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 strode to a podium on the West Wing driveway Monday night, they spoke for an administration which 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 can’t be expected to give accurate statements, because they don’t always know what’s going on.
“This story is false,” said Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser. “The story, as reported, is false,” said H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, hedging his words.
News outlets – including The New York Times and Reuters – 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.
“Their credibility is completely shattered. They’ve engaged in serial lying to the American people on issues big and small – beginning with the crowd size photos. It’s unprecedented for an administration, from the top on down, to embrace a strategy of deception and lying,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant and former campaign manager for John McCain.
“Even people who have built up reputations for integrity over a lifetime of public service, they risk squandering it in this administration,” 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. “FAKE NEWS!” Trump has posted repeatedly. Senior officials have excoriated media outlets publicly and privately, with chief strategist Steve Bannon calling the media “the opposition party.” And they note that polls show their supporters trust Trump more than the media.
Spicer didn’t respond to several phone calls seeking comment.
Still, among reporters who cover the White House, on-the-record statements from Trump’s White House carry little weight because Trump has told hundreds of falsehoods, tracked by Politifact and other websites. Sometimes, the president will say more than a dozen things in one campaign-style rally that are not true — or lack all context. He has made unsubstantiated claims, like saying President Obama put a “tapp” on his phones at Trump Tower.
Trump publicly, in The Art of the Deal, has bragged about his ability to exaggerate.
Spicer, the press secretary, has vehemently defended Trump in public and private – sometimes screaming at reporters for their reliance on anonymous sources. But he lost credibility early among reporters for his repeated mistruths about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration.
Last week, Spicer told reporters they were incorrect for even suggesting that Trump decided firing 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.
Sometimes, White House officials have been given specific talking points by Trump, like when Spicer crowed that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd of all time, which wasn’t true. And sometimes Trump just changes his story.
“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump wrote on Twitter last week. He added: “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
The factually-challenged comments have become something of a joke. On Saturday Night Live 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.
“Only since you started working here,” Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, said.
For reporters and spokespeople, the dynamics are different in Trump’s 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 – “like a spokesman saying, ‘I haven’t seen your story,’ even though it’s been out there for 11 hours.’”
But in Trump’s White House, the denials or comments are likely to matter far less – which could hurt reporters and spokespeople alike if both parties are interested in the truth.
“You need to reserve credibility for when it matters – 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, I’ve never lied to you about something and this isn’t true,” said Loeser.
“If you’ve blown your credibility on crowd size or semantics, people say: What else are they going to lie about?”