In the latest in a series of deranged moves against the press, the White House denied on Friday that the administration was contemplating mobilizing as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants around the country. The denial was launched in response to an Associated Press report published earlier on Friday that stated this had been considered—and cited a leaked draft of a White House memo as evidence. While the White House had declined to comment for the AP story, once it was released, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer fired back: “There is no effort at all to … utilize the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants,” he said. “This is 100 percent not true.”
Weird. So why wouldn’t the White House have just told the AP that on Thursday or Friday and put the whole story to rest?
Well, likely because Spicer’s denial isn’t as comprehensive as it sounds. Understanding what he actually means seems to require parsing the definition of the word “is.” In this case, it sounds like Spicer probably meant is in the traditional Bill Clinton sense of that word. As in maybe this action was being considered before, but currently it is not. But also it might be again. Or not. Answering the question this way allows Spicer to deny a negative true story while also technically not lying about it. This seems to be the likeliest scenario at this point but until he answers a question about whether or not the memo was ever really in play, we just won’t know.
The best evidence for this theory is in a report by Bloomberg: “A Homeland Security Department official who insisted on anonymity to describe internal deliberations said the memo was an early idea that was never seriously considered.” So it was an idea, but now it is not. Spicer wasn’t lying as long as you use the right is.
Whether the National Guard will be used to enforce Trump’s deportation plans is beside the point right now. What matters is how the White House responded to this story: It refused to answer when it was being reported and then trashed the ultimate report as “100 percent not true” after it came out. The purpose of that reaction is simple. It pushes the White House’s main narrative: that the press are peddling “fake news;” that the administration is rife with treacherous leakers; that everyone in the media and in government is conspiring to make Donald Trump look bad; and that the only person who can be trusted to tell the truth is the president himself.
If the White House had actually wanted to offer clarity on its plans or make people aware that it wasn’t planning to create a terrifying mass deportation force, the solution would have been simple: They could have simply denied the report on Thursday when the AP sought comment or explained that the proposal was never seriously considered. But the benefits of further delegitimizing the media and any dissenters inside the administration far outweigh any potential upsides of clear communication. Instead, this method builds on what Trump’s press conference and “media survey” qua fundraiser accomplished on Thursday: Attack the group Trump sees as his principal adversary.
Here’s what else the White House gains from this informational vacuum: The leaked story further terrorizes immigrant communities that are already reeling from reports of sweeps and roundups. It also further emboldens Immigration and Customs Enforcement (and Customs and Border Patrol) agents who are being told that they answer to nobody but the president. It assures Trump’s base, albeit through a proposal the administration denies is being considered, that “illegals” are going to be dealt with brutally. And it sets up a convenient potential fight with the judicial branch down the road.
We are long past the point where we can impute logic or cunning to such moves. Better to suspect that this story, like the disastrous implementation of the executive order travel ban, has as much (or more) to do with incompetence and interagency miscommunication as it does with a master plan. And whichever it was, the result is the same: These actions continue to serve the single uber-agenda Trump loves—declaring loudly that the press is the enemy and that leakers are going down.
That it also distracts from the ongoing war against the environment, women’s rights, workers, and baby bears now taking place on Capitol Hill is just a cherry on top. Emoluments violations are piling up like beer cans on a frat house lawn. The media is made to attempt to chase down what may or may not be fake news because it may or may not be true. It is chaos.
But whether it is intentional or incompetence does not matter: We all need to stop berating the media for being endlessly distracted. Instead, we should be aware of the effects the chaos has. One real effect of Spicer’s failure to reply to the AP is that immigrants may now be more afraid. That matters. Another is that it emboldens ICE to continue its harsh treatment of immigrants.
And finally, Spicer’s evade-then-berate act undermines the credibility of the press. That matters, too. Without the press acting as watchdogs, looting the public coffers and preying on the weak is exponentially simpler. The media loses by reporting the real story and getting chastised for it. And we all lose if the media doesn’t report the real story, because that lets the White House get away with mounting evidence of corruption, incompetence, and cruelty. And none of us can afford that.