President Trump, being interviewed by Chris Wallace. Photo: Fox News
The conservative movement has long dismissed the value of neutral expertise — environmental scientists, arms control analysts, budget forecasters, or any other meddlesome nerds who question the simple verities of right-wing politics — as biased. Conservative media is built on this insight, constructing an alternate information ecosystem, in which only conservative sources can be trusted.
Donald Trump, an avid consumer of conservative media, has taken this style to its next step. Trump insists he is the sole arbiter of truth. Anybody who questions Trump is by definition biased. By his circular logic, any attempt to question Trump is inherently false, since the act of challenging Trump reveals the source to be dishonest. Reporters can try to chase the lies down one by one, but they always lead back into this same logical cul-de-sac.
It is obviously impossible to disprove an epistemology that begins and ends with the assumption that Trump is always right. But Chris Wallace, in his interview on Fox News Sunday, did an unusually clever and persistent job of drawing out the absurdity of Trump’s systemic lies.
1. Wallace begins the interview by referencing several news reports about Trump’s recent anger over his party’s midterm election defeat and a subsequent debacle in Paris. Trump’s answer is that all the stories about this are false because they do not quote Trump:
WALLACE: We’ll get in to all the details later but how dark is your mood?
I read a front page here in the Washington Post, they never even called me, nobody ever calls me.
Obviously, if Trump is in a dark and angry mood, and numerous administration sources tell this to the press, Trump himself is not going to confirm it on the record. Equally obvious, administration sources are not going to give their names on the record when telling unflattering details to reporters. But, as he has done many times before, Trump lays out his view that only statements by Trump himself have any value.
2. Wallace brings up a court case in which a federal judge ruled against the White House for denying a press pass to CNN’s Jim Acosta. Like most non-Acosta journalists, Wallace holds no special brief for Acosta. His concern is the establishment of a precedent that allows the president to decide which reporters can attend news briefings at the White House. “What are your rules going to be?” he asks. “What is it that you’re saying this is over the line and you …”
Trump answers, “I will say this, look, nobody believes in the First Amendment more than I do and if I think somebody’s acting out of sorts, I will leave, I’ll say thank you very much, everybody, I appreciate you coming and I’ll leave. And those reporters will not be too friendly to whoever it is that’s acting up.”
So Trump’s response is that the standards by which reporters have the right to attend briefings will be set by America’s greatest First Amendment champion, Donald Trump.
3. In his most probing exchange, Wallace notes that every president has objected to his depiction in the media, but only Trump has called critical media the “enemy of the people.” Trump appears to engage with the premise, but then reverses himself completely.
Wallace suggests that Trump’s definition of “fake news” is often “news you don’t like.” Here is Trump’s reply:
TRUMP: No, it’s not — no. No, I don’t mind getting bad news if I’m wrong. If I do something wrong, like, for instance, the cemetery. I was not allowed to go because of the Secret Service. Because they expected to take a helicopter —
TRUMP: They had zero visibility. They said, sir, we are totally unequipped for you to go.
In addition to that, the cemetery was far too far away from Air Force One, which is sort of like a control center where you had to be near.
Not one paper that I saw wrote it that way. They said I stayed out of it because of the rain. And yet, the following day, I made a speech at the American cemetery.
WALLACE: I understand.
TRUMP: It was pouring. It wasn’t even really raining the first day but the fog was tremendous. Okay?
Trump begins his response by stating that he does not dispute critical coverage if it happens to be true. (“I don’t mind getting bad news if I’m wrong.”) But then, instead of citing an example of him being wrong, he cites an example of him being right and being lied about by the fake news. In other words, Trump is happy to accept bad news when he is wrong, it’s just that he is never wrong.
4. Wallace attempts to bolster his position by citing an unimpeachable authority — William McRaven, the esteemed military commander who led the raid that captured Osama bin Laden:
WALLACE: Bill McRaven, Retired Admiral, Navy Seal, 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations —
TRUMP: Hillary Clinton fan.
WALLACE: Special Operation —
TRUMP: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.
WALLACE: Who led the operations, commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden, says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his life.
TRUMP: Okay, he’s a Hilary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and frankly —
WALLACE: He’s a Navy SEAL —
TRUMP: Would it have been nicer if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it been nice? Living — think of this, living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan and what I guess in what they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer. But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there.
Trump has two responses. The second is that McRaven is a failure because he did not capture bin Laden sooner than he did. Everybody knew where bin Laden was located, and only a total loser would take years to track him down.
Trump’s first response is to label McRaven a “Hillary Clinton fan.” In fact, McRaven did not endorse Clinton (or any candidate) in 2016. Shortly after Trump’s election, he did publicly criticize Trump’s attacks on the news media, like Wallace says. By Trump’s logic, this renders him a Trump opponent, and thus a Hillary Clinton fan, and thus untrustworthy.
5. Wallace again suggests that perhaps a president is not perfectly suited to determine what coverage of his administration is fair and what is not. Trump changes the question from whether a president can judge the press fairly to whether Trump can judge the press fairly. His answer, of course, is that he can:
TRUMP: I’m totally in favor of the media, I’m totally in favor of free press, got to be fair press. When it’s fake —
WALLACE: But the President gets (ph) to decide what’s fair and what’s not.
TRUMP: I can tell what’s fair and what’s not and so can my people and so can a lot of other people.
6. Wallace tries again to depersonalize the question, by invoking a president who is not Trump complaining about the media:
WALLACE: Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time but he never said we were the enemy of the people.
TRUMP: Well, no, he didn’t talk about the news, he didn’t talk about anything. I’m only saying it very differently than anyone’s ever said it before, I’m saying fake news, false reporting, dishonest reporting of which there is a lot, and I know it. See, I know it because I’m a subject of it, a lot of people don’t know but when I explain it to them, they understand it.
The beginning of the answer is total gibberish. Obama “didn’t talk about the news, he didn’t talk about anything” — what does that even mean? He lands on the point in the next sentence: “I know it.” Trump knows what real news is, and what fake news is. This is a power that belongs to no president but Trump himself.