A year of Donald Trump's presidency, told in fake news

The White House has been attacking the very idea of facts since the 45th president arrived

Andrew Griffin@_andrew_griffin
Wednesday 17 January 2018 21:17
‘Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news,’ the President-elect told a reporter last January
‘Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news,’ the President-elect told a reporter last January

It was a year that began with the President shouting “you are fake news” at a reporter. And it ended with a suggestion that fake news didn’t really matter at all.

Between those times, the Trump administration has told a lot of falsehoods – sometimes minor, sometimes outright. But more than that it has been attempting to redefine what even counts as truth, contesting clear facts to the point that even facts aren’t facts anymore, or at least are something in which you can just pick an alternative.

Much as Donald Trump has attempted to appropriate the word, it stands for an important thread in reporting about him: that he seems set on lying, and discrediting true reports. It’s apparently testament to the power of the critique that it has become so discredited, as every side of the US political divide attempts to win the right to define what counts as the truth.

Already this month, he has posted the phrase “fake news” to Twitter 10 times. That included three on 7 January, each of which was about a different aspect of fake news. It included two posts about Mr Trump’s “most dishonest and corrupt media awards of the year”; a number that said that claims of collusion with the Russians wasn’t real; and a range about what he calls the “Fake Book”, or Michael Wolff’s bestseller about life in the White House.

But it began life as an almost academic term, used to describe the kinds of websites that dressed fictional stories up as news reports and delighted in the readers that shared their literally unbelievable reports. By the time Mr Trump had taken office it was becoming shorthand for an attack not just on the press but the idea of truth itself. It threatened to undermine civil institutions, the press, and those that work to oppose it.

The term “fake news” originally began with BuzzFeed journalist Craig Silverman. Back then, when it became popular as he explored the media around the US election, it didn’t look anything like the way Trump uses the term now: Mr Silverman used it in his writing about the numerous websites, many of them international, that hosted news articles that looked real but were entirely made up.

The first ever time that Mr Trump used the phrase on Twitter was on 10 December, 2016, long before he had become president and even before the phrase had caught on. “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!” he wrote, beginning a process of linking CNN to the phrase that has continued for the entire year.

A month later, he would shout it at a journalist who was questioning him. By this time, it was no longer an airy term of media criticism: fake news, both the phrase and the concept, would become the common thread of both the Trump administration and those oppose him. It was a project that seemed almost consciously focused on undermining not just true reports, but the very idea of truth itself.

11 January 2017: “You are fake news”

Donald Trump in angry exchange with CNN reporter after President-elect refuses question

It was the moment, deep into a press conference, when fake news became not just an interesting and potentially dangerous trend and into the words that would define a country and its presidency. The President-elect took the phrase, so deftly used to criticise the way he had been elected, and turned into an attack on the liberal media that had been so difficult for him.

The press conference had been centred around the explosive dossier that accused Mr Trump of a range of sexual and other indiscretions, and had been published by BuzzFeed News. But it swiftly became a series of antagonistic showdowns, during which Mr Trump’s now beloved insult first came out of his mouth.

“Your organisation is terrible,” Mr Trump told CNN's Jim Acosta.

“You’re attacking us, can you give us a question?” Mr Acosta replied.

“Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news,” the President said.

20 January: “The largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer lays into media for 'false' inauguration reporting

Mr Trump’s inauguration might have set the tone for his presidency. The administration came out fighting with the media from the off, announcing that it had falsely claimed that nobody had turned up – and that it was actually the most popular inauguration event ever.

“Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimise the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall,” said press secretary Sean Spicer, the man who would be tasked with Mr Trump’s regular blasts at the press until he was sacked. “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”

It is, of course, difficult to know for sure how many people turned up to the inauguration. But what evidence there is points in one precise direction: that the Trump administration was wrong, that relatively few people turned up, and that it was shown clearly in pictures.

But perhaps more important was the clear passion and precision with which the Trump administration defended the numbers. Repeatedly it said that a lot of a people had turned up; repeatedly evidence showed that wasn’t the case. The most telling thing was that nobody defending Mr Trump seemed to care very much when they were proved wrong, and that very soon after nobody really cared at all.

22 January: “Alternative facts”

Kellyanne Conway argues with Chuck Todd over 'alternative facts'

It was two days after the inauguration that the false claims of the administration turned into something of a philosophical commitment. Mr Spicer wasn’t lying, said counsellor to the president Kellyanne Conway – he was just giving his own “alternative facts”.

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving – our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that,” said Ms Conway during a TV interview. She later clarified that she’d meant to say “additional facts and alternative information”, but the original phrase was criticised by just about every journalist and those who speak for them.

The phrase seemed a shock, albeit one around which a great deal of resistance could form. But it was not one we had not had before. In The Art of the Deal, published by Trump in 1987, he talked about how he liked to rely on a particular kind of exaggeration to claim that everything is the biggest or the best ever.

“I call it truthful hyperbole,” he wrote. “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”

18 February: “Look what’s happening last night in Sweden”

President Trump cites terrorist incident in Sweden that never happened

Mr Trump, as promised, stayed in campaign mode through much of his early presidency. And that included the restating of falsehoods that didn’t even appear at all connected to the truth.

Chief among them was his claim that something had happened “last night” in Sweden.

“You look at what’s happening in Germany,” he told a crowd in Florida. “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

It was such a bizarre claim that it was difficult for fact checkers to even know what he was lying about. Swedish newspapers wrote articles pointing out that basically nothing had happened in the country that night.

It was a moment that made clear what the response of Trump’s opponents would be to his lies and mistakes: mockery, mostly, followed fairly quickly by each falsehood being forgotten.

“Last night in Sweden” quickly became a punchline and a trending topic. And then the President moved on, fresh and emboldened from having apparently invented a terror attack.

27 June: “Fake News Network”

Michael Wolff – who has ignited fake news claims of his own, from both Donald Trump and fellow journalists – has said that some of the President’s claims about bad coverage aren’t entirely wrong.

It’s very unlikely that any other President would have so much written about their bathrobe, for instance, he writes in the book Fire and Fury.

The President’s repeated claims about being wrongly covered came to a head in June, when three CNN reporters resigned following a supposed investigation into meetings between an associate of Trump and a Russian banker. “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign,” he tweeted that morning. “What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”

It was a rare opportunity for the President to launch attacks on the media. He retweeted a post that altered the CNN logo to read “Fake News Network”, and eventually broadened his attack to other media organisations: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!”

Among Mr Trump’s supporters, this is still the prevailing attitude: the failings of the CNN journalists showed that the mainstream media is wrong. That, in turn, proves that the various journalists exposing evidence of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia are fake news, too. And so all of it is written off, failing to dent the president’s reputation or polling very much.

27 September: “I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me, believe me”

The tax bill, passed towards the end of the year, is for Mr Trump, one of his two major legislative breakthroughs, alongside his claims that he has repealed Obamacare. The trouble is that he has repeatedly lied about both.

“Tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households, not the wealthy and well-connected,” he sent in one telling tweet in September, amid sustained criticism over the fact that the tax bill appeared to give handouts for families like his own. “I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me, believe me.”

Most tax experts and economists don’t agree. All have pointed out that in actual fact the tax bill benefits precisely those richer households, including himself.

Mr Trump’s repeal of Obamacare – regularly promised during his campaign, and then celebrated during the presidency – followed much the same pattern.

“We essentially repealed Obamacare because we got rid of the individual mandate, which was terrible,” Mr Trump said. “And that was a primary source of funding of Obamacare.”

It turned out that this was a very minimal, unimportant part of its funding, and many of its provisions remained in place.

29 November: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real”

Mr Trump’s Twitter feed has become the central point around which much of the arguments about fake news revolve. But that was never more true than when he decided to retweet a string of posts from the leader of far-right group Britain First, each of which supposedly highlighted crimes by Muslims.

They were quickly debunked: All of the videos had their individual contexts, but they did not show what they claimed to. But the President sharing Islamophobic propaganda triggered an international outcry, including a fallout with the UK Government after it criticised him.

But the Trump administration said it did not much matter whether or not the videos shared were actually true.

“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Mr Trump didn’t much speak about the video. Instead, his most famous comment in response was an embarrassing blast at Theresa May.

Taking to Twitter he wrote that the Prime Minister should not "focus on me" and urged her to "focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!”


Stephen Colbert buys billboard for Trump's 'Most Dishonest Corrupt Media Awards'

They were, perhaps, the summary of the year. Mr Trump committed to launch new awards for the media organisations he liked least, and did so in a series of shouty tweets. The first read: “We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me). They are all bad. Winner to receive the FAKE NEWS TROPHY!”

Then the date was set. And then it was changed again, with the US leader claiming it was because there was too much interest.

But the expected date and time – which Mr Trump had set and made public in advance of the event – came and went. Sarah Huckabee Sanders had called the awards a “potential event” and said that the press would be kept up to date.

But nobody got to win; the awards eventually came out on a link to the Republican's website, with a list that pointed at a series of different reports. Many of them were problematic, but all of the fake reports had been corrected soon after.

24 December: “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again”

'We can say Merry Christmas again' declares Donald Trump

The President’s Christmas Eve message was not especially friendly, but it was very false: “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again,” he wrote on Twitter. “I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!”

His reference towards the “assault” on saying “Merry Christmas”, and the implicit gesture towards the supposed war on Christmas, were essentially repeating a long-held but little proven conspiracy theory. Liberals, Jews, or whatever other group have repeatedly been accused of waging war on saying those two important words, and by so doing putting not just Christmas but the entirety of American civilisation under threat.

It is something like Trump’s instruction to make America great again – a slogan that has led many to ask when it was great before, and what he is actually talking about. Much the same can be said of Christmas: there was never really a time when people did not see it as being under threat, and nor was there ever really a time when it actually was.

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