The extent to which President Donald Trump has emboldened and empowered fringe views wasn’t just on full view Thursday during a White House social media summit that featured many far-right conspiracy theorists and hoaxers — it was perfectly captured by the conduct of one attendee.
The day before the summit, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka was widely ridiculed for making an absurd claim on his radio show that the US women’s national soccer team was seeking “to destroy everything that is wholesome in our country and in our Judeo-Christian civilization.” But on Thursday, Gorka — back in the White House as an invited guest — was praised for doing a “good job” by the president before going on to verbally harass a member of the White House press corps.
Trump ended his speech at the summit — one that largely centered on a baseless conspiracy theory about Twitter conspiring to suppress his follower count — by taking a question from and praising Gorka, who despite working at the White House in the early days of the Trump administration introduced himself as though the president didn’t know who he was. In a less amusing twist, Gorka followed that up by nearly instigating a physical altercation on White House grounds with a member of the White House press corps.
Gorka and other far-right media personalities were given choice seats for Trump’s brief Rose Garden event in which he announced he’s giving up his quest to add a citizenship question to the census but will try to gather citizenship information by other means. Right after it ended, Gorka strode up to Playboy reporter Brian Karem, a fixture of the White House press corps who at times has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, and called him a “punk.”
“You’re not a journalist — you’re a punk!” Gorka yelled.
“And for the record, he would kick your punk ass,” another summit attendee said to Karem, as others chanted “Gor-ka! Gor-ka!”
The surreal scene was filmed by New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers:
Wanted to get the part where a guest at a White House function begins walking toward the press and James O’Keefe is filming and Joy Villa is showing off her FREEDOM gown. pic.twitter.com/ZPIXRRVo6K— Katie Rogers (@katierogers) July 11, 2019
Additional footage shows that Karem mocked Gorka and other people who were there for the summit before Gorka approached him, saying, “This is a group of people that are eager for demonic possession.” But nothing Karem did warranted Gorka — who was also filmed at the White House on Thursday calling journalists “asshats” — confronting him in a manner that could have easily spiraled into a physical altercation in the Rose Garden.
CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta tweeted that “West Wing aides did nothing” to prevent Gorka and others from “verbally abus[ing] reporters who were trying to do their jobs,” and characterized the scene as a “good snapshot of how press is treated” by the White House. Nikki Schwab of the New York Post reported that Acosta was verbally harassed by right-wing conspiracy theorist Mark Dice, who shouted at him and ridiculed the fact that his new book only spent two weeks on the best-sellers list.
And it wasn’t just fringe characters like Gorka and Dice who used their invite to the White House to unload on members of the press. During remarks he gave during the summit, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) smeared “the fake media” before pushing unfounded claims that social media companies are biased against conservatives. (On the contrary, the daily list of most-read news articles on Facebook is routinely dominated by right-wing authors and publishers like Ben Shapiro, Fox News, and the Daily Caller.)
It was ugly. It was paranoid. It demeaned the White House. It was also entirely in step with the Trump administration and Trump’s Republican Party.
Trump’s bias claims are a bunch of BS
The Gorka-Karem altercation was a fitting end to a bizarre day at the White House. In addition to Gorka, attendees of the social media summit included disreputable conspiracy theorists such as Jim Hoft; right-wing operatives like Ali Alexander, who recently promoted the smear that Sen. Kamala Harris isn’t an “American black”; right-wing commentators Diamond and Silk, who have pushed a hoax conspiracy theory about Facebook censorship; and Charlie Kirk, who has spent years complaining, without evidence, that Twitter is suppressing his follower count. No executives from Twitter or Facebook were invited.
During his speech, Trump alleged that Twitter officials are engaged in a massive conspiracy to reduce his follower count.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I should have millions and millions — I have millions of people, so many people I wouldn’t believe it — but I know we’ve been blocked,” Trump said. “People come up to me and they say, ‘Sir, I can’t get you, I can’t follow you. They make it impossible.’ These are people are really good at what they do. They say, ‘They make it absolutely impossible.’ And, you know, we can’t have it.”
These claims Trump is making about Twitter conspiring to reduce his follower count are complete and utter nonsense. Listen to this. pic.twitter.com/waSvVNPMYz— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 11, 2019
In fact, as my colleague Emily Stewart explained when Trump pushed a similar conspiracy theory on Twitter in April, there’s a completely innocent explanation for why Trump’s follower count fluctuates — Twitter has recently undertaken efforts to purge bots from the platform:
For most people, she said it would result in a change of four followers at most, but for others with more follower counts, the drop would be more significant. Twitter estimated that the decision would reduce the total number of Twitter accounts by about 6 percent.
The impact of the decision became apparent fast: The day Twitter announced it, Trump’s follower count dropped by 100,000, and former President Barack Obama’s fell by 400,000. Obama has more followers than Trump — currently, Obama has 106 million, and Trump has 60 million — which explains why Obama’s following fell more than Trump’s.
But Trump isn’t one to let facts get in the way of his victimhood narrative. And he wound down his speech on a chilling note by threatening to take action against social media executives unless they address his (baseless) bias claims.
“They’re not using what we gave them fairly and they have to do that,” Trump said. “And we don’t want to stifle anything, we certainly don’t want to stifle free speech, but that’s no longer free speech. See, I don’t think the mainstream media is free speech either because it’s so crooked, it’s so dishonest. To me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write something bad. To me, that’s very dangerous speech.”
TRUMP on social media execs: "They're not using what we gave them fairly & they have to do that...I don't think the mainstream media is free speech either...free speech is not when you see something good & then you purposely write something bad...that's very dangerous speech" pic.twitter.com/BtT8dN2P9M— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 11, 2019
But the very essence of free speech is having the ability to write critically about something that others deem to be good. That fundamental point, however, seems to be totally lost on the president.
In the end, the goal of the White House social media summit wasn’t actually to highlight bias that social media companies have against conservatives or other groups, because there’s no evidence such bias exists. It was to gin up right-wing outrage against both social media companies and the mainstream media. And to that end, perhaps, Trump’s mission was accomplished.