There are trolls in the White House

Sarah Sanders laughs with Stephen Miller in the White House, July 18.
Sarah Sanders laughs with Stephen Miller in the White House, July 18.
Image: Reuters/Leah Mills
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Donald Trump and the White House unleashed a rollercoaster of self-contradiction this week, with a series of statements so cack-handed that right-wing media and Trump loyalists have embraced them as the deliberate “trolling” of America. They may have a point.

It all started with Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin: In Helsinki, Trump openly doubted US intelligence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in order to aid him. Then he took it back a day later, gathering members of Congress into the Roosevelt Room to announce, “I have a full faith in our intelligence agencies.” As he began the sentence, the lights in the Oval Office dimmed into blackness, and didn’t go up again until after he finished.

“Whoops, that must be the intelligence agencies,” Trump said to laughter in the room when the lights rose again. (It’s worth noting that in the weeks after Trump took office, aides were reportedly forced to meet in the dark because they couldn’t find the light switches. Maybe they have located them?)

Then, despite months of publicly mocking US intelligence on Russia and calling top intelligence officials everything from liars to Nazis, Trump claimed that he had merely misspoken in Helsinki: ”In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t—or why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” he declared confidently, reading directly from a piece of paper. “So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

The very next day, when he was asked whether Russia is still targeting the US to interfere in elections, Trump responded, “No,” contradicting his own director of national intelligence. Then White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told an incredulous room that what the president really meant was “no more questions”—despite the fact that he continued to speak to the press in the room.

Pressed about details of any deals Trump and Putin made during the meeting, Sanders told the press corp at the same briefing, “We’ve committed to nothing.”  Then, in the final touch, she surprised the media, the State Department, Trump’s own top intelligence pick, and possibly the Kremlin, by tweeting the next day that yes, something had been agreed to in Helsinki after all: Putin had been invited to the White House.

Trump’s White House has a pattern: the president says one thing, then does another, he makes statements that contradict themselves, he lies, and the press office brazenly declares that none of this is happening at all.

In part, this is a deliberate provocation of the press, and of the millions of Americans who didn’t vote for Trump. It didn’t come out of the blue—presidential advisor Stephen Miller’s mission since high school has been “to shock and offend the progressive sensibilities of his peers,” as McKay Coppins wrote in the Atlantic in May. Now, Miller and much of the White House press team appear to be perfecting the art of internet trolling and shit-posting in real life.

Miller represents a new type of conservative, one that delights above all in “triggering the libs,” Coppins wrote. This type of conservative is thrilled with the White House’s recent performance. “President Trump is the gift that keeps on giving my friends,” wrote a popular commentator on pro-Trump subreddit The Donald on July 20. “This man literally gives zero fucks about the media’s perception of him,” he wrote approvingly:

If this isn’t one of the most epic troll moments in history, I don’t know what is. I am convinced that our President is hell bent on keeping his opposition in absolute knots for his entire Presidency because he knows their idiocy will only drive supporters of away from their party. The more they look like the absolute imbeciles that they are, the more normal Americans will realize that Liberals are mentally defective.

Pro-Trump Americans should welcome Putin to the US because it would make left-leaning Americans apoplectic, he said, even though, Putin would probably “love to see the fall of America as we know it.” After just a few hours on the site, the post had hundreds of upvotes, and there’s many more like it. (Fresh, extra tasty liberal tears!)

The point of trolling online is to provoke a reaction, and the Democrats, the mainstream media, and “never Trump” Republicans this all seems aimed at are nothing less than apoplectic. Trump’s plan for the November mid-terms is to light a fire under the US’s most sensitive national debates, sowing division and driving voters to the polls.

And while the press office is trolling, what’s going on underneath the rhetoric is serious, as author Sarah Kendzior points out. Trump keeps showing an apparently instinctive trust in Putin, whom Arizona Senator John McCain has described as a “thug and a murderer.” Putin is behind the killings of dozens of journalists and political opponents, and green-lit Russian online propaganda campaigns in the United States. Russia has already interfered in the US electoral process, is hacking US and UK companies to steal intellectual property, and waging cyberattacks on the US’s electrical grid and government agencies; it is not a friendly country. As a journalist with the conservative news outlet Washington Examiner put it:

One way to counter trolling online is simply to ignore the trolls. But “don’t read the comments” is pretty impractical when the comments are coming from the White House itself. Another tactic is is to push platforms to moderate discussions and kick out bad actors. But in this case, the Congress members who should be playing the role of “platform moderators” are refusing to do the job.

Key Republicans have decided to say “good enough!” to Trump’s Russia reversals: Senator Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican, is among the Republicans who claims he completely buys Trump’s wordplay. Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who spent years before the 2016 election working on a bill to counter Russian propaganda and interference in US politics, now says he takes Trump “at his word if he said he misspoke.”

In other words, “LOL.”