Donald Trump is still bamboozling the press
Here's the truth: There will be no revelations of what Trump has discovered about Russian hacking. Not on Tuesday. Not on Wednesday. Not ever.
"I know a lot about hacking," Donald Trump told reporters on New Year's Eve, before explaining that the Russians might not be responsible for the hacking that helped win him the election. The assertion about his hacking expertise was a little hard to believe, given that Trump famously doesn't use a computer, and when the issue of cybersecurity comes up, he tends to refer to "the cyber" and tout his young son's supposed wizardry as a reason to be confused and afraid of what these new-fangled machines can do. "I have a son — he's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers. It's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough," he said at one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. His latest remarks simply must be quoted in full to be appreciated:
If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old fashioned way because I'll tell you what, no computer is safe. I have a boy who's 10 years old, he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.
Perhaps this is a shrewd job-creation initiative, since in Trump's vision half the American population would have to be employed as couriers to deliver the emails the other half will write. And although Trump is blowing off intelligence briefings, he's got some news to break this week. While we wait for the transformation that will result from our new courier-based economy, he'll tell us what's really going on with the Russians. "Hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don't know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation," he said. Asked what he knew that others didn't, he said, "You'll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday."
As exciting as that prospect may be, I have some bad news: There will be no revelations of what Trump has discovered about the hacking. Not on Tuesday, not on Wednesday, not ever.
This is just one example of a disturbing reality that we haven't yet figured out how to deal with: the fact that we can trust almost nothing that comes out of the mouth of the man who is about to be president of the United States.
This fact has highlighted the insufficiency of the press' normal way of doing things. For instance, since the president is the most powerful person on earth, pretty much everything he says is, by definition, news. But with Trump, that has led to an entirely new genre of story, which comes down to "Trump Tweets Thing." Since he hasn't held a press conference since July and may never hold one again, reporters are left with his Twitter feed as almost the only source of presidential communication. So they write entire stories about tweets he sends, often without the context that would allow audiences to understand how ludicrous so much of what he claims is.
As we try to figure out what's going on, even Trump's closest aides can't really be trusted to tell us what he's thinking or what he'll do, not because they're necessarily lying in a particular moment (they may or may not be) but because even if they're telling the truth as they believe it right then, Trump may contradict them or take another position within hours or even minutes.
The confusion this creates is just what Trump wants, whether it's about specific facts or the general feeling of rootlessness we'll get from his rule. Media scholar Jay Rosen calls what Trump is doing "verification in reverse," a process by which he "takes facts that have been nailed down, and introduces doubt about them, which then releases energy (controversy, resistance, ready-to-hate news coverage) which in turn helps power a movement among those who wanted the established facts repealed, as it were."
So we're left with a dizzying combination of inaccessibility, communication primarily via a Twitter feed that combines desperately insecure pleading about what a great landslide he achieved (yes, he's still talking about that) with absurd falsehoods, and occasional mini-campaigns meant to cast Trump as racking up heroic accomplishments that don't actually exist.
My favorite early example came over Air Force One. Trump tweeted a complaint about the cost of the new versions of the plane (which is still in the development phase), pretending that cost estimates some analysts had made of what we might eventually spend actually represented money we're already spending. The show reached its final act with a meeting between Trump and the company's CEO, as I described here:
The chief executive of Boeing comes to meet with Trump and says to him, Oh yes, we'll certainly work hard to bring in the plane for less than $4 billion. He's not making any promises that need to be kept, because as he knows well (though Trump may or may not), military contracting, especially for a complex system such as these planes, is a spectacularly complicated process that plays out over years or even decades and involves not just the White House but also a large Pentagon bureaucracy and Congress — and the latter two are more important to the eventual outcome.
But in the short term, what's the result? The chief executive steps out to the cameras after his meeting with Trump and makes clear that Boeing is pledging to do right by the taxpayer, resulting in a whole lot of headlines suggesting that Trump's terrific negotiating skills have given those taxpayers a great deal, when in fact precisely nothing has changed. Trump hasn't actually saved a penny on Air Force One. It was all theater.
We've seen similar kinds of showmanship on economic issues, as when Trump claimed that because of his brilliant leadership, Sprint had agreed to bring 5,000 jobs to America. In fact, this was part of an investment Sprint's parent company made last year. But Trump got a raft of glowing headlines out of the story anyway, despite the fact that he was being disingenuous about those jobs.
Can you actually govern this way? We just don't know, because no one has ever tried. So far it's working well enough, and I have an idea about where he's going next: He'll claim that all the economic progress under Barack Obama was his doing.
Right now the economy is doing extremely well by most measures — unemployment is at 4.6 percent, over 15 million jobs have been created since the Great Recession, inflation is almost non-existent, wages are growing, and GDP growth in the third quarter was a healthy 3.5 percent. During the campaign, Trump described the economy as a nightmare of endless suffering and despair, but he'll now characterize it as a dream of boundless growth and opportunity, brought about by his extraordinary leadership. Not long ago he tweeted, "The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points to 113.7, THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS! Thanks Donald!" This was despite the fact that the Index has been rising steadily since 2009; December's number was just the latest uptick in a long rise. Some time in March, you can expect Trump to take credit for the arrival of spring.
When he does so, it's incumbent upon the media to provide context — not in the 14th paragraph of a story, but right up top, along with whatever claim Trump is making. That means the story should read, "Trump takes credit for continuation of good economy," not "Trump touts good economic news." His spin has to be reported, but his spin doesn't have to be adopted.
And when he says he'll do something — like release his tax returns (which he is never, repeat, never going to do) or reveal important new facts about Russian hacking — and then tries to get away with not following through, we all have to hold him to account. Trump exists in a world where facts are irrelevant, lying is permissible, and words are nothing but tools to "win" every encounter and establish his dominance. The question for the rest of us is whether we submit, or hold on to some connection to reality.