The White House appears to be preparing for a grueling, sustained conflict.
But not with North Korea. Instead, the White House is prepping for a major counteroffensive against the U.S. news media.
“I think the news-reading public should tell the media that unless the source is named, we’re going to assume automatically that the source is fictional.”
The first sign of a new White House strategy to fight back against hostile press coverage came after a Washington Post story that made serious allegations, using anonymous sources, that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Russian officials and asked about a “back channel” to discuss Syria with Moscow.
Unlike other recent reports on Russian collusion hysteria, the Trump team did not sit idle and allow the story to dominate the day unchallenged. Shortly after the story was published, Fox News published a story of its own, citing administration officials, that contradicted the Post report. The Fox report suggested the Russians, not Kushner, suggested a back channel.
The placement of a counterstory with an outlet considered more fair to the administration signals a small but significant change in tactics after the resignation of White House Communications Director Michael Dubke.
The White House has been battered with anonymously sourced stories since Trump took office and has often been slow to respond — both officially and by going on offense to discredit the allegations.
The Post, the source of the hit on Kushner, has seen a number of its anonymously sourced stories about Trump fall short after scrutiny is applied — a good argument in favor of the new White House approach.
“I think the news-reading public should tell the media that unless the source is named, we’re going to assume automatically that the source is fictional,” said Tim Graham, research director of the bias-monitoring Media Research Center. “If you really have the goods, then name names.”
In order to more rapidly punch back at hostile stories, there is talk at the White House that old campaign loyalists such as Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie could be tapped to staff and oversee a “war room” to counter misinformation and fact news.
The “war room” term first became famous in politics as a descriptor for then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s communications team during the 1992 presidential election. Clinton’s team believed Republicans would distort his record and dredge up scandals of a more personal nature — the staffers knew the onslaught would be relentless, and the campaign needed to be able to respond quickly.
White House staff and outside supporters are abuzz with optimism about a new “going to the mattresses” approach to the historic hostility shown by the media.
On Tuesday, at his first press briefing after Trump’s first trip abroad as president, Spicer blasted the press for anonymous sources, errors, and “fake news.”
“I think that [President Trump] is frustrated, like I am and like so many others, to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong, to see ‘fake news,'” said Spicer. “When you see stories get perpetrated that are absolutely false, that are not based in fact, that is troubling. And he’s rightly concerned.”
When asked to give an example, Spicer cited a Friday tweet by BBC reporter James Landale, who will soon join The New York Times.
Landale posted a short clip that “sums up this G-7 summit”: It was a video of Trump listening to another leader speaking. Trump appeared not to be using a headset, through which the translation flows. Landale then added the snarky hashtag “#G6,” suggesting Trump and America were not there.
But Spicer noted that Trump uses a single earpiece, not a headset. Landale’s tweet was retweeted more than 20,000 times.
As Spicer rebuked The Times, Times reporter Peter Baker shook his head.
“Sean, none of that was in the newspaper,” said Baker. “None of that was on the front page. Your trip was all over the front page. You’re making something out of one tweet instead of the vast majority of the coverage.”
Yet Baker did not contest the inaccuracy of Landale’s tweet — which was retweeted more than 20,000 times.
Spicer also ended the press briefing not long after the exchange, shocking reporters because he only spent about 20 minutes taking questions.
Graham suggests a new strategy: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if Spicer stepped up to the podium and said, ‘Senior officials inside The Washington Post report that their ad revenues are not going to look good this year if their anonymously sourced stories keep falling apart?'”