President Donald Trump’s habit of repeating controversial claims from conservative media outlets and refusing to apologize when he’s called out for a lack of evidence is repeatedly landing the White House in hot water, irritating Republicans and alienating foreign allies.
The White House touched off an international incident this week when press secretary Sean Spicer, berating reporters during the briefing on Thursday, cited comments from a Fox News commentator who accused former President Barack Obama of using the British spy agency GCHQ to surveil Trump Tower.
The Brits were not pleased. The typically close-lipped British spy agency fired off a strongly worded statement, calling the allegation “utterly ridiculous.” The White House had to try to calm irate British diplomats, with Spicer and national security adviser H.R. McMaster getting an earful from British officials.
It was hardly an isolated incident.
Trump has racked up a series of scandals that have sprung from his apparently voracious consumption of conservative media, both from watching Fox News and from aides sharing with him reports from Breitbart and other right-wing outlets. And as the fallout has spread each time, Trump has refused to admit any wrongdoing.
The president set off a furor in Sweden when he seemed to claim the country had just suffered a terrorist attack a statement that appeared to spring from a Fox News interview with documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz about a crime surge in the country. Swedish officials angrily issued public statements that no such attack had happened.
After Fox News ran a segment about Guantanamo Bay, Trump falsely tweeted: “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield.” Only a fraction of those detainees were released under Obama; most had been released under President George W. Bush. (Spicer later said Trump “obviously” was referring to the total released under both presidents.)
And in the biggest doozy, Trump claimed Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower phones an accusation that appears to have been based on a Mark Levin talk radio segment and a short Breitbart article. The allegation has created a major rift with prominent Republicans and put the White House in the awkward position of repeatedly defending it, without providing evidence.
When asked why Trump won’t simply back down on evidence-free claims like the wiretapping allegation, one Republican close to the White House responded simply: “When has he ever apologized about anything?”
It’s true that Trump has long avoided the normal rules of political gravity — he never apologized, for example, for his claims that Obama was not born in the United States — but it remains to be seen whether what worked for candidate Trump can work in the White House.
The White House is discovering that the president’s and his adviser’s words matter a great deal a fact seen both in the fury of foreign governments at falsehoods and in legal opinions striking down the travel ban and alleging intent to discriminate by pointing to comments from Trump and his aides.
Those around the president, though, have proved more than willing to play along with the president’s theories.
Jobs reports produced by the government may have been “phony” before, but are to be trusted now that they show job growth under Trump, Spicer has said. The crowds at Trump’s inauguration were the biggest ever, “period,” Spicer declared in one of his first briefings from the White House. And, on Thursday, he read off a series of media reports in an attempt to back up Trump’s wiretapping claim none of which did including the report that accused the British government of spying on Trump.
“Sean Spicer conducts every press briefing like he’s on a hostage video. I mean he essentially has an audience of one,” said Rick Tyler, a former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign who knows Spicer. “[Trump] is just looking to make sure that Sean is out there defending him at all costs. I mean, I couldn’t live like that, but he can.”
It has not only been Spicer forced to try to explain controversial claims. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer in January by saying he was using “alternative facts,” and touted a terrorist attack that did not happen as a reason for Trump’s attempted travel ban. Policy adviser Stephen Miller has claimed that there was mass voter fraud, even though no evidence of that has been presented.
And while reports surfaced on Friday that Spicer had apologized to British officials for repeating the spying accusation, the White House was publicly offered no such mea culpa.
“That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox,” Trump said at a news conference. “And so you shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”
A Fox News anchor said later Friday that the network has “no evidence of any kind, that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way, full stop.”
After the news conference, Spicer pushed back on the idea that he apologized.
“We just reiterated the fact that we were just simply reading media accounts. That’s it,” Spicer told reporters. “I don’t think we regret anything. We literally listed a litany of media reports that are in the public domain.”
Especially worrisome, to many, is Trump’s seeming lack of desire to distinguish myth from fact.
“Donald Trump, like millions of Americans, is susceptible to conspiracy theories,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “He tends to just pick things up from right-wing talk radio and the alt-right if it fits his agenda of the day.”
“We’ve never had a president operate like this. The long-term damage is you’re going to get just ravaged in history,” Brinkley added.
But for many, especially on the right, Trump’s and the White House’s claims carry weight, whether backed up by evidence or not.
Trump “essentially has a media company of his own, largely on Twitter, and what he needs to do, or wants to do, is get people to follow him and listen to what he says and ‘believe me and not them,’” said Tyler. “He has to get his audience, his base, to mistrust the media and he becomes, ultimately, their media source.”
It is an endeavor in which he has significant help from conservative media outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, the Independent Journal Review and various talk radio hosts.
After the Sweden flub, Breitbart published a piece called “Ten Incidents in Ten Days That Proved Trump Right on Sweden’s Migration Problem.”
The White House did not provide a comment Friday, beyond noting that Spicer read Thursday’s allegation “straight from the Fox transcript.”