To Tell the Truth
Amid all the morass of the Trump-Comey news – from the continually-changing story about Trump’s letter to Comey, to the ever-changing explanation from administration spokesmen, to the press conferences the last two days that have been flailing all over the place -- one thing that seemed to push forward yesterday through all this was so many members of the press I heard, and even some in Congress, who were pretty up front in saying that the White House no longer has any credibility and so they felt there’s no real reason to trust what anyone there says. By itself, that's not much of a news story. But in the full framework, it's a huge, significant deal.
By the end of the day, as all this played out, there was a fascinating panel discussion about the subject on Brian Williams’ show last night on MSNBC. The most pointed passage came from, of all people, Nicole Wallace. (I’m okay with her as an reasonably-fair analyst, but she sometimes has been too often in “GOP operative” mode with the genes from her old job kicking in, although the longer this whole Trump story has gone on, and the longer she’s been at MSNBC, and now been given her own show, she’s gotten more fully-objective, I think.) Anyway, they brought up Thursday’s White House press conference – which I heard a lot of live, and it was ghastly – and were discussing spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying the day before that she’d talked to “countless FBI agents” who supported the president’s actions. One of the people on the Williams’ panel was Michael Shear of the NY Times who’d bluntly questioned Sanders that morning about her "countless" comment, given how it had been contradicted by the new Acting Director of the FBI. (If you saw the press conference, Shear is the one who replied, “Really???” to her defending her statement of the day before). He explained what was going on the press room during the exchange, at which point panelist Nicole Wallace chimed in.
She was sympathetic to Sarah Huckeabee Sanders from the perspective of herself having been a PR person who held press conferences, and often contentious ones. But then, she also talked about credibility, how critical is what to have it in order to maintain trust and control of the room, and that “If I had ever been told to go out and lie, I’d have quit on the spot.” And then she said the following – which I’m paraphrasing, but am close:
“When she said she knows ‘countless’ FBI agents who supported the president, that really surprised me because it’s a lot. I only known 12 agents. And I called all of them yesterday, to get their reaction. And every one of them strongly supported James Comey. So, for her to say she knew ‘countless’ agents and they almost all supported the president, I don’t know how she got that. I only know 12, and they all supported Comey.”
It was a polite, matter-of-fact and blistering take down. And from Nicole Wallace of all people.
And when you’ve lost all credibility, and people in positions of responsibility – much of the press and many in Congress – stop believing you, period, and don't see the concept of truth coming from you, then you’ve lost any chance of shaping the message and pushes it totally out of your control.
We're not there yet for all the press and most members of Congress, and for the majority of the public,I suspect -- yet. But we're on the slope. And it's as slippery as legend says, and going downhill, which makes this all a near-insurmountable challenge for the administration. Because winning back trust is a long and difficult task under the best of circumstances, but especially when you're sliding downwards and have a leader who is pushing you there faster and doesn't seem to have it in him to be truthful when it's not 100% in his best interest.
And that makes yesterday, as low-key as it may have been from the perspective of a news story, substantively significant.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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