When Brad Parscale, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, started peddling a Trump-branded Sharpie pen on Friday morning, things for a moment seemed to be returning to what passes for normal now: The frenzied commander in chief was finally steering away from a desperately earnest fight against admitting he inaccurately warned of Hurricane Dorian’s threat to Alabama and back toward a favorite pastime: trolling. Unfortunately, the message—that this branded pen “has the special ability to drive @CNN and the rest of the fake news crazy!”—came much too late. The key to trolling is jeering indifference: You win because you don’t care. To a troll, caring is hilarious and (should you make the mistake of doing it) fatal.
By that metric alone, Trump cannot be said to have won the week. During this astonishing #Sharpiegate news cycle—a throbbing tumor attached to the real news of a Bahamas devastated by the storm—Trump, who typically lies with fluency and ease, cared so deeply about being fact-checked on this particular matter that his handlers warned the press he’d keep it going as long as they did. Trouble was, Trump cared much more than the press did. Maybe pathologically. He spent the better part of a week doubling down like a hangry gambler on this single claim, sharing old maps of obsolete weather forecasts to find something that would make him right—while Alabama went unaffected and the Bahamas mourned and the Carolinas battened down. He persisted until almost everyone ended up mystified and astounded, shaking their heads the way one does when someone has well and truly lost it.
Here, in case you missed it, is the original claim Trump made on Sunday and continues to defend: “In addition to Florida—South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” The Alabama part of this was untrue, and the Birmingham National Weather Service immediately corrected the record on Sunday, operating under the understandable assumption that Alabamians receiving accurate information about a looming natural disaster mattered more than the president’s pride. Trump, unaccustomed to correction, disagreed. Since then, it didn’t hit but it could have has become his mantra, as he tweeted about it for days before the Wednesday Sharpie incident that will live in infamy, when he presented an official NOAA map doctored with black ink to make the hurricane appear to be headed toward Alabama.
More interesting than Trump’s ongoing lie is what his absolute fixation on maintaining it says about the state of his White House and its relationship to the information environment. So clumsy and obvious was the Sharpie-drawn extension that it seemed like a test—how much can I get away with? Authoritarians frequently gauge their subordinates’ loyalties by ordering them to agree to things that are plainly untrue. This is the very first thing Trump did to then–press secretary Sean Spicer, who was forced to publicly defend the president’s claim about crowd sizes at his inauguration despite photographic evidence to the contrary. Spicer obliged, teaching Trump that he could use weak people to help him bend reality as president.
Here’s a theory about why Trump couldn’t let it go this week: One of his staunchest allies didn’t seem to have his back. It may have rattled him. Fox News, which he has recently started attacking for being insufficiently slavish—has let him down. Pundits like Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera offered a barked and incoherent defense, but the network’s reporters were going harder against the official Trump story than usual. Trump’s ire at the network has been building—“The New @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet,” he tweeted on Aug. 28—and he seems to be testing the network’s response to that attempted bullying. If that was his experiment, it’s yielding uneven results. On Thursday, Trump invited Fox White House correspondent John Roberts into the Oval Office “to hit back at Shepard Smith,” according to a White House aide, but it didn’t tilt Roberts’ coverage in the way Trump may have hoped: “By the time the president tweeted about Alabama at 10:51 am on Sunday, the forecast track had moved well east,” John Roberts emphasized later on a Thursday broadcast. “There are some … suggesting that by altering an official forecast map, the president broke a federal law.”
It’s not hard to understand why people—even Fox News reporters—are refusing to let #Sharpiegate go. Natural disasters are serious business. And there is nothing partisan about a hurricane map, or about the potential for false alarms and unnecessary panic and misdirected resources. On Sunday, when this debacle began, Alabama meteorologist James Spann quickly replied to Trump’s tweet with “Alabama will not be impacted by Dorian in any way.” Asked whether he’d intended to “bash President Trump,” he replied, “I have zero interest in politics. Dorian will not affect Alabama in any way. That is not a political statement.”
He’s correct. And if #Sharpiegate can be said to serve any non-embarrassing function, it’s as a test of another kind, to see which institutions and people have rotted under the president’s hysterical commands and which ones haven’t. On Thursday, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown issued a statement taking responsibility for the president’s out-of-date information. On Thursday, a source from the White House informed CNN that Trump had personally directed Brown to make this statement. The president was forcing a high-ranking military official to cover for him. On Friday evening, the NOAA released a peculiar, unsigned statement throwing the Alabama NWS under the bus for contradicting the president-who-shall-not-be-contradicted. (The NWS Employees Organization wasn’t having it, and neither were many former NOAA officials, who professed themselves stunned.)
What’s noteworthy about all this is not that Trump is forcing the government to write him notes of excuse; that’s old news by now. It’s that his critics have not merely shrugged and gone away, and that even the façade of his defense has shown cracks. It was a White House aide who revealed the John Roberts visit to the Oval Office, and, according to the Washington Post, it was a White House official who broke with the administration line to admit that the president of the United States had marked up an official NOAA map in order to avoid even a whiff of admitting fault.
“No one else writes like that on a map with a black Sharpie,” the source said. Trump can sell whatever he wants; he’s seeing what happens when people don’t buy it.