The president’s anti-press assaults are so frequent and potent that newspapers across the United States banded together August 16 to publish simultaneous editorials defending the press’s important watchdog role in democracy.
White House spam
The White House Communications Office produced more than 2,000 newsletters during President Obama’s eight years in office. They announced his daily schedule, made official policy statements and provided a regular diet of sleek presidential photos. At times, the Obama newsletter offered behind-the-scenes stories about life inside the White House.
I’ve never met anyone else who pays the White House newsletter much attention. But I read and analyze every email.
Trump’s need for good press
The White House newsletter is a useful window into the Trump administration – just not necessarily in the way its editors may intend.
Early in Trump’s term, when the president cycled through four communications directors in six months, the newsletters mirrored the chaos in the White House.
They looked amateurish. Links didn’t work. The layout was cluttered and busy, and included unconnected, disparate events. Mimicking Trump’s voice, they referred to everything related to the president as “successful,” and there were constant references to making America great again.
By mid-2017, as the administration settled in somewhat, the newsletter began to look more professional. At that point it began to offer new, unintended insights into the administration, showing the president’s strong desire for good press.
The nearly 600 newsletters produced so far under Trump have included hundreds of references to positive news stories.
Of those, my analysis finds, roughly half of the clips cited were from mainstream outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, NBC and CBS – all publications that have been targeted in angry presidential tweets.
Evidently the White House newsletters must sometimes scour local papers to find anything nice said about the administration. West Wing Reads has cited an article from Illinois’s Belleview News-Democrat about Ivanka Trump visiting a community college there, and Redding, California’s Record Searchlight about Cabinet secretaries inspecting areas damaged by forest fires.
The Obama administration never tooted its own horn in this way. Occasionally, its newsletter linked to op-ed pieces from administration officials, but generally Obama’s email updates were not designed to trumpet coverage that made the administration look good. Rather, they served as a source of information about policy, public affairs and White House events.
Sometimes, in its search for positive coverage, Trump’s newsletter has even mistaken satirical criticism for authentic praise.
In March 2017 1600 Daily praised a Washington Post article by Alexandra Petri called “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why,” which slammed the president for proposing massive budget cuts to federal agencies like the Department of State and Environmental Protection Agency.
The White House propaganda machine
For three months in 2017, the newsletter had the odd habit of republishing the administration’s own Twitter posts as if they were news stories from the press.
Usually, it would publish a screenshot of a tweet by or about the president from a government account, including congratulatory tweets from the White House itself celebrating the president for traveling overseas, and write about it.
The effect of all this tweeting and retweeting was that the White House newsletter functioned as a Trump propaganda machine. Each pro-Trump tweet become another media point to be published, shared and spun as praise for the administration.
How the president communicates
My academic reading of the White House newsletter supports that view. This daily email is a window into the Trump administration, laying bare the chaotic first months, the promotion of the Trump brand and the president’s erratic communication style.
Mostly, though, the White House newsletter reflects this administration’s complicated relationship with the news media. Despite press secretaries and a president who deride the journalists for their negative coverage, this White House also wants the validation and credibility that comes from media praise.
And it’s looking far and wide to find it.