We awoke this morning to a new campaign reality. The elite media are calling Donald Trump a liar:
“Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic” – New York Times
“Trump Admits Obama Was Born In US, But Falsely Blames Clinton For Rumors” – Washington Post
“We just got played.” – John King on CNN
For the first time in this election cycle, the consensus media frame questioned the veracity of the Republican presidential nominee in blunt and certain terms. Consider this lede from the Post:
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the United States, ending his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African American president but also seeking to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors.
Or consider this lede from the Associated Press:
After five years as the chief promoter of a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace, Donald Trump abruptly reversed course Friday and acknowledged the fact that the president was born in America. He then immediately peddled another false conspiracy. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Trump declared, enunciating each word in a brief statement at the end of a campaign appearance. “Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.” But as the GOP presidential nominee sought to put that false conspiracy theory to rest, he stoked another, claiming the “birther movement” was begun by his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. There is no evidence this is true.”
Until yesterday, the press was unwilling to call Trump a liar for fear of undermining their capacity to remain neutral in their coverage. So what changed? Perhaps it was the sense, as John King put it, that reporters had been suckered into covering what had been billed as a major press event only to watch it turn into a free informercial for Trump’s newest Washington, DC property, as the candidate rambled on about his hotel, devoted one sentence to the birther issue, and refused to take questions as promised. It’s one thing to treat the public like fools, but play the press and you’re playing with fire.
The event itself was more revealing of the candidate than the coverage suggested. Coming days after refusing to acknowledge his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s unequivocal statement that the president was born in the United States, Trump looked like a man who was forced to go to the dentist against his will, spitting out the sentence about Obama like he was biting on a lemon. He could not recognize Obama’s citizenship without tacitly admitting he was wrong, and Donald Trump never admits he’s wrong about anything. To go through with it, there would have to be something for him, like free air time to promote his hotel, and he would need a new narrative to turn his admission of weakness into a heroic act. So there he was, revising history by claiming Hillary was the real birther and he, Donald Trump, was the closer who put those false rumors to rest and rescued the country from the controversy Hillary started.
Until yesterday, reporters largely accepted Trump’s words and actions at face value. There were passing suggestions that some of his statements may not align fully with the facts, but anything more than that would have slipped into editorializing and forced reporters out of their comfort zone. This permitted Trump to float through an endless string of lies and outrages and have them pass for his half of a “balanced” campaign story in which Hillary Clinton’s words and behavior provided the other half. The problem with this coverage model is that it doesn’t permit reporters to distinguish venial sins on one side from cardinal sins on the other.
But the birther episode has finally cleared a path to a new narrative. Until now, the media’s framework for the election has only given Clinton the space to attack Trump as if he were a conventional nominee. She could question his character, competence and readiness to be president, or individually call out his many outrageous claims, but as long as the press normalized Trump’s candidacy she couldn’t make the case that Trump is fundamentally dishonest in a way that makes him qualitatively different from ordinary candidates—at least not without looking like an ordinary candidate engaged in typical negative campaigning.
Now that the press has unequivocally called Trump a liar they have opened the door to a different discussion. What else is he lying about? How do these lies fit together? How do they define him? In this context, Trump’s failure to release his tax and health records takes on new meaning. With the press relinquishing its traditional narrative balance—at least for the moment—Clinton has an opening to make Trump’s integrity an overarching theme in a way she previously could not and shift the burden of proof to the candidate to show the public he is not a fraud.
Trump has relied on journalism’s inability to capture the extent of his dishonesty since he floated down that escalator over a year ago. It has allowed him to create a false world built from lies and innuendos so massive as to be invisible to reporters determined to fit his campaign into conventional boxes. On Friday he finally went too far and the press called out his words and actions for what they are. The Clinton campaign will have to make the most of the opportunity it has been handed if this new narrative is to take hold, but the stage is set. Once you pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz you can never quite close it again.