The Media Today

The White House credibility crisis starts at the top

May 7, 2018

Who can Americans trust? New Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani says the president knew about payments to Stormy Daniels, and reimbursed Michael Cohen $130,000. The president says Giuliani doesn’t have his facts straight. Trump criticizes President Obama for not freeing three American prisoners in North Korea, but two of them were taken captive after Trump took office. Kellyanne Conway says the press is focusing on the wrong issues. Sarah Sanders will have to get back to you on that.

It’s easy to criticize Trump’s visible spokespeople, but the problem starts at the top, and it’s nothing new. The White House has a credibility crisis that deepens with each tweet, revelation, and denial that strains the bounds of plausibility. Over the past week, journalists have been more willing to address that crisis directly.

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“Do you think that [Trump’s] job includes lying to the American people? Because he continually does so, and he undermines his own administration when he does so,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on Sunday morning. “Respectfully, you just want that to go viral. You just want to say the words ‘President Trump’ and ‘lie’ in the same sentence,” Conway replied, a non-answer to a yes-or-no question. “I would like him to stop lying, quite frankly,” Tapper responded.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, perhaps the most respected member of the Washington press corps, penned a blunt appraisal of what feels like a cumulative moment. “Does it bother anyone that President Trump has been caught lying? Does it bother anyone that this is not new? Does it bother anyone that the president has been shown to be a liar?” Balz asked. “The questions won’t go away. They are part of the fabric of this presidency.

Last week, ABC News’s Jonathan Karl asked Sarah Sanders: “When the president so often says things that turn out not to be true, when the president and the White House show what appears to be a blatant disregard for the truth, how are the American people to trust or believe what is said here and what is said by the president?”

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It is somehow apropos that Trump’s consistent battle with the truth would be crystallized by a story fit for the tabloids. The Stormy Daniels saga, now entering its fifth month in the news, has been at the center of the current focus on the administration’s confused, often contradictory attempts to push back against legitimate reports.

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Trump’s advisors, from Conway to Sanders to newcomer Giuliani, will continue to have opportunities to obfuscate and deny, leaving reporters to sift through the questions and produce reliable answers. Missteps like the NBC news report that Michael Cohen had been wiretapped—an assertion that was quickly corrected—are seized on by the administration and its defenders as evidence that the media is the enemy, while Trump’s own lies are ignored or brushed aside.

There is a battle going on, but it’s not “the media” vs. Trump in the way the White House would like to portray the sides. On one side of the conflict are journalists who strive daily to discover the truth and deliver it to the public. On the other are administration figures who, whether by intention or ignorance, too often fail to answer questions or provide information that is flat out wrong.

Below, more on the White House’s problems with the truth.

  • Straight talk: Fox News’s Neil Cavuto provided a blistering monologue on his show last Thursday, cataloguing several of Trump’s false statements. It’s worth watching in full.
  • On Sarah Sanders: The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, and Philip Rucker look at Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who, “by virtue of her position,…is inextricably bound in the mistruths of the Trump administration.
  • Management through controversy: NYU’s Jay Rosen sees a new pattern emerging among Trump’s advisors. Rosen argues that “any managing [of Trump’s behavior] will have to be done through semi-regular television appearances that explode the news cycle. Nothing else will the big boss trust.”


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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.