The White House senior counsellor wants the press to shut up. Will the Administration try the same tactic on federal agencies?
Last Monday, according to the Times, President Donald Trump, meeting in the White House with congressional leaders, told a story about voting fraud that he had supposedly heard from Bernhard Langer, the German professional golfer. (Langer soon issued a statement repudiating Trump’s account.) Throughout the week, the President repeated his calumny that he lost the popular vote only because millions of “illegals” voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s obsession with this subject may arise from his pathological need to tally every score in his own favor, but he surely knows that his propaganda also advances the Republican Party’s efforts to extend barriers to legitimate voting by Latinos and African-Americans, through voter-I.D. requirements and other state laws. Diverse studies have turned up no evidence of significant fraud in recent elections. On Wednesday, Trump nonetheless vowed to sign an executive order commissioning a federal investigation.
The major news organizations are still reckoning with how to report on the President’s lies. Many newspapers and networks now forthrightly point out false statements by Trump and his spokespeople. Such fact checking is essential, but it is also a task of the President’s making, one full of traps. Trump and his aides provoke conflict with the media to fire up supporters and renew the narrative of a people’s champion at war with the bicoastal establishment.
One might wish that the solemn responsibility of leading a nuclear-armed world power would steer a successful seventy-year-old man away from routinely telling whoppers, yet it is hardly surprising that Trump has not changed since taking the oath of office. He has a long record as salesman, provocateur, self-promoter, and self-worshipper. His eruptions on Twitter and on live TV damage American democracy and credibility, but there are even more worrying aspects of the disinformation emanating from and around the Administration. During the campaign, Trump’s advisers mobilized in their service a phalanx of information warriors, including commentators on Fox News and digital upstarts such as Breitbart News, whose offerings included partisan and extremist content. Alongside them worked looser, less visible online networks of racists, anti-Semites, and nationalists. A question now is how Trump’s image shapers, led by Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart head who is the White House senior counsellor, intend to adapt that strategy—which included the promotion of big lies about President Obama’s birth and Secretary Clinton’s health—as policy, embedded across federal agencies.
Bannon has encouraged Trump’s aggressive attacks on the press, even as the President seeks the media’s attention and approval. Last week, in an interview with the Times, Bannon jokingly described himself as Darth Vader, and said that the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” He added that traditional news organizations have “no power” and “zero integrity, zero intelligence.” He apparently foresees a permanent campaign, energized by televised rallies and daily tweets, so that the President may evolve into a kind of digital-age Mussolini Lite.
Journalists are accustomed to being attacked, and the Administration’s insults have served only to motivate many of them. But Bannon’s methodology may be more effective in intimidating civil servants. The particular anxiety in Washington last week was that the White House might ally with climate-change deniers and hard-line ideologues in the Republican-led Congress to suppress federal science and medical research, stir up hate campaigns against immigrants and minorities, or sideline intelligence analysts who report inconvenient facts.
These fears may prove overblown, but Trump’s first week has offered scant reassurance. On Inauguration Day, the Environmental Protection Agency suspended all activity on its Twitter account, which had been posting about the Clean Air Act, water quality, and how to keep one’s home safe from radon and carbon monoxide. The next day, after the National Park Service retweeted an accurate post about the size of the Inaugural crowd, the President called the director of the service to ask why its staff had shared the item—surely the most gratuitous case of Presidential intimidation of the career bureaucracy since the Nixon Administration.
When the White House changes hands from one party to another, it is routine for the new team to adjust what information government agencies and Web sites put out about public policy. In the months ahead, it will be necessary to distinguish between cases where Trump’s appointees are merely reframing policy communication, as their predecessors have done, and cases of improper interference with career employees, scientists, and whistle-blowers. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of federal employees to speak out on public issues as private individuals, and there are robust laws protecting whistle-blowers in the government workforce. Last week, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency empowered by Congress, issued a statement reminding the new Administration of the “statutory right to blow the whistle”—a right that can override other government policies.
Still, since the Second World War, as Presidents of both parties have shaped the executive branch’s public communications, they have enjoyed great latitude. After the George W. Bush Administration suppressed climate-research findings by career scientists, the Obama Administration enacted new scientific-integrity policies. Trump could overturn them. During the Obama Administration, some federal agencies allowed their scientists to identify where they worked while debating freely on social media. The Trump Administration could withdraw those permissions.
It may be a weak basis for hope, but the prospects for transparent government and sound taxpayer-funded science could depend in part on Trump’s volatility. The President has not worked for long with his most important Cabinet members or advisers, including Bannon. His political fortunes are tied to those of Republican leaders in Congress, but the trust between them is tenuous. In the ways of Washington, these sorts of unstable relationships can yield a gusher of media leaks. Last week, a remarkable flow of government e-mails and draft executive orders made their way to news outlets. That is according to constitutional design. When the Founders enacted the First Amendment, they could not have imagined the personage of Donald Trump, but they did have tyrants in mind. ♦