Its fast-fashion, quantity-over-quality strategy might work for cable news panels, but it’s legally risky.
Trump world has simply given up trying to craft statements so that they won’t have to be reversed within 24 hours. Its communications strategy is the political equivalent of fast fashion: producing low-quality rebuttals and explanations that will wear out almost immediately, then be replaced with a new one.
Just look at the laughably half-baked attempts Donald Trump Jr. has made to respond to each unfolding revelation about his 2016 meeting with Kremlin-affiliated lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
When the meeting was first reported by the New York Times on Saturday, Trump Jr. responded that “we primarily discussed” an adoption issue that “was not a campaign issue at that time” — strongly implying he hadn’t been acting in a campaign capacity when he met Veselnitskaya.
He was able to maintain that line for less than a day. By Sunday, the Times was reporting that Trump had taken the meeting because he’d been promised incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr., in a follow-up statement and on Twitter, confirmed that was the initial purpose of the meeting — and that that was morally A-okay.
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) July 9, 2017
Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen. https://t.co/ccUjL1KDEa
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 10, 2017
But Trump Jr. still maintained he hadn’t known anything about who he was meeting in advance — much less any evidence of Russian ties. By Monday evening, that claim also looked questionable at best, thanks to a Times report that Trump Jr. “was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy.”
Trump Jr. may not have an official administration role. But the Veselnitskaya meeting also implicates top adviser (and first son-in-law) Jared Kushner — who has already gotten in trouble in the past for simply failing to disclose meetings with Russian officials on his security clearance application. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions had a similar problem.) And buried in the midst of all of this was the president’s own bizarre flip-flop on the question of a US-Russia cybersecurity squad: bragging about discussing such an effort with Vladimir Putin on Sunday morning, then mocking the idea that it could ever happen by Sunday night.
In another reality, any one of these about-faces would have resulted in the firing of a communications staffer. They would have required a moment of reckoning from the administration in which it acknowledged the reversal, and made it clear that the implication of the first statement — that Trump cared about working to tackle election fraud and was looking to Putin to do it; that Donald Trump Jr. had been victimized by the media over an innocent adoption-policy meeting — was false.
This would happen in an administration that cared about truth or accuracy. But it would also happen in an administration that cared about its own narrative — that wanted to hammer home a particular set of facts, “alternative” or otherwise.
This administration simply does not. It flip-flops with as much abandon as it lies.
It’s shameless. But it hasn’t hurt them yet. And it’s not clear that it will. The only people who have been hurt so far by the Trump administration’s cavalier nihilism are the ones who believed them enough to get played for fools.
The Trump administration is a bunch of bad liars because they don’t care about being good ones
Most politicians — contrary to what you might cynically assume — try not to lie for the sake of lying. And they try to avoid saying things that they might be forced to publicly and awkwardly flip-flop on down the road. (If you want to remind yourself what politics usually looks like, check out the past few weeks of debate over the Senate Republican health care bill; most senators who are on the fence about the bill have left themselves an opening to support it in future, without being accused of flip-flopping.)
They’re not motivated by a love of truth for its own sake. They’re motivated by the fact that people need to trust them for them to do their jobs. Party whips need to know when they can be counted on to vote for (or sign) bills, and what could be done to get them on board — if a bill is amended to win the vote of an undecided legislator, and he decides to vote against the bill anyway, there’s no reason to amend future bills for him. Interest groups aren’t going to spend any time or money lobbying someone who tells them he agrees with them and then votes against them on the floor.
In other words, consistency and predictability are important even when honesty isn’t.
And that’s even more true when a politician’s playing defense on a scandal. According to conventional wisdom, the most important time to make sure you and everyone on your team is on message is when you’re responding to bad press. Message discipline both allows you to direct press attention elsewhere with the relentless force of your own message, and makes it harder for the public to notice a scrambling cover-up.
Without message discipline … well.
You might end up with a situation in which a bunch of subordinates offer one account for why an FBI director was fired, and then the president gleefully offers a totally different reason.
Or a situation in which the president claims that sanctions were not discussed at a meeting with Russia, and then his deputy press secretary avers that they were.
Or a situation in which the president’s son issues a statement to rebut reports of meeting with a Russian-affiliated lawyer for campaign purposes … without bothering to think through what subsequent facts might be revealed that would make such a statement look misleading in retrospect.
All of these things embolden the administration’s critics, and make it harder to win any of them back to the administration’s side. They don’t hurt its most cynical allies, the Republican hacks who are more interested in demonstrating loyalty to the president than anything else — the hacks can just parrot whatever today’s administration line is, without worrying about its consistency with yesterday’s. They only hurt the people who expected the administration to be honest, or to care, and who actually had the damn fool sense to believe anything coming out of a Trump affiliate’s mouth.
Truth matters more in law than politics — but for the presidency, law is politics
Traditionally, TV was the medium best suited to catching politicians in inconsistencies. Sunday-morning talk shows (most famously, Meet the Press under Tim Russert) sat politicians down for one-on-one interviews with reporters who were well-briefed on previous statements, and graphics teams ready to bring up a years-old quote at the push of a button. Meet the Press wasn’t a blockbuster in the Nielsen ratings, but it mattered enough to the people who mattered that politicians didn’t want to risk a bad outing.
But the Sunday morning talk shows are no longer the center of gravity for political television. That’s shifted to morning cable-news talk shows, which the president himself appears to rely on as his primary source of information about the world.
Those shows aren’t set up for long, sober, one-on-one interviews with policymakers; they’re panel shows, set up to discuss whatever is going on in the world, in strongly opinionated terms, for a few minutes between commercials at a time.
They rely on a steady churn of new, incremental developments; reactions to those developments; reactions to the reactions; and then new, incremental developments again. They operate on a fast-fashion-style merchandising cycle.
In this environment, inconsistency is difficult to call out systematically. You can point to the inconsistency in any given pair of statements, but the opportunity to muster a binder of evidence and force the politician himself to squirm in his chair as it’s read is lost.
What’s much more blatant is when a new development comes out and the other side doesn’t respond. When there’s silence, the sense arises that something is wrong. And simply having an old message that still holds up in light of a new development isn’t actually as good as having something new to say.
Anytime a new development arises, the Trump administration has something to say about it — often, multiple things. They may not be consistent with each other, or with what they’ll say 12 hours from now. But there’s something. There’s activity. There’s something new for the news channels to report.
And there’s another piece of information to add to a pile that, for many voters, may look too daunting to bother to sift through.
Truth matters more in law than politics — but for the presidency, law is politics
There may be no final reckoning, in politics, of who has told the truth and who has lied. There may not even be a moment of comeuppance for those who say one thing one day and its opposite the next. But in law, lying to the wrong people is literally a federal offense.
The Trump administration might not have found itself in this position if it were less cavalier with the truth or its own talking points. When President Trump associated Comey’s firing with “this Russia thing” in a Lester Holt interview, he wasn’t part of the FBI investigation — but he is now, since firing the FBI director to impede an investigation would constitute obstruction of justice. If Jared Kushner and Jeff Sessions had disclosed their meetings with Russian officials on their security-clearance forms to begin with, they wouldn’t be opening themselves up to calls to revoke the clearances that have since been granted.
But President Trump won’t get the smackdown from a court of law that he’s managed to avoid in the court of public opinion. Because for the president, support in the court of public opinion is a strong legal protection in its own right.
The most likely serious adverse consequence to come out of the Russia investigation would be impeachment proceedings. Those are only going to happen if the president loses enough support among the general public to cost Republicans their House majority in 2018, or if he loses enough support among his own party’s voters to make impeachment something other than a terrible idea for House Republicans to take up. (Removing Trump from office would require one of those dynamics to crop up in the Senate, as well.)
If the Trump administration could lose that kind of support simply by flip-flopping with abandon, it would have happened already. There is no threshold that has not yet been met at which inconsistency suddenly becomes broadly acceptable.
Trump’s base is already sick of hearing about the Russia scandal. That’s a good reason for House Republicans not to start impeachment proceedings over it. And the voters who could hand the House back to Democrats in 2018 aren’t so deeply steeped in the Russia scandal to be able to follow all the administration’s flip-flops and lies. Indeed, the more the administration churns out in response to the new allegations, the more it contributes to a sense that both sides are just yelling at each other and no one is really correct.
But quantity over quality is one of those strategies that works, until it doesn’t. For people who can be criminally charged (like, say, Donald Trump Jr.), the court of public opinion isn’t much protection; for Trump himself, that protection could someday disappear. And when that happens, the years of lying carelessly could land people in more trouble than they would have been in had they simply been more thoughtful about not making themselves look like liars.
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