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A single Trump tweet sums up his media strategy: Confusion

He can’t make his disinfectant remarks go away. So he’s trying to douse them with doubt.

Trump speaks at his April 23 coronavirus briefing. Bill Bryan, an official at the Department of Homeland Security, sits nearby.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

President Donald Trump has several huge fights on his hands: America is under attack from a brutal pandemic. Its economy is collapsing. And he is facing a difficult reelection campaign.

In the absence of real plans to solve any of these, Trump is relying on a move that comes reflexively for him: blasting out messages that are either pointless digressions or outright lies — not to persuade people, but to distract and confuse them.

Take, for instance, a tweet he took the time to fire off Saturday afternoon that seemed petty even by his own Twitter standards: He wanted people to know exactly whom he was talking to when he made his jaw-dropping remarks last week about injecting light and disinfectant to cure Covid-19.

Like other things Trump says, this one has elements of truth embedded in a slurry of falsehood. We can sort through that shortly.

What’s more important than the message here is the tactic he’s using. Trump isn’t really interested in correcting the record, but he does want to create doubt. And that’s because a fog of generalized distrust is one of Trump’s primary political tools, as journalism critic Jay Rosen has pointed out.

“The Republican Party and the Trump campaign and the MAGA coalition are going to have to produce confusion and doubt on a scale that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before,” Rosen told me in a recent conversation. “The key for the Trump campaign is to create confusion, not belief. And that’s what we’re going to see in the months ahead: the massive effort to create doubt and confusion about things that are overwhelmingly clear from the public record.”

Trump’s message this weekend is a perfect encapsulation of the strategy. It doesn’t exonerate him in any way. But it is supposed to chip away at the authority of the media outlets that cover him. The accumulated weight of these niggles is meant to dissuade persuadable voters from believing ... anything.

Surrounding a little bit of truth with a lot of misleading other stuff helps create distrust

Trump does have the smallest of points with respect to his Saturday tweet: At various points in his April 23 press conference, he was indeed addressing Bill Bryan, an official from the Department of Homeland Security, who had given a presentation about how sunlight might affect the coronavirus.

In the viral clip where Trump muses about bringing UV light inside the body or using an “injection” of disinfectant, Trump is talking to Bryan, who is sitting next to Birx, but mostly obscured by Trump’s podium.

And the viral clip of Birx reacting to Trump’s comments can make it appear as if he was talking to her:

On the other hand, Trump did indeed spend some of the press conference telling Birx she should be looking into his idea that you could “apply light and heat to cure.”

It’s even spelled out in the White House’s transcript of the event:

THE PRESIDENT: Deborah, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light, relative to certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus?

DR. BIRX: Not as a treatment. I mean, certainly fever —


DR. BIRX: — is a good thing. When you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But not as — I’ve not seen heat or (inaudible).

THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s a great thing to look at. I mean, you know. Okay?

But of course it doesn’t matter at all whether Trump was speaking to Birx or Bryan during the event. What matters is that he was telling government officials — on camera, at his press conference — that he has nonsensical and potentially dangerous ideas about how Americans should respond to the pandemic.

Trump first floated his “I was talking to him, not her” defense on Friday, but that was only in passing. At the time, he was focused on his argument that his light/disinfectant theories weren’t theories at all — he was being sarcastic.

But the sarcasm argument quickly fizzled — even Fox News wouldn’t support it — so Trump has moved on to a new one.

Maybe he’ll stick with it. Maybe he won’t. But the underlying strategy is one the president clearly believes in. He used it separately Saturday over a different point: relitigating whether he called the coronavirus a “hoax,” or if he was calling critics of his slow, ineffective response to the virus a “hoax.”

And just in case you missed it, Trump tried it again, seven hours later:

You can go to the tape on this one, too, and find evidence to support Trump.

On the other hand, if you do watch the same tape, you’ll see that on February 28, Trump was boasting about “losing nobody, so far” to the virus, compared to reports of “35, and 40,000 people — and we’ve lost nobody.”

The CDC now says the virus has killed more than 50,000 in the US.

But, again: Trump and his team don’t expect you to go to the tape or spend more than a second thinking about this.

All they want is for you to doubt the things you see, hear, and read. And they’ll keep at it.

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