Donald Trump, it is said, thrives on chaos. He sets his employees against one another in the hopes that competition will elicit better performance, he says crazy things to get attention, he prefers gut instinct to careful planning, he keeps everybody confused and uncertain and therefore (supposedly) on their toes. But as president, Trump is creating a whole new situation: informational chaos, where everyone is constantly trying to figure out what to believe and arguing about what the truth is — and the White House can't seem to get even the simplest message out without stepping all over its own toes.
We've had administrations that were overly secret, and we've had presidents who lied on occasion. But we've never experienced anything quite like this, where the president lies so often and so haphazardly that even his own aides can't figure out how to deal with it.
What we saw last weekend has become a typical pattern. First, Trump tweets something outrageous. Then his aides scramble to justify it and argue that it's true, Or, if they can't manage that, they'll insist that what he said may be false but actually reveals some deeper, more profound truth. Then the White House gets hammered in the media for disseminating the falsehood. Even some Republicans distance themselves from what the president is claiming. Then the right-wing media — Fox News, talk radio, websites like Stephen Bannon's Breitbart — ride to Trump's defense, convincing his most ardent supporters that what he said really was true, and there's a sinister conspiracy to cover it up. By the time it's over we all feel disoriented, like someone just shook us out of a deep sleep and told us to that we had two minutes to do 20 pushups and then solve a crossword puzzle.
So we were treated to the amazing sight of White House flacks trying to explain how the president's ludicrous suggestion that Barack Obama had tapped his phones might just be true and hey, Trump's just saying, so maybe we should look into it, because you know how that Obama is, amirite? Never mind that Trump got the idea from a right-wing website, and it was not only denied by pretty much everyone in a position to know, but impossible under the law without the involvement of lots of people, including a judge approving a warrant.
While that mudslide of baloney was coming from the White House, the FBI director was asking the Justice Department to say publicly that the president wasn't telling the truth, a rather unusual development. That came after the White House asked the FBI to knock down allegations about the Trump campaign's ties to Russians, which it refused to do. Aren't these people supposed to be working together?
All of which we know about because of leaks, which have become the scourge of the Trump administration. Every president hates them, but the remarkable thing about the leaks in this one is how many of them make the president look so foolish — and those are coming from the people who work for him.
One of the most amusing features of this White House is the way their bumbling efforts to stop leaks are promptly leaked. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to crack down on leaks by inspecting his underlings' phones for evidence of untoward contact with reporters, as we found out when it was leaked. "Some staffers roll their eyes as [Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus reiterates the need for them to not leak to the press" in his daily meetings, Politico reported.
Meanwhile, Trump is livid at his own inability to control the flow of information. He was overjoyed at the glowing reception pundits gave to his address to a joint session of Congress last week, but his pleasure quickly turned to anger as the Russia story refused to die. The Washington Post described him as "steaming, raging mad" and "increasingly frustrated by his administration's inability to erase the impression that his campaign was engaged with Russia, to stem leaks about both national security matters and internal discord and to implement any signature achievements." That story was based on interviews with a remarkable 17 sources close to Trump, most of whom requested anonymity. In the swirling flow of information around this White House, it seems like everybody talks.
That's obviously a boon to reporters, but there may be an upside for the public as well.
Try to imagine the Trump administration attempting an ambitious propaganda effort like the Bush administration did when it convinced much of the country that if we didn't invade Iraq then Saddam Hussein would attack us with his fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Trump and his people could never pull it off. As soon as they tried, the leaks from White House staffers and people in the intelligence community would start pouring out, explaining exactly what their intentions were and where they weren't telling the truth. They'd never benefit from the kind of media credulity Bush enjoyed, and the whole scheme would collapse in a matter of days. This administration can't successfully defend one of the president's tweets, much less pull the wool over the public's eyes in order to start a war.
So as unnerving as all the lies and spin may be, we can take some small comfort in the fact that there's only so far it can go. Hopefully.