Is It Possible to Decode Trump’s Use of His ‘Fake News!’ Gambit?

Yesterday, the President of the United States tweeted four times about his disdain for “Fake News!” media, with his only specific allegation being demonstrably false.

President Donald Trump has used this gambit so many times that we are all now dangerously desensitized by the utter insanity of a pathological liar charging the news media with creating “Fake News!” and having his “Cult 45” cheer him on. So much so that this latest false charge made only a relatively minor impact on the news cycle.

There have been many theories about what is really going on behind Trump’s “Fake News!” mantra. Leslie Stahl of CBS has said that Trump told her directly that it is a device he uses to cynically discredit the news media in general, so that nothing bad they say about him will be believed by his many passionate fans.

But is it possible to determine whether a story is true or not based on if Trump calls it “Fake News!”? This is, as a conservative who has long had extreme distrust of the often totally incompetent and extremely liberal mainstream news media, but who does not believe that the press is consciously creating “Fake News!”, a question I have given quite a bit of thought.

The conventional wisdom among pundits at non state-run media outlets is that Trump uses “Fake News!” for stories that he sees as critical of him. If the story is negative about him, it must, at least in his mind, be inherently “fake,” even if it is actually true.

As these two well-researched articles suggest, there is quite a bit of evidence to back up this concept. While I agree that there is something to this theory, it appears to me that reality may be a little more complex, and frankly more interesting, than just that.

One of the most telling things about Trump’s phony “Fake News!” crusade is when he does NOT make the charge. This phenomenon was brought home in a big way when law professor Paul Campos and I were having long discussions trying to figure out whether Trump was involved in the Elliott Briody/Shera Bechard scandal, which, for a while, appeared to be a cover story to protect Trump.

As I started to become more skeptical about whether this scenario was really true, Campos told me that what kept him very confident in his theory was that Trump had remained completely silent about the story. By his thinking, if the story was false, Trump would have jumped all over it as an example of “Fake News!”

At the time, I saw some logic to this way of looking at it, though I knew relying on Trump’s psychology being both consistent and logical was extremely dangerous. As it turns out, it appears that we were very wrong about what happened there, and that Trump had nothing directly to do with Bechard being paid big bucks to have an abortion.

But that left an interesting question: Why didn’t Trump promote that story as “Fake News!”? If his goal really is to discredit his critics, then this would seem to have been a golden opportunity that he missed.

With this in mind, I have noticed a couple of other recent stories which would seem to be ripe for Trump to call them “Fake News!” because they are both very dubious, and are stories about which he would have personal knowledge.

Specifically, last November there was the “Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange during the campaign” scoop, and then in December there was the “Paul Cohen really was in Prague during the campaign” bombshell.

Both of these stories are backed by an extreme paucity of actual evidence, and have been strongly denied by those who were supposedly involved. They appear to me to be very real examples of major stories which could be legitimately called “Fake News!” And yet, while it is fascinating to note that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani called at least one of them “Fake News!,” I can find no indication that Trump himself has specifically labeled either of them as such.

Given his obsession with the Russia investigation, and the fact that he would obviously know if either of these events actually happened, it is simply not possible for Trump’s lack of comment of them to be due to an absence of interest or awareness. It would be tempting for Trump critics to conclude that, “See?! Since he isn’t calling them “Fake News!” the stories MUST be true then!” However, a strong case can be made that the opposite is actually the truth.

What if Trump doesn’t bother to call out stories that he knows are false as “Fake News!” because he doesn’t see them as a legitimate threat? Perhaps Trump views negative news stories the way a military commander views targets when determining which are dangerous enough to demand immediate attack and therefore, if he knows they are false, they simply don’t warrant wasting ammunition?

If true, this theory would be important on at least two fronts. The first is that is proves that Trump is not really a culture warrior fighting for true media accountability (if he was, people like me might be willing to tentatively support him), but is rather simply exploiting legitimate conservative distrust of the media to protect himself from accurate criticism.  The second is that it would lend credibility to the idea that the more firepower Trump focuses on a story for being “fake,” the more likely it is to actually be true.

Given that Trump’s use of “Fake News!” is often exceedingly general, as opposed to specifically detailing what stories about him are wrong, and explaining why they are, it is difficult to know for sure what it all really means. But when the Russia investigation is finally over we will be able to break this code by getting the answer to this seminal question: Is Trump constantly claiming there was “NO COLLUSION!” and that reporting on that issue is “Fake News!” because he was smart enough to place the goalposts where he knows Mueller can’t reach them, or because he knows that it really did happen?

[Featured Image by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images]

John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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