How Trump's White House Is Delegitimizing Anything That Could Get In The Way Of Its Propaganda
Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
After years of posturing about repealing Obamacare -- with scores of votes but no consensus plan to replace it -- House Republicans finally released their bill to reshape the health insurance market on Monday.
President Donald Trump is one of the rare supporters of the proposal: Health care experts and reporters of all ideological stripes, health care industry stakeholders, and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill promptly panned the legislation, with many noting that it fails to achieve any real policy aim other than providing tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
Notably, Republicans released the bill without a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which would project the number of Americans who would have health insurance if the law is passed and how it will impact the budget. House Republicans voted to pass the bill through committee yesterday even though they don’t have a sense of what will happen if it becomes law.
But according to the White House, there’s no reason to wait for the CBO’s report because the office can’t be trusted to properly analyze the bill anyway.
“If you're looking at the CBO for accuracy, you're looking in the wrong place,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday when asked about the issue. “Last time, if you look at the number of people that they projected would be on Obamacare, they are off by millions. So the idea that we're waiting for a score -- it will be scored. But the idea that that's any kind of authority based on the track record that occurred last time is a little far-fetched.”
That’s a shocking repudiation of the expertise provided by an agency of nonpartisan experts helmed by a director hand-picked by the administration’s own secretary of health and human services, then-Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). It’s also a notable shift for Spicer, who repeatedly cited the CBO’s reports on the impact of Obamacare and its score of Republican replacement legislation while serving as the communications director of the Republican National Committee.
The CBO’s initial 2010 score of the Affordable Care Act wasn’t perfect -- the law has cost less and insured fewer people than the agency originally predicted. But at least a score provides a frame of reference for what a bill that will impact the health care of millions of Americans will actually do.
Right now that doesn’t exist. Asked during a March 7 press briefing whether he could “guarantee that this plan will not have a markedly negative impact on deficit or result in millions of Americans losing health insurance,” Price could say only that “the goal and the desire I know of the individuals on the Hill is to make certain that this does not increase the cost to the federal government.”
And so Spicer was reduced to trying to damage the reputation of an impartial source of information, presumably because the CBO’s forthcoming score will add another log to the fire currently scorching a key administration priority.
This is the latest effort by the White House and its allies to discredit information sources other than those approved by the president.
Battered by criticism for its incompetence, extremism, and corruption, the administration is trying to build an environment in which its supporters have a ready stream of scapegoats and alternative facts with which to explain away White House scandals, while the rest of the public exists in a constant state of confusion, not sure who they can believe or trust.
Trump and his White House want to be able to engage in a widespread disinformation campaign, as is evidenced by his constant stream of false claims. But he can’t do that if other sources who dispute his lies are considered credible sources of information.
The administration’s effort begins with its constant denigration of the news media.
Building on decades of conservative attacks on the press, Trump’s campaign treated reporters as a punching bag. Trump responded to critical coverage by blaming the outlets producing it, denying everything, threatening lawsuits, and denying their reporters credentials. He lashed out at reporters on Twitter and encouraged his supporters to jeer at the journalists covering his rallies.
That vitriol followed Trump to the White House. As president, Trump has said that he is in a “war with the media,” calling reporters “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and claiming that they will “pay a big price” for purportedly lying about him. He has described major newspapers and networks as “fake news” sources that are the “enemy of the American people.”
The White House staff has followed Trump’s lead, championing his attacks on the press and adding their own.
Spicer used his first appearance as press secretary to claim reporters had engaged in “deliberately false reporting” and has criticized the media because their “default narrative is always negative.” Chief of staff Reince Priebus has claimed “there's an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.” Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has called the press the “opposition party” and said that “It's going to get worse every day for the media.”
These efforts create an alternative narrative in which critical reporting about the White House is recast as an effort to bring down the president using what Trump has characterized as fake sources and deliberate lies.
When Trump isn’t claiming that journalists are making up their sources, he and his administration allies are trying to cast critical leaks from inside the government as part of a shadowy conspiracy against his presidency. Those government workers are a third independent source of information that the administration wants to discredit and delegitimize in order to preserve their control of the information ecosystem.
As The Washington Post detailed, Trump believes “that his presidency is being tormented in ways known and unknown by a group of Obama-aligned critics, federal bureaucrats and intelligence figures,” which are referred to within the White House as the “deep state.” According to the Post, Bannon has been stoking these fears:
Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist who once ran Breitbart, has spoken with Trump at length about his view that the “deep state” is a direct threat to his presidency.
Advisers pointed to Bannon’s frequent closed-door guidance on the topic and Trump’s agreement as a fundamental way of understanding the president’s behavior and his willingness to confront the intelligence community — and said that when Bannon spoke recently about the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” he was also alluding to his aim of rupturing the intelligence community and its influence on the U.S. national security and foreign policy consensus.
Over the past few months, the “deep state” has become a frequent topic of discussion for the writers of Breitbart.com, some of whom reportedly remain in contact with Bannon following his move to the White House.
The “deep state” was first described at Breitbart in a December 12 piece on the site headlined “The Deep State Vs. Donald Trump,” authored by the pseudonymous “Virgil.” The term is used as a catch-all designation for Trump’s purported domestic enemies, including but not limited to Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, the press, all 22 million local, state, and federal government employees, every person who works for a government contractor, “all the wheeler-dealers, plus the hired-gun experts, lawyers, think-tankers, foundation executives,” anyone who benefits from government regulation, and companies that receive federal loans and loan guarantees.
According to the piece, the “deep state” is acting solely to protect its “luxe life” from Trump’s “drain-the-swamp pledge.” The author portrays Trump’s “purported ‘Russia Connection’” as solely an invention of those sources aimed at damaging the president.
Virgil, who has written for Breitbart since 2012 and has provided much of the site’s “deep state” coverage, describes himself as a “grizzled Beltway veteran.” His other writing for the site also revolves around Bannon priorities, including attacks on the press, glowing descriptions of ethno-nationalism and criticisms of globalism, and defenses of the White House chief strategist.
The Breitbart writer describes the press and the bureaucracy as allies in a war against Trump, and recommends the administration respond with a “permanent reworking and rewriting of operating budgets and statutory laws” -- in other words, the firing and imprisonment of leakers.
Breitbart’s criticism of the “deep state” picked up significantly after retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser following media reports that he had communicated with the Russian ambassador. Over the next few days, the website published four different pieces blaming those stories -- and Flynn’s resignation -- on the “deep state.”
“The Deep State can now claim a Trump administration scalp. And it’s hungry for more -- a lot more,” wrote Virgil. Without changes, he warned, “the situation will only get worse; the new future inside the federal government will be the bureaucratic version of kill-by-leak or be- killed-by-leak.”
Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow devoted much of his radio show on February 15 to the “scalp” the “deep state” had obtained, even asking a guest if it was part of a “coup happening from the Deep State.”
Last weekend, Trump’s escalating fury at his floundering administration finally manifested in an entirely baseless claim that Obama had ordered him to be wiretapped during the 2016 election. Obama denied the claim, baffled Republicans ran for cover, and reports circulated that FBI Director James Comey had asked the Justice Department to deny Trump’s statement because it “is false.”
But at Breitbart -- apparently the initial source of Trump’s allegation -- this was portrayed as a brilliant attack on his foes. “The White House statement on ‘DeepStateGate’ -- President Donald Trump’s allegations that former President Barack Obama ordered surveillance on him during his 2016 presidential campaign -- has the feel of cards and chips thumping down on the table,” wrote John Hayward. “After months of unfounded allegations and badly sourced speculation intended to cripple his administration, maybe Trump wanted to prove that only one side of the partisan divide is permitted to make ‘wild allegations.’ Obama’s plants in the Deep State can leak whatever they please, law and truth be damned.”
The press. Government employees. Non-partisan government agencies helmed by Republicans. All of them are now being portrayed by the administration as unworthy of the public trust, because they put out information damaging to the president. Only Trump can be trusted. “I am your voice,” as Trump declared during his RNC speech. “I alone can fix it.”
When nothing the president says can be believed, and the president says that no one that rebuts his statements is trustworthy, the information ecosystem is taking on a truly authoritarian shape.