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Press gives Trump 'fake news' ammo when it predicts things that don't come to pass

President Donald Trump sits alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, center, and senior adviser Jared Kushner, left, in September 2017. Tillerson and Kushner are among the Trump administration officials who have had their political obituaries written.
President Donald Trump sits alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, center, and senior adviser Jared Kushner, left, in September 2017. Tillerson and Kushner are among the Trump administration officials who have had their political obituaries written. (SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)

Jared Kushner.

Rex Tillerson.

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Jeff Sessions.

Rod Rosenstein.

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John Kelly.

What do they have in common?

Their political obituaries have all been written. They were all supposed to have been fired or reassigned from their jobs in the Trump administration, according to mainstream press accounts that pronounced them good as gone.

In some cases, like that of Secretary of State Tillerson, they were on the verge of being fired more than once, according to reports that seemed credible at the time. And yet, there he was Wednesday arriving in Ethiopia for an African trip intended to undo damage caused by Trump’s vulgar remarks in January about some of the countries there.

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Ditto for Kushner, who was described in all the best journalistic places last weekend as dead aide walking after he was stripped of his top secret clearance. Yet there he was Wednesday heading a delegation to Mexico on behalf of America.

Covering a presidency as unpredictable, chaotic even, as Trump’s is not easy. Trump can do a 180-degree pivot on policy in a matter of hours, depending on whom he last talked to. He did that recently on gun law reform in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.

And given the kind of erratic characters with whom he surrounds himself, which members of the administration can possibly be trusted to provide reliable information on background or off the record? Would you believe anything Kelleyanne Conway told you? How about Kushner or Sarah Huckabee Sanders?

But the craziness of the universe we are covering is no excuse for letting it affect the standards we use in gathering and reporting about it to our audiences. And standards of evidence for saying someone is about to be fired have definitely slipped in covering this presidency.

I blame Donald Trump for turning the presidency into a debased prime-time soap opera. But we in the media are not blameless when we provide a national platform to ridiculous, self-serving characters like Anthony Scaramucci as CNN and Bloomberg did Thursday.

Consider Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, and this headline in The New York Times on Nov. 30: “White House Plans Tillerson Ouster From State Dept., to Be Replaced by Pompeo.”

That’s Mike Pompeo, CIA director, as the replacement, and the first paragraph of the Times story says the switch could happen “within the next several weeks,” according to senior administration officials.

That report was quickly picked up by CNBC, which amped it up further with the onscreen graphic: “BREAKING NEWS: TILLERSON TO BE REPLACED AS SEC. OF STATE — NYT.”

A CNBC anchor told viewers, “The New York Times has a piece up now that envisions Tillerson, Rex Tillerson, will be ousted from State within weeks and be replaced by Mike Pompeo, of the CIA, according to senior administration officials.”

Even Fox News reported that “sources inside and outside the administration” were saying Tillerson “is expected to leave the administration.”

What’s even more problematic about that reporting is that the same scenario of Tillerson being fired and replaced by Pompeo was reported in early October on such platforms as Axios and Business Insider. Those reports came in the wake of an NBC report that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.”

And sure as night follows day, Trump blasted away within 24 hours of the Nov. 30 reports, calling them fake news.

“The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon – FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted. “He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!”

I would like to be a hometown booster and say Pugh really gave it to one of the nastier right-wing commentators on American TV. But the truth is the mayor desperately needs better media advice. It was not a good look for the mayor or Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

That’s one of the ways Trump gets traction with millions of Americans in his war with the press: The news media say something is going to happen, and when it doesn’t, he slaps the fake news tag on it, tarring everything we do with that brush.

You can see the logic of his fake news claim to people who don’t work in the press. But all we have to do to take that weapon out of his hands is publish only what we know to be true.

Don’t say something is imminent if we don’t know it to be true. And how could anyone know Trump was going to fire Tillerson “perhaps in the next several weeks” when the president doesn’t appear to know what he is going to do tomorrow until he’s seen which way the wind is blowing on such Fox News favorites of his as “Hannity” and “Fox & Friends”?

Even the language of “perhaps in the next several weeks” is weaselly. If you are saying that, you are trying to give yourself wiggle room. And if you feel that need, you should not be characterizing it as an imminent event.

Laying it off on senior administration officials will no longer fly, given the liars, hustlers, incompetents, poseurs and mountebanks who dominate this West Wing.

Steve Bannon was a very senior administration official. Would you trust one thing he told you? Or, how about chief of staff John Kelly? How many different versions did he offer on the timeline of when he was informed that White House aide Rob Porter had been accused by two ex-wives of years of abusive behavior? I don’t even want to get started on Kushner and the many federal filings he says he somehow forgot to make on little matters like a meeting with Russians and loans received for his businesses from banks in countries where he could potentially influence policy. And let’s not forget the recently departed Hope Hicks, who reportedly acknowledged in congressional testimony that she told “white lies” on behalf of her boss.

There is no David Gergen, Zbig Brzezinski, Elliot Richardson or George P. Schultz in this gang. And that’s an enormous challenge in covering this White House. You can reliably base reports on the words given on background or off the record when you are dealing with women and men of honor — or, at least, women and men you believe you can trust. But I have not seen anyone who fits that description in this administration.

I have seen a lot of strange things on cable news TV the last 25 years, but the journey through live interviews that former Donald Trump aide Sam Nunberg took Monday on MSNBC and CNN was one of the strangest and saddest.

So, let’s adjust our reporting accordingly. And let’s tell the audience how we have had to change our game because of Trump. Let’s shoot straight with our audiences and tell them there is no reason they should trust anything based on the words of senior administration officials.

This kind of speculative-predictive reporting has grown exponentially in the last year driven largely by such coverage of Trump — and changes in technology that make it almost impossible to have a clean scoop on any story unless you predict it well before anyone else.

But at what price to our credibility when Tillerson is seen carrying on as secretary of state four months after he was supposed to be history? We should be in the business of reporting, not predicting.

I am not saying Trump won’t fire Tillerson at some point. Trump will probably fire almost everybody before he’s done — except family members. But you don’t say in October or November Tillerson’s end is imminent, and then say, “See I told you so,” if he is fired in March or April.

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Trump drags almost everyone and everything he touches down to his level. One of the great challenges in covering him is to not let that happen. Our mission is to be better than him not just in doing our jobs, but in doing them with a sense of moral responsibility to the people we serve.

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The more chaotic and dishonest his presidency gets, the more precise and scrupulously honest we must be in chronicling it.

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