Barack Obama sat down with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation recently, as part of the former president receiving the foundation's Profile in Courage Award, and he was asked about media, echo chambers, and media consumption."The challenge is that the curation, the sorting, the filters that might have helped us distinguish between what's true and what's false, have all broken down," Obama said
, "and it puts a greater responsibility on each of us I think to be able to be good consumers of information."And with this in mind, Politico
has an amazing report
today on the degree to which Donald Trump is not a good consumer of information.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a stern warning at a recent senior staff meeting: Quit trying to secretly slip stuff to President Trump.Just days earlier, K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, had given Trump a printout of two Time magazine covers. One, supposedly from the 1970s, warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming, according to four White House officials familiar with the matter.Trump quickly got lathered up about the media's hypocrisy. But there was a problem. The 1970s cover was fake, part of an Internet hoax that's circulated for years. Staff chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it.
That's quite an anecdote. On one of the most pressing, if not the single most critical, issues in the world, an unqualified deputy national security adviser directly provided the sitting president of the United States with bogus information, apparently intended to persuade Trump not to trust (a) climate science; and (b) major news organizations.Had staffers not quickly intervened, it's likely that the president would've accepted the Internet hoax as true, and proceeded to make policy decisions based on a fake magazine cover. (It's probably worth noting that Trump, given his track record, may accept the Internet hoax as true anyway.)The broader pattern, however, is what truly amazes. During the campaign, Trump seemed to believe all kinds of nonsense he'd find in supermarket tabloids and fringe websites, and it was hard not to wonder how he'd adapt as president. Alas, we're starting to get a pretty good idea of the answer.
While the information stream to past commanders-in-chief has been tightly monitored, Trump prefers an open Oval Office with a free flow of ideas and inputs from both official and unofficial channels. And he often does not differentiate between the two. Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.The consequences can be tremendous, according to a half-dozen White House officials and others with direct interactions with the president. A news story tucked into Trump's hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president's entire agenda.
This is, of course, an insane way for a White House to operate. The Politico piece
paints a picture of a president who lacks anything resembling critical thinking skills, being manipulated by staffers -- some bent on mischief, some with their own agendas -- who've discovered how easy it is to exploit their baffled boss' ignorance.In other words, White House aides, with a little too much access to the Leader of the Free World, see the boss as gullible -- and by all appearances, they're correct.Whether this is seen as a serious problem is a matter of perspective -- if it's your priority that's going to be derailed by someone handing Trump some ridiculous article, it's probably going to be seen as important -- but the next time the White House is confronted with a serious external crisis that's hard to control, this approach to the flow of information in and around the Oval Office could prove disastrous.