausible-sounding things that later turn out to be false (like indignantly denying Garrett’s story), then he ends up like the proverbial boy who cried wolf. When there’s a crisis — a natural disaster, a foreign war, a terrorist attack, a bank panic, an epidemic, anything — the Trump administration, like all previous administrations, is going to want to credibly convey accurate information to the public. But it’s not clear it will be able to.