It’s time to add a new phrase to the annals of memorable lines from the Trump spin machine: “fake but accurate.”
Those are the words of an unnamed White House source quoted in a Politico article that reveals how information makes it to President Trump's desk even though it’s one-sided, exaggerated, or simply flat out untrue.
It’s a phrase that should send chills down the spine of anyone who worries about Trump’s decision-making. “Fake but accurate” has an Orwellian ring that reminds us, yet again, of Trump’s unpredictability — and his willingness to make consequential decisions impulsively and without considering whether he’s basing them on facts or lies.
In this case, Politico reports, Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland gave Trump a Time magazine cover from the 1970s about a coming ice age. Trump quickly got "lathered up," Politico reports, because the cover implied climate scientists have been wrong for decades, so their current warnings about global warning can and should be ignored.
There was just one problem: The Time cover was an Internet meme that was debunked as a hoax years ago. "Desperate White House staff," Politico's Shane Goldmacher reports, "chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it."
And here's where things get fun. The unnamed White House official, working overtime to defend McFarland, tried hard to defend it as little more than an honest mistake that was “fake but accurate.”
“While the specific cover is fake, it is true there was a period in the 70s when people were predicting an ice age,” the official insisted. “The broader point I think was accurate.”
If McFarland’s broader argument is that the scientific community has somehow been wrong about climate change, that would be literally the opposite of the truth. 2016 was the hottest year on record, breaking the record set in 2015, which had in turn broken the record set in 2014.
But it’s no accident that the phrase comes from an administration that has already coined the memorable concept of “alternative facts.” The president is a congenital, and almost pathological, liar, which means that the staff who surround him have become congenital liars as well.
Take the current scandal over the James Comey firing. The White House first said the decision had nothing to do with the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Then Trump took to NBC and undercut his own staff’s spin by admitting that the investigation was very much part of his calculus.
The Politico piece would be memorable enough if it stopped with the creation of the phrase “fake but accurate.” But there’s a second part of the piece that is far more jarring — the profoundly dangerous way that Trump makes decisions with potentially life-and-death consequences.
Trump believes whatever is put in front him. That’s not a good habit for a president.
One of the funniest parts of Will Ferrell’s Anchorman was that the titular character would read, on air, anything he saw on a teleprompter, regardless of how profane or absurd it was. Trump has a similar willingness to believe anything he reads, no matter its source or accuracy, and then to act on it. Needless to say, there’s nothing funny about that.
Trump is famously prone to being swayed by the last person he speaks to on any issue, which has resulted in key staffers like White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus desperately trying to ensure as much face time with the president as possible.
It’s also already impacted Trump’s foreign policy. As my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, Trump went into his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping convinced that Beijing could simply eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Xi then patiently explained Chinese-Korean history to Trump — who then promptly changed his mind.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. ... But it’s not what you would think.”
Put another way, the leader of America’s largest rival in Asia was the man Trump turned to for the kind of basic facts he could have found on Google — and the president then changed his positions accordingly.
There’s a second aspect to Trump’s malleability that’s worrisome. Trump, the Politico piece makes clear, is willing to accept as fact almost anything that’s put in front of him, facts be damned. White House staffers, Goldmacher writes, try to take advantage of that by slipping him news clippings to bolster their own arguments while undercutting those of their internal opponents:
The consequences can be tremendous, according to a half-dozen White House officials and others with direct interactions with the president. A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda. Current and former Trump officials say Trump can react volcanically to negative press clips, especially those with damaging leaks, becoming engrossed in finding out where they originated.
That’s a bad enough habit when dealing with relatively unimportant matters, like whether an individual staffer was the source of a specific leak. But it can get downright dangerous during a national security crisis like a major terror attack, where the intelligence community and the Pentagon might give Trump conflicting assessments of who was responsible and how to retaliate.
The right-wing media will have its own narrative too. Will Trump be able, or willing, to differentiate between the government and his allies at Fox News and elsewhere? If so, which will he believe?
We’re less than five months into the Trump presidency, even though it feels much longer. Trump has had the good fortune to not yet face a crisis not of his own making, like a military confrontation with China or a terror strike. When he does, we’ll see if what his aides concede to be “fake but accurate” advice will be enough to shape his response. For the good of the country, let’s hope that Trump insists on the second half of that phrase, and throws away the first.