President Donald Trump began his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday with a lengthy rant railing against what he dubbed the “fake news.” After weeks of bad headlines, Trump suggested the “dishonest media” falsified stories about issues in his administration by using made-up sources.
But hours earlier, Trump had denounced “leakers” of “classified information,” implying that the sources were, in fact, real.
“And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake! Phony! Fake!” Trump said. “A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”
Trump often used the media as a foil during his presidential campaign last year. His attacks have intensified this month as his administration has faced a raft of reports on internal turmoil and alleged improprieties. Most recently, on Feb. 14, the New York Times published an article that claimed some of Trump’s associates and members of his campaign team “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” in the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election. CNN followed that up with a report released in the wee hours of Friday morning that said White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to refute the Times story and the agency’s deputy director refuted his request. If Priebus actually made such a request it would appear to violate restrictions on the White House communicating with the FBI about ongoing investigations.
While Trump’s CPAC speech accused the media of having phony sources, just a few hours before his speech, in a pair of tweets he suggested the CNN story came from “leakers” within the FBI and included “classified information.”
“The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security “leakers” that have permeated our government for a long time. They can’t even…… find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW,” Trump wrote.
Trump began his assault on the media while boasting about the standing ovation he received as he walked on stage.
“You know, the dishonest media, they’ll say, ‘He didn’t get a standing ovation!’ Trump said, adding, “They will say he never got a standing ovation. They are the worst!”
Trump did indeed receive a standing ovation at the gathering of conservative political activists.
The president went on to note that the media “didn’t think” he “would win” last year’s presidential race. He then referenced a Washington Post story published on Feb. 9 that claimed Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, privately discussed sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States late last year during the presidential transition. While Flynn initially denied discussing sanctions with Moscow, the Post’s story cited “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.” Flynn’s conversations could have been a violation of laws against private citizens communicating with foreign governments that are in conflict with the United States. In his speech, Trump suggested the paper’s sources on the Flynn story did not exist.
“I saw one story recently where they said, ‘nine people have confirmed.’ There are no nine people,” said Trump. “I don’t believe there was one or two people.”
Oddly, immediately after claiming the nine sources did not exist, Trump then claimed to know the people who had spoken to the Post.
“I know the people. I know who they talked to,” he said.
Though Trump claimed the Post story was false, the president fired Flynn four days after the story was published. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn was dismissed because of concerns he had “misled the vice president and others” when he initially denied discussing the sanctions with the Russian ambassador. As Trump finished his speech, Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron released a statement arguing Flynn’s firing “confirmed” the paper’s story.
“Everything we published regarding Gen. Flynn was true, as confirmed by subsequent events and on the record statements from administration officials themselves. The story led directly to the general’s dismissal as national security adviser. Calling press reports fake doesn’t make them so,” Baron said.
After his shot at the Post, Trump continued by railing against the backlash against a tweet he sent on Feb. 17 where he blasted the “FAKE NEWS media.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
In his speech, Trump argued those who criticized his comments as an attack on the press missed the nuance in the message.
“The dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people. The fake news, they dropped off the word fake,” Trump said. “All of a sudden, the story became the media is the enemy. They take the word ‘fake’ out.”
The tweet specifically mentioned the New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN.
Trump insisted he’s “not against the media.”
“I’m not against the press. I don’t mind bad stories if I deserve them. And I tell you, I love good stories,” Trump said, adding, “I don’t get too many of them.”
Trump declared the media should not be allowed to use anonymous sources.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump said. “Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.”
Typically, the press uses anonymous sources in reporting information from people whose jobs could be in danger if they were identified. Often, granting anonymity is the only way to get people inside government to share information that their superiors do not want publicized. Anonymous sources have exposed a raft of information about Trump’s first few weeks in office including Flynn’s contacts with Russia, the allegations other members of his campaign were also in touch with Moscow last year, the story about Priebus’ communication with the FBI, and details of extensive infighting among White House staff.
“Let them say it to my face!” Trump declared. “Let there be no more sources.”
But both the president and his staff have at various times asked for anonymity in interactions with the media. Just about an hour before Trump took the stage at CPAC, White House staff held a “background briefing” to push back on the story about Priebus’ conversation with the FBI. The ground rules called for identifying the sources as anonymous “senior administration officials.” Reporters who covered Trump during his career as a real estate developer say he obscured his identity in conversations with them by pretending to be his own publicist. Those reports were confirmed by a recording obtained by the Washington Post last year where Trump falsely described himself as a publicist named “John Miller.” And in late 2012 when he was still promoting so-called “birther” conspiracy theories that President Barack Obama was born outside the country, Trump infamously tweeted that he received information from an anonymous “extremely credible source.”
An 'extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2012
As Trump continued at CPAC, he acknowledged there are “some great reporters around.”
“But there are some terrible, dishonest people and they do a tremendous disservice to our country and to our people,” Trump said.
To prove his point, Trump cited the media’s reporting on polls that failed to predict his victory in the very close presidential race last year. While he initially said he would “not even mention names,” after the crowd roared, Trump revealed the media outlets he was referring to: CNN, CBS, ABC, and NBC.
“We have to fight it. They’re very smart, they’re very cunning, and they’re very dishonest,” Trump said.
Trump noted many critics claim his shots at the press are an attack on the First Amendment.
“They say that we can’t criticize their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment. You know, they always bring up the First Amendment,” he said. “And I love the first amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody!”
The president praised the First Amendment for giving people “the right to criticize fake news and criticize it strongly.” He concluded his discussion of the media by suggesting the corporations that own many major media outlets have an unfair influence on coverage.
“Many of these groups are part of the large media corporations that have their own agenda,” Trump said. “And it’s not your agenda and it’s not the country’s agenda. It’s their own agenda.”
Once he was finished with the press, Trump launched into what that was essentially the same stump speech he delivered throughout the presidential campaign and at his post-election rallies. Trump relived his victory in the Republican primary, attacked his former rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and touted his plans to crack down on illegal immigration, among other things.
“The support for me was a record, as you know, not only in terms of numbers of people, but percentages of those numbers that voted for Trump. So I want to thank you folks … amazing outpouring. And I will not disappoint you,” Trump said.
Trump did not actually receive a record number or percentage of votes in last year’s election.