How the media got duped — once again — by Trump's phony Mexico tariff deal

How the media got duped — once again — by Trump's phony Mexico tariff deal
Official White House Photos by Joyce N. Boghosian

Donald Trump lies about everything. So why do newsrooms still assume he's telling the truth, especially when he unveils grand initiatives? On Friday, Trump claimed he had reached a landmark last-minute immigration deal with Mexico, which meant he no longer had to impose the tariffs he had been threatening, part of his incoherent southern-border policy. And the press, at least for the first 24 hours, went along with the charade, producing White House-friendly headlines that suggested Trump had staved off an economic crisis. But the deal turned out to be a joke. Question: Why do journalists keep making the same egregious mistake of trusting Trump?

The fact that Trump’s grand Mexico announcement fell apart shouldn’t be a surprise, since the president has shown himself to be a committed liar who will falsify all kinds of information. The challenge then becomes: How does the press treat a president who is a habitual liar, the likes of which we’ve never seen in U.S. presidential politics, one who prevaricates about important policy claims? The answer is to stop giving Trump any benefits of the doubt. Simply assume he's lying, always.

Trump's proposed tariffs on America's largest trading partner, which he warned would hit 25% on goods from Mexico in October, likely would have had a crippling effect on the U.S. economy, especially in the southern border states. So when he called off the threat late last week, the news was often reported as a dramatic win for the White House:

  • "Trump: U.S., Mexico reach deal to avoid new tariffs" (NPR)
  • "Trump drops his Mexico tariff threat after reaching immigration enforcement deal" (CNN)
  • "Trump says U.S. and Mexico reach last-minute deal to avoid tariffs" (CBS)

"The trade war ended before it began, forestalling that economic reckoning," The New York Times stressed in its initial coverage. The Republican National Committee even circulated a cable news clip touting Trump's successful negotiations with Mexico:

But the whole pact never passed the smell test. While Trump has been stomping around on Twitter taking imaginary bows—"This is being done to greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States. Details of the agreement will be released shortly by the State Department. Thank you!"—the public details of the deal remained thin and vague. One of Trump's supposed grand victories was that Mexico had agreed to send national guard troops to its border with Guatemala to help stem the flow of refugees heading toward the U.S. But Mexico only agreed to send "as many as" 6,000 soldiers, a strangely small number for such a massive enforcement job.

The White House presented a feel-good narrative that a week's worth of raucous negotiations had raced down to the Friday deadline wire before Trump finally won the key concessions, thereby avoiding a full-scale trade war. But none of it was true. It turns out that the last-minute pact was actually filled with agreements that Mexico had already made, long before Trump started hyping last Friday's tariff deadline. The folly continued on Saturday, when Trump desperately claimed on Twitter, in all caps, that Mexico had also agreed to buy more agricultural products from "patriotic" American farmers. But Bloomberg quickly reported that Mexican officials said no such agreement existed.

It's true that over the weekend, the press found out the truth about the bogus deadline-busting agreement and highlighted Trump's misleading declarations about it. By then, though, the White House had already enjoyed a full day's worth of feel-good headlines, depicting Trump as a masterful negotiator who got exactly what he wanted. (Also, when the press caught Trump fabricating details of the deal, reporters still wouldn't call him a liar.)

I realize that the journalistic norm is that when the White House announces a trade deal, news outlets report that America has made a trade deal. But these aren't normal times, and the press long ago needed to walk away from its beloved norms. (Trump, with a trail behind him of 10,000 lies, has shredded so many norms; why can't journalists?) Nothing Trump says or claims should ever be accepted as the truth. So why would newsrooms on Friday night, when word of the supposed last-minute agreement broke, just automatically assume it was legitimate?

The media's Mexico stumble comes just two months after the press embarrassed itself by following the lead of another Trump-appointed liar, Attorney General William Barr, who infamously claimed that special prosecutor Robert Mueller had cleared Trump of any wrongdoing in the Russia investigation. News outlets excitedly ran with GOP-friendly proclamations: "Mueller finds no conspiracy" (The Washington Post); "Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy" (The New York Times); “Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy" (Politico);  "Mueller finds no Trump collusion, leaves obstruction open" (Associated Press). But of course, journalists had no idea what Mueller found because no journalists had read his 448-page report; they had only read Barr's four-page press releaseYet after the Times announced that Barr's claims were a "powerful boost" to Trump, the paper hit Democrats for ”downplaying Mr. Mueller's findings,”while matter-of-factly detailing "the Mueller report’s findings."

This type of sleight of hand has been going on for years. Back in December 2016, weeks before he was sworn in, Trump claimed that Sprint was bringing back 5,000 jobs to the U.S. thanks to him, leading to a litany of positive headlines: “Trump Says Sprint Bringing 5,000 Jobs Back to U.S.” (The Wall Street Journal); "Trump says Sprint is bringing 5,000 jobs back to US” (New York Post); "Trump says Sprint to bring 5,000 jobs back to U.S." (Reuters). But none of it was true. Those Sprint jobs were part of a previously announced, pre-election jobs initiative on the part of the telecommunications giant.

Sound familiar?

Having a pathological liar occupy the Oval Office presents a world of new challenges for the press. The first lesson that should have been learned by now is never to believe Trump. Ever.

Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.

This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by