Trump’s trust problem – Politico
President Donald Trump was accused of leaking highly classified information to Russian officials, and White House officials wanted to fiercely rebut the charges.
But when senior national security officials issued statements Monday night, including from behind a lectern on the West Wing driveway, they spoke for an administration that has strained its credibility by issuing a series of false, misleading or tortured statements on far less important matters. And they spoke for a president who less than a week ago said publicly that his aides and surrogates canât be expected to give accurate statements, because they donât always know whatâs going on.
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âThis story is false,â said Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser. âThe story, as reported, is false,â said H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, hedging his words.
News outlets â including The New York Times and Reuters â confirmed the story reported by The Washington Post and published anyway, seemingly unconcerned about the denials, which came from two officials who have been respected in Washington for decades. The episode underscored Trump’s challenge after months of misstatements over far less consequential matters.
âTheir credibility is completely shattered. Theyâve engaged in serial lying to the American people on issues big and small â beginning with the crowd size photos. Itâs unprecedented for an administration, from the top on down, to embrace a strategy of deception and lying,â said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant and former campaign manager for John McCain.
âEven people who have built up reputations for integrity over a lifetime of public service, they risk squandering it in this administration,â Schmidt said.
White House officials note that the media is historically unpopular, and they love combating mistakes in news stories, often posting them on Twitter. âFAKE NEWS!â Trump has posted repeatedly. Senior officials have excoriated media outlets publicly and privately, with chief strategist Steve Bannon calling the media âthe opposition party.â And they note that polls show their supporters trust Trump more than the media.
Spicer didnât respond to several phone calls seeking comment.
Still, among reporters who cover the White House, on-the-record statements from Trumpâs White House carry little weight because Trump has told hundreds of falsehoods, tracked by PolitiFact and other websites. Sometimes, in a single campaign-style rally, the president will say more than a dozen things that are not true â or lack all context. He has made unsubstantiated claims, like saying former President Barack Obama put a âtappâ on his phones at Trump Tower.
Trump publicly, in âThe Art of the Deal,â has bragged about his ability to exaggerate.
Spicer, the press secretary, has vehemently defended Trump both publicly and privatelyâ sometimes screaming at reporters for their reliance on anonymous sources. But he lost credibility early among reporters for his repeated untruths about the crowd size at Trumpâs inauguration.
Last week, Spicer told reporters they were incorrect for even suggesting that Trump decided to fire FBI Director James Comey before a memo arrived from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Trump said within two days that he would have fired Comey no matter what the memo said, directly contradicting his spokesman and Vice President Mike Pence.
“They started burning through their credibility on Inauguration Day,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told POLITICO. “But they devoured it during the Comey story, so now their attempts to push back are basically being ignored, and rightly so.”
Sometimes, White House officials have been given specific talking points by Trump, as when Spicer crowed that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd of all time, which wasnât true. And sometimes Trump just changes his story.
âAs a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!â Trump wrote on Twitter last week. He added: âMaybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???â
The factually challenged comments have become something of a joke. On âSaturday Night Liveâ this weekend, Melissa McCarthy, who plays Sean Spicer on the show, asked whether Trump had ever passed along misleading information for him to share with the media.
âOnly since you started working here,â Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, said.
For reporters and spokespeople, the dynamics are different in Trumpâs White House, said Stu Loeser, a longtime press secretary to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Loeser said spokespeople often spin aggressively or tell small fibs â âlike a spokesman saying, âI havenât seen your story,â even though itâs been out there for 11 hours.â
But in Trumpâs White House, the denials or comments are likely to matter far less â which could hurt reporters and spokespeople alike if both sides are interested in the truth.
âYou need to reserve credibility for when it matters â when a call comes in late in the day and you need to be able to say to a reporter, all the jousting back and forth aside, ‘Iâve never lied to you about something and this isnât true,’ said Loeser.
âIf youâve blown your credibility on crowd size or semantics, people say: What else are they going to lie about?â
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.