Since taking office, President Trump has lied about many things: his victory margin, his inaugural crowd size, millions of illegal votes, and anything else he feels like saying. On Saturday, he accused President Obama of tapping his phones. On Tuesday, he said 122 Guantanamo Bay prisoners released by Obama had returned to the battlefield. All of this is false.
Trump has been getting away with this nonsense for nearly two years. How? By pitting himself against opponents with credibility problems of their own. In the Republican primaries, it was “the politicians.” In the general election, it was Crooked Hillary. Now, it’s the media. Trump and his senior strategist, Steve Bannon, targeted the press for two reasons.* First, it’s the principal conduit for negative information about him. Trump and Bannon want voters to assume that everything published about Trump’s incompetence, self-enrichment, or Russian shenanigans is “fake news.” Second, the press is unpopular. “You have a lower approval rate than Congress,” Trump told reporters at a press conference last month. Isolating and vilifying journalists is a shrewd authoritarian strategy.
Trump can’t execute that strategy, however, because he’s addicted to conflict. Instead of sticking to the press, he has picked fights with other professions and institutions. Trump and Bannon call the media “the enemy of the people” and “the opposition party.” But thanks to Trump’s compulsive antagonism, the opposition party is expanding. It’s growing to include the CIA, the FBI, the courts, and every other fact-finding institution Trump has attacked. Like many a tyrant before him, Trump is getting into a war too big to win.
Three years ago, Trump accused the medical establishment of covering up of links (which don’t exist) between vaccines and autism. “The doctors lied,” Trump charged. In his campaign, Trump repeated his vaccine quackery and dismissed climate change as a fraud. Two weeks after his election, he suggested that climate-change scientists couldn’t be trusted.
Going after journalists, doctors, and scientists wasn’t enough. In December, Trump took on a new enemy. Responding to a leaked U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia had intervened in the election, Trump attacked the intelligence agencies.
On Twitter, he mocked them, putting ironic quotes around “intelligence.” He accused them of groping for evidence against Russia, deliberately leaking falsehoods about him, and targeting him as though working for “Nazi Germany.” At a Jan. 11 press conference, he said it was “disgraceful that the intelligence agencies” had tarnished him with “information that turned out to be so false and fake.”
At first, the only agency Trump named was the CIA. But last month, he went further. Incensed that his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had been caught lying about a secret phone call with Russia’s ambassador, Trump lambasted the FBI and the National Security Agency, which monitors such calls. “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia,” Trump tweeted. The NSA and FBI “should not interfere in our politics,” he warned. A week later, he fumed that the FBI “can’t even find the leakers within the FBI.”
Trump also went after the judiciary. Last year, he said the judge overseeing a fraud case against him was unfit because of his Mexican “heritage.” Last month, Trump denounced a “so-called judge” who ruled against his anti-Muslim travel ban in federal district court. “If something happens blame him and court system,” Trump tweeted. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to block the district judge’s ruling, Trump called the circuit court “political” and “a bad court.”
On Saturday, Trump launched another attack. In a tweet storm, he accused Obama of “tapping my phones” in Trump Tower. He wrote of his predecessor: “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Obama denied the charge. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said no such tap had been authorized. FBI Director James Comey, who knew Trump’s allegations were false, asked the Justice Department to deny them. But the White House refused. On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos asked: “Does President Trump accept the FBI director’s denial?” And Trump’s deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, replied: “I don’t think he does.”
Scientists, doctors, judges, former presidents. CIA, NSA, DNI, FBI. Trump picks fights with everyone. He stakes his credibility against theirs: Either they’re all lying or he is. This isn’t he-said-she-said between Trump and the Washington Post, or between Trump and the New York Times. It’s he-said-everyone-said: Trump’s version of reality on one side, and everybody else’s version on the other. With his nutty claims about crowd size and illegal votes, Trump has even drawn rebuttals from the Federal Election Commission and the National Park Service.
And that carries a price. Since his second week in office, Trump’s net approval rating has been negative, far below that of any recorded president. One reason is that together, the press, the scientists, the courts, and the intelligence agencies are more credible than he is.
By itself, the press is weak. In a December NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, only 16 percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in the national news media. The numbers were much higher for the FBI (32 percent), the CIA (33 percent), the Supreme Court (37 percent), and “police and law enforcement agencies” (59 percent). When the press stands with other institutions, it fares better. On climate change, for instance, only 7 percent of respondents surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center said they trusted the news media a lot. But 40 percent said they trusted the news media, climate scientists, or both.
How bad a mess Trump is getting himself into? The best answer comes from a Morning Consult/Politico poll taken in December, just after Trump challenged the intelligence agencies’ assessment of Russian interference. The poll asked: “How much do you trust each of the following when it comes to providing accurate information about foreign intelligence and events overseas that impact the U.S.?” The questionnaire offered four answers: a lot, some, not much, or not at all. None of the three categories of media that were tested—newspapers, network news, or cable news—earned “a lot” of trust from more than 15 percent of the voters sampled. Trump, with 21 percent, beat each of those groups. That put him even with the CIA and marginally above the FBI and NSA, which scored 20 percent each.
But people who trust newspapers, people who trust the CIA, and people who trust the FBI aren’t the same people. These sets only partial overlap. When you pool them together, by pitting Trump against the combined credibility of the institutions he has attacked, he gets swamped.
To illustrate this effect, Slate asked Morning Consult to compute, from its sample of 2000 registered voters, the percentage who expressed a lot of trust in at least one of the institutions denounced by Trump. We started with newspapers. Then we added other media. Then the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and finally Obama. As the pool increased—recapitulating Trump’s accumulation of disputes and enemies—the percentage rose.
Forty-seven percent of voters expressed a lot of trust in at least one of the people or institutions against whose credibility Trump has staked his own truthfulness. That’s more than twice the 21 percent who expressed such trust in Trump. And that’s before you add other professions and institutions, such as doctors, scientists, and judges, who weren’t included in this poll but have scored well in other surveys of public trust.
After years of Trump’s lies, it’s natural to wonder whether the laws of political gravity apply to him. They do. He has gotten this far by taking on one unpopular opponent after another: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton. Maybe Trump could have beaten the press one-on-one. Instead, he has opened a war of credibility against too many institutions. It’s a war he didn’t have to fight and is unlikely to win.
*Correction, March 9, 2017: This article originally misspelled Steve Bannon’s first name. (Return.)