Propagandist-in-Chief

Last week’s article, Weapons of Propaganda, laid out the differences between disinformation and misinformation and its negative consequences on our democratic society. This week, Donald Trump has put the ideas and words of last week’s article into action. This isn’t something new; Trump engages in propaganda on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. However, it’s important to take note of these deceptions as they’re happening.

The Winds of Impeachment


The winds of impeachment have been picking up in the Democratic Party, specifically in the House since it’s the House that must initiate the impeachment process. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, has been wary of starting the impeachment process. She hasn’t ruled it out, but has been reluctant to move too quickly. It’s not that she thinks Trump shouldn’t be subjected to the impeachment process, it’s the political calculus involved with an impeachment that she’s concerned about.

“If you come at the king, you best not miss,” is a quote from Omar Little, a character from David Simon’s masterpiece HBO series, The Wire. The substance of the quote is something that’s been at the forefront of Pelosi’s mind for awhile now. She’s aware that impeachment will be divisive for the country. She fears the possibility that impeachment hearings could garner public sympathy for Trump, as we’ve seen during the Bill Clinton impeachment process. This could have a negative effect on not only the 2020 presidential election, but also the 2020 congressional races.

However, the idea of Trump being viewed as a sympathetic figure by the American public has been disputed by many experts and analysts. Clinton’s Articles of Impeachment were founded on an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern. Most of the public viewed the Clinton impeachment as a political overreach. The case for Trump’s impeachment is much different both in substance and scope.

With the release of the redacted Mueller Report, which laid out nearly a dozen instances of possible obstruction of justice committed by Trump, there’s been an increase in congressional investigations in the House. The House has been trying to perform their oversight responsibilities, yet the Trump administration has been in a state of open rebellion against the legislative branch. They ignored attempts by House congressional committees to have access to pertinent persons and documents, and when they were left to resort to issuing subpoenas, the administration defied them.

All of these acts of defiance have put enormous pressure on Pelosi. She’s been lobbied by her own Democratic colleagues to initiate impeachment proceedings. In response to the lobbying efforts, on the morning of May 22, 2019, she met with the House Democratic Caucus to discuss their strategy for moving forward. It was ultimately decided they wouldn’t start impeachment hearings yet. She was able to convince her colleagues to be patient and wait for more facts to emerge from the many ongoing investigations.

After the meeting, Pelosi was asked by the press how they planned to proceed. She stuck with her stance on waiting for the investigations to churn up more facts, but made a weighty statement in three points, saying:

“We do believe that it’s important to follow the facts.”

“We believe that no one is above the law.”

“…and we believe the President of the United States is engaged in a coverup.”

The Democratic leadership from the House and Senate were scheduled to meet with the president later on that day. They’ve been engaged in back-channel discussions with Trump for the past few weeks in order to broker an infrastructure deal. The Democratic leaders said Trump implied he was open to working on the deal. He stipulated he wanted to see their infrastructure plan, so the Democrats prepared a document with a proposed strategy and budget.

When the Democratic leaders from the House and Senate arrived at the White House, it became clear they weren’t going to be discussing infrastructure. The curtains in the meeting room were drawn and there was no seat at the head of the table for the president, implying the meeting would be short and one-sided. When Trump entered the room he went off on a tirade, according to the Democrats who were present. Since he intentionally didn’t have a seat, he was in a literal position to speak down to the Democrats. The takeaway from the short meeting was Trump saying he would no longer be working with the Democrats while they were investigating him.

Meltdown in the Rose Garden


Directly after the meeting, Trump arranged for a press conference to be held in the Rose Garden. As the press waited for the president to walk out, it was clear to everyone there wasn’t going to be any announcement on an infrastructure deal. The pre-printed Mueller Report-related sign on the podium made his intentions clear: the sign, in part, read “No Collusion. No Obstruction.”

It’s obvious that the meeting with the Democratic leadership and the Rose Garden address that followed was never intended to be about infrastructure. Trump planned to go on the offensive all along (or on the defensive, depending on how you look at it). Why would there be a sign about the Mueller Report on the podium when the address was meant to be about infrastructure?

The Rose Garden address quickly turned into a tirade against all of Trump’s political opponents, both real and perceived. He went from one person and topic to the next, barely speaking a single sentence that wasn’t at least a partial lie.

Some Examples of the Disinformation Spread During the Rose Garden Address

  • “18 Angry Democrats,” as displayed on the the pre-printed podium sign. He made false claims about the Mueller team, saying they were all angry Democrats and were Hillary Clinton supporters. While it is true that a few members of the investigation had made financial contributions to the Clinton campaign, the claim that all members of the team were Democrats looking to take him down is disinformation. Robert Mueller himself is a lifelong Republican. The official who appointed Mueller as special counsel, Rod Rosenstein, another registered Republican. Moreover, the “No Obstruction” part of the sign on the podium is disinformation. Mueller uncovered nearly a dozen acts of possible obstruction of justice.
  • “I’m the most transparent president, probably in the history of the country,” Trump claimed. Trump is the least transparent president in the modern era, if not in history. He broke the decades-long tradition of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns in order to be transparent with the public, showing where their money comes from and whom they owe money to. Trump also declined to be interviewed by the Mueller team. Instead, he submitted carefully-prepared answers to Mueller’s questions, which were carefully constructed and combed through by his legal team. Trump’s Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has reached a historic low when it comes to holding press conferences. Press briefings are the main apparatus for demonstrating transparency between the White House and the public. As of today, there hasn’t been a press briefing in 45 days. There’s literally dust covering the podium in the Press Briefing Room.
  • Trump claimed, “I respect the courts. I respect Congress…” Since we’re in the middle of a constitutional crisis that’s currently being sorted out in the courts, this is another lie. He even contradicted himself in the same address when he said he would no longer be working with Congress while he’s being investigated. Most presidents, to one degree or another, have been under investigation, and it’s never stopped them from governing. In modern history, both Nixon and Clinton still worked with Congress when they were being investigated and even when Articles of Impeachment were being drawn up.
  • “I don’t speak to Russia about campaigns… it’s a hoax,” Trump insisted. This is another blatant lie. When Trump was on the campaign trail, he called on Russia during a campaign speech, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing.” Well, they were listening because on that same day, Russian operatives made their first attempt at hacking Clinton’s personal email server. Moreover, in the Mueller Report, it was uncovered that there were at least 140 contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals.
  • “I don’t do coverups. You people probably know that better than anybody.” One coverup most of the country is aware of is Trump’s efforts to buy the silence of the adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, whom Trump had an affair with. When the Trump campaign received word that she intended to go public, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, brokered a deal on behalf of Trump to pay her $130,000 to keep quiet. Cohen is currently in federal prison, in part, since he violated campaign finance law by making the hush money payments on behalf of Trump. Cohen initially told investigators he paid Daniels off with his own money, which is partly true. However, it was arranged from the start that Trump would reimburse Cohen in installments of $35,000. During Cohen’s last public testimony to the House Oversight Committee, Cohen produced copies of the $35,000 checks, signed by Trump, some of which when he was President of the United States.

Propagandist-in-Chief


Since the events of May 22, 2019, Trump has been publicly attacking Pelosi. He called her “Crazy Nancy,” but then said he didn’t want to share nicknames, since he calls Bernie Sanders, “Crazy Bernie.”

Trump tweeted out a doctored video of a segment of one of Pelosi’s addresses this week, which made Pelosi appear to sound intoxicated or unwell. Trump tweeted the video out to his millions of followers with the caption, “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE.”

When fact checkers pulled up the original video from C-SPAN, it was obvious the video had been slowed down to make it appear as though there was something wrong with Pelosi. The video went viral, being sent out en masse amongst MAGA supporters and right-wing figures. Rudy Giuliani also tweeted out the video, but deleted it once it became apparent it was doctored. Trump, however, has not deleted his tweet.

The person who created the doctored video of Pelosi was engaging in disinformation. Trump engaged in misinformation by tweeting the video out. In this case, his intentions were nefarious either way since his intention was to discredit Pelosi. This fact was sealed when he chose not to delete it from his Twitter feed after learning the truth. Therefore, this is an act of propaganda against Pelosi. The President of the United States openly engaging in propaganda against the Speaker of the House, the second in the line of succession.

Using the word “propaganda” is not hyperbole. It’s literally a dictionary definition of the word, which Dictionary.com defines as, “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”

Trump uses a particular tactic in his dissemination of propaganda, using one-sided statements like “everybody knows,” “you people probably know better than anyone,” “you all agree.” He qualifies his lies with these false confirmations of consensus. In the example of the Rose Garden address, he’s largely speaking to members of the press –they don’t have the means to respond– it’s a one-way exchange of information, yet he creates the illusion that everyone is in agreement with him.

As the investigations continue and the possibility of impeachment hearings is becoming more and more likely, Trump will become more unhinged and more brazen. It’s critical that we don’t let these abuses of power to become normalized.

This week the courts have ruled to uphold both cases in which the congressional subpoenas were contested by the Trump administration. There are more subpoenas awaiting judicial review, as well as an appeal to one of the cases already ruled upon. This is how the system is supposed to work: checks and balances between the three branches of government. However, if the Trump administration defies the court rulings, then we’ll have entered uncharted territory. This constitutional crisis will turn into a constitutional calamity. Our form of government will no longer be a democratic republic; it’ll be a banana republic ruled by a tyrant.

The Weapons of Propaganda

For as long as our species has been exchanging information, propaganda has been a tool used by the powerful to manipulate the people in order to push a particular agenda. The advent of the internet has been both a blessing and a curse to those subjected to propaganda campaigns. The Information Age spawned out of the worldwide adoption of the internet has given ideal platforms to peddlers of propaganda, but on the flip side has also given people a means to distinguish fact from fiction –people have the ability to do their own fact-checking if they’re willing to take the extra step.

Disinformation and Misinformation


At its core, propaganda is founded on the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation. In common language, disinformation and misinformation are often used interchangeably, as if they’re synonyms. While they both stem from the spread of inaccurate or misleading information, the difference between the two lies in the intent of the person or entity spreading it.

Disinformation

The basis of a propaganda campaign is founded on disinformation. Dictionary.com defines disinformation as, “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”

Disinformation is intended to deceive the public in order to strengthen or weaken a person, institution, or issue. The intent is malignant and the objective is nefarious. Disinformation can be completely fictitious or a fabrication (e.g. mixing factual information with false information).

Misinformation

While disinformation and misinformation are two sides of the same coin, misinformation is different since it isn’t necessarily spread with malicious intent. Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year for 2018 was granted to the word “misinformation,” which is a testament to the times we’re living in. They define it as, “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”

Misinformation could be something as innocent as a journalist making an honest mistake about something they reported in a story. They may have gotten a date or detail wrong, but since that information is inaccurate, it can still be considered misinformation. However, once the journalist or editor realizes the information isn’t accurate, reputable news organizations will immediately post a redaction or correction.

The act of spreading misinformation also comes to fruition on smaller scales. The average citizen may be explaining a subject to someone, but their explanation is inaccurate. The person spreading the misinformation doesn’t think it’s misinformation; they think it’s fact-based information. Their intent wasn’t to misinform, but the result of the exchange was misinformation, nonetheless. We’ve all been guilty of spreading misinformation in one way or another.

The Impact of Spreading Misinformation


There’s undoubtedly a dark side to misinformation: when a person is subjected to disinformation and they absorb it as factual information. When that person spreads the disinformation to others, they’ve unwittingly become a vehicle for disinformation. If their intent is sincere –they believe the information to be accurate– they’re spreading misinformation. However, they’re nonetheless carrying out the objective of the propagandist who peddled the disinformation for nefarious reasons.

It’s similar to the way contagious diseases are spread. A virus (i.e. disinformation) has infected a person, and then that person begins unwittingly spreading the virus to other people (i.e. misinformation). Therefore, a sneeze or a cough is akin to a tweet or a post on social media. This is how any kind of information is spread. It’s why we say a story or video has gone “viral” when it has reached a critical mass of shares or views, allowing it to quickly spread across the internet.

The Russian government waged a “sweeping and systematic” (as described in the Mueller Report) attack on our democracy during the 2016 presidential election. A part of that attack was posting fake news stories on social media platforms. They posted these stories from imposter accounts. They concealed their true identities by creating accounts that, on the surface, seemed like it was just another American sharing a news story. The profiles were carefully created to resemble the profile of an American citizen. Some of these accounts were controlled by actual Russian operatives (e.g. shills), others were autonomous (i.e. Russian bots).

Depending on the group they were infiltrating, they would modify the profile accordingly. For example, if they wanted to spread a fake story that once Hillary Clinton took office, she secretly planned to sign an executive action that would take firearms away from all Americans, the Russian propagandist’s profile would reflect the profile of the average NRA-affiliated American. If they took the story at face value, they would more than likely share the story with all of their friends or followers. So, in this case, the Russian propagandist was spreading disinformation; the unwitting American reader was then spreading misinformation.

The Russian propagandist planting a seed of disinformation in the right social media habitat could yield a massive harvest for the propagandist. Once the disinformation has been planted, it’s the unsuspecting Americans who share the information to their network of friends and followers –and so on, and so on.

In a research study commissioned by the Knight Foundation, an American non-profit organization, it was discovered that more Americans spread Russian disinformation than the Russians themselves. They found that Americans spread millions of tweets and posts containing misinformation, all of which originated from Russian disinformation campaigns.

Where We Are Now


The Russians succeeded in their disinformation campaigns. The Russian attack was insidious since it used American social media companies and American citizens to do most of the work for them. They understood the power of social media as a near-perfect vehicle to spread disinformation. Their objective was to sow the seeds of discord amongst Americans, amplifying an already polarized society. The Russians played a significant role in dividing us and therefore weakening our democracy.

The Russian’s other objective was to interfere in the political discourse in the country by using their disinformation tactics. Putin had contempt for Hillary Clinton and thought Trump would serve Russia’s interests better than Clinton. A significant portion of the disinformation spread by the Russians was to strengthen the Trump campaign while also weakening the Clinton campaign.

The term “fake news” entered the American lexicon with the rise of Donald Trump. Fake news is a real thing, however Trump re-coined the term for his own benefit. Instead of using its true meaning –news stories drenched in disinformation– he applied it to any news story that wasn’t favorable to his own self interests. In doing so, it discredited the free press in the minds of his supporters and has created confusion amongst the general population.

In calling the free press “the enemy of the people,” it has led his supporters to distrust reporting from some of the most well-established and most-respected news organizations in the country. This is dangerous because if Americans don’t have access to factual information, they’ve been robbed of the ability to make informed decisions.

Russia’s attack on our democracy during the 2016 presidential election wasn’t a singular event. Their disinformation campaigns have never stopped. They’re still engaged in spreading disinformation through social media. The Trump administration, however, has been silent on the issue, which leaves us vulnerable to continued efforts to crumble our democracy from the inside out.

The fate of our democracy, in respect to the disinformation flooding social media feeds, has essentially been left for the social media companies to figure out. Most of them have taken measures to prevent, as well as to identify and remove disinformation from their sites, but it’s not enough. The Russians, and other foreign adversaries, are simply adapting to their countermeasures. They need a central governing body to consult and assist them. There needs to be a combined public and private effort to subdue Russia’s cyber war against us.

The most unsettling facts concerning Russia’s attack on our democracy is the fact that Trump has refused to meaningfully acknowledge it’s even happened and is happening.

When Trump spoke privately with Putin during a summit in Helsinki in July 2018, Trump, responding to a question from the press on Russia meddling, said he “doesn’t see any reason” for Russia to have meddled in our election. He went on to say, “I have great confidence in my Intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

In early May 2019, Trump had an hour-long phone conversation with Putin. When he was asked by the press if he warned Putin about interfering in future elections, he said, “We didn’t discuss that.”

Final Thoughts


Disinformation and misinformation are toxic to any democracy. We all depend on reliable information to give us the facts we need to form our own opinions and make informed decisions that affect our lives. When the information being spread is false or misleading, it inevitably leads us to make decisions that aren’t in our best interest.

It’s a fact that Putin’s Russia engaged –and is still engaged– in a widespread social media campaign to sow discord and misinform Americans. Yet, the person sworn to protect and defend us from all enemies has treated Putin with adulation, and in his mind, has turned our adversary on the world stage into his personal ally.

This raises puzzling and concerning questions. Why is Trump so fond of Putin? Why hasn’t Trump initiated a strategic plan to protect us from the ongoing attacks from Russia? What does Trump have to gain or lose by siding with Putin against the interests of his own country? What’s his motive for remaining silent and refusing to take action?

There will come a time when we have a true understanding of Trump’s motivations. Until then, we’re left to fend off the rotten fruits of Putin’s nefarious labor on our own. We must be our own guardians against the Russian government.