Trump’s simple trick to control the news is straight out of the Kremlin playbook

Trump’s response to the Michael Cohen tape is an old authoritarian trick.
Trump’s response to the Michael Cohen tape is an old authoritarian trick.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson, Leah Millis
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After CNN released audio of Donald Trump discussing hush money payments with former lawyer Michael Cohen last night, the White House responded with a form of information warfare that it has used time and again:

  1. A scandal erupts over something Trump or another White House official says or does. (In this case, audio of Trump and Cohen discussing how to buy the rights to a woman’s allegation that she had an affair with Trump.)
  2. Media frenzy ensues.
  3. The White House issues an outrageous-but-plausible-if-you-want-it-to-be denial about some detail of the story. (In this case, the White House released a transcript of the call, which claims Trump said “don’t” before “pay with cash.” The “don’t” is not audible on the tape.)
  4. Journalistic rules about reporting both sides of the story mean the media spreads the White House version of events, whether the “don’t” is audible or not.
  5. The story becomes muddied. Some attention is diverted to whether or not the White House has lied, rather than the scandal itself.

This strategy of denying otherwise clear evidence exploits a flaw in the Western media’s drive for objectivity, and takes the edge off scandals. By Quartz’s count, this was the fourth time in just the last two weeks that the administration has employed such a tactic.

  • There was the walk-back over Trump siding with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian election hacking. The next day, Trump claimed he meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be” Russia, rather than “would,” as he said at the press conference.
  • When reporters later asked Trump if he believed Russia is targeting the 2018 midterm elections; he shook his head and said “no.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later claimed he was saying “no” to answering questions—an odd way to refuse to comment on a question with a “yes” or “no” answer.
  • White House chief of staff John Kelly looked miserable as Trump ranted to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg about Germany’s natural gas agreement with Russia. This follows a pattern of Kelly looking perturbed while Trump speaks.
    Sanders told the Washington Post (paywall) that Kelly “was displeased because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese.” (The episode was beautifully satirized by Larry David in the New York Times (paywall).)

This pattern is nothing new to those who have witnessed how authoritarian regimes play with the foreign press. Russia’s government turned flat denial into an art form, says Peter Pomerantsev, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. He notes the Kremlin’s denial of any involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine—despite all evidence pointing to the contrary—as a particularly blatant example.

“The Chinese do that a lot as well,” Pomerantsev says. “I think a lot of authoritarian regimes worked out it’s the weak point of any kind of Western pluralistic model, and I guess domestic actors have worked it out as well.”