Donald Trump’s insistence on undermining media he doesn’t agree with by calling it “fake news” has been a hallmark of his young presidency. But as Barack Obama’s former press secretary Josh Earnest sees it, this hostility toward facts isn’t exactly news at all.
Earnest stopped by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s live show after Trump’s first address to Congress to talk about “fake news” and how the president and current press secretary Sean Spicer have communicated the new administration’s agenda so far.
“Did you ever feel the way [Spicer] looks?” Colbert asked at one point. Earnest laughed, but also agreed that he had, because that’s kind of part of the job of being press secretary.
“There’s supposed to be friction between the White House press corps and the White House,” Earnest insisted. “The day there’s not … is the day that the press corps has stopped doing its job.”
Still, he agreed that the lengths to which Trump and Spicer have gone to antagonize the press in these early days have been unusual, like the moment at CPAC last week when Spicer barred several critical media outlets from his daily briefing. When Colbert pointed out that some defended that move as reminiscent of something the Obama administration would pull with Fox News, Earnest vehemently disagreed.
“We had our differences with Fox … but there was never a situation in which we prevented Fox from participating in a day of the White House briefing,” he said. “In fact, we didn’t just let them attend the White House briefing, [but] every day I was press secretary, I called on Fox News.”
“That’s not what I hear on Fox News,” Colbert replied, eyebrow raised.
It was a joke, insomuch as Colbert delivered it with a grin and the studio audience laughed. But as Earnest soon pointed out, that willingness to distort the truth didn’t come from nowhere.
“This whole idea of fake news is not a new thing,” Earnest said, pointing to how Trump and other Republicans dragged out accusations that Obama wasn’t born in the United States for years despite all evidence to the contrary.
“We tried a different strategy,” Earnest continued, earnestly. “We tried to tell the truth. Our strategy was impartial facts, and to present evidence.”
So yes, Earnest expressed some sympathy for Spicer’s position, and the daily frictions of addressing a press corps that’s there to dissect every word he says. But he was just as clear in saying that Spicer and Trump’s aggressive defensiveness with the press isn’t encouraging overall.
“If you believe passionately that you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons,” Earnest said, “then why wouldn’t you have the confidence to go out in front of the public and make your case?”
You can watch the full interview in the video above.