By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
With President Trump apparently struck by covid-19 a month before a critical election and after 200,000 American deaths from the disease, what we really need right now is an entirely credible, fact-based voice from the White House.
Good luck with that.
The Greek philosopher Diogenes was said to have wandered the streets of Athens with a lantern searching in vain for someone to speak the truth. I don’t think he’d have any better luck at the top level of the U.S. government right now, despite our extraordinary need for trustworthy communication.
With the exception of Dr. Anthony Fauci, and maybe a few other top medical experts, there isn’t a trusted truth-teller in sight.
“Donald Trump’s way of dealing with negative news is consistent: Hide it, spin it and always lie about it,” said Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer and now a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was once sued, unsuccessfully, by the then-developer.
This moment, O’Brien told me, doesn’t promise to be any different despite the incredibly high stakes for national security as our allies and adversaries assess what’s happening and act accordingly, as markets react, and as more lives are threatened by exposure to the disease.
It’s no secret that a culture of lies permeates the White House. There has been a parade of press secretaries with a remarkably consistent record of failing to tell the truth to reporters and the general public. It started on the very first day of the Trump administration, when Sean Spicer lied by insisting falsely, at the president’s behest, that his inaugural crowd was the largest of all time.
That kind of dissembling is still happening on press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s watch. At a briefing Thursday, Fox News Radio White House correspondent Jon Decker pressed her to provide details about Trump’s public claim that voters’ mail-in ballots had been “dumped in rivers.”
Where’s the river, Decker wanted to know and who is the “they” who found them there?
McEnany responded in her usual cocksure manner: “Local authorities. It was a ditch in Wisconsin.” She provided no other specifics, and let’s be clear: That’s nothing but a fairy tale meant to further voter mistrust in integrity of the election.
This is the same press secretary who promised at the start of her tenure last spring that she would never lie to the press; and then immediately began to spread untruths.
The problem, to put it mildly, is widespread among administration officials. But it starts at the top with Trump himself who lies so relentlessly. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler put it in his introduction to the book, “Donald Trump and the His Assualt on Truth”: “The pace and frequency of Trump’s falsehoods can feel mind-numbing; and many Americans appear to have tuned out.”
In this latest crisis, the predictable cycle of dangerous obfuscation has already begun. It was only after Bloomberg News reported that Trump aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for coronavirus that the White House acknowledged it.
Would we even know about Trump’s diagnosis if it weren’t for that? Maybe not. What about those he has come in contact with in recent days? Would they know they were endangered? The indications aren’t good. Yamiche Alcindor, the PBS White House correspondent, reported Friday that there was “no contact from the Trump campaign or the White House to alert the Biden campaign of possible exposure.” The campaign learned of the situation from news reports.
And when it comes to Trump’s health, he and his minions have a history of dubious statements. His former personal physician, Harold Bornstein, confessed that Trump dictated the doctor’s glowing 2015 letter that “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” and that, if elected, Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” More recently, his trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last November remains all too mysterious; reasonable questions were never satisfactorily answered.
What is the press to do?
Obviously, keep up with the kind of aggressive reporting that has revealed what’s happening. But be wary — even more wary than before — of taking any Trump or White House statements at face value and transmitting them to the public.
Reporters should be pressing for documentation, specific timelines and statements from credible medical experts. If White House officials want to be believed about the president’s “minor symptoms,” for example, they need to “overload the system with truth.” former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart told me.
Be completely transparent and willing to document it. To use the ballots-in-river case as an example: Name the local authority in Wisconsin who found the thrown-out ballots in a river (or a creek, or a ditch, as their evolving claim suggested at various points); and tell us exactly where that took place. Give us a map.
Once upon a time, when a president or his press secretary made a statement on an crucially important matter, it was simply considered news. And reported as such.
The time for that is long past. The stakes are higher than ever, and the demand for proof should be, too.
Otherwise, Americans reasonably will come to an unavoidable conclusion: If the statement is from the president’s tweet, or from the press secretary’s mouth, there’s no reason to think it’s true.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.