President Donald Trump speaks during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 18, 2018, in Washington. Trump and his...
Evan Vucci

Trump’s love-hate relationship with anonymous sources

Updated

Donald Trump spoke on Friday afternoon at a National Association of Realtors event, where attendees were treated to the president sharing some candid thoughts on political journalists.

“[T]hey put out false – you know, they say, ‘confidential sources.’ Do you ever notice they never write the names of people anymore? Everything is ‘a source says….’ There is no source. The person doesn’t exist. The person is not alive. It’s bulls**t. Okay? It’s bulls**t.”“

The comments generated some interest in the president’s willingness to use profanity, quite casually, at an official event. And to be sure, it’s often a bit jarring to hear Trump use salty language, indifferent to the kind of stature and decorum his modern predecessors sought to maintain at least in public.

But in this case, I’m far more interested in Trump’s love-hate relationship with news reports based on anonymous sourcing.

Two years ago this month, USA Today noted, “Trump hates anonymous sources, unless they’re in stories favorable to him.” The only thing that’s changed since then is the president’s frequent use of “anonymous validators” – unnamed people, whom Trump refuses to identify, who constantly tell him how right he is. Most of the time, he describes their identities as people we’d expect to disagree with him – congressional Democrats, for example – but who secretly reassure him that all of his beliefs are correct.

One is tempted to respond, “There is no source. The person doesn’t exist. The person is not alive.” He uses phrases like these because it’s a subject he’s deeply familiar with: the Republican, with unnerving frequency, shares stories based on made-up sources.

But that’s not the only problem with Trump’s pitch. It also comes against a backdrop in which the president frequently shares the details of conversations that only occurred in his mind.

And as regular readers know, there were also many instances in which Trump took on the persona of a made-up person in order to pretend to be his own publicist. He would talk to reporters, identify himself as “John Miller” or “John Barron,” and go on and on about his greatness.

I don’t much care that some of Trump’s speeches should come with parental-advisory warnings – some language may not be suitable for all audiences – but I do care about his willingness to use projection to attack media professionals.

It’s very easy to believe that the president is convinced news reports are based on non-existent people because that’s how his own stories take shape. He’s drawing ugly conclusions about journalists based on his understanding of his own dishonest habits.