Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart, a CNN political analyst, was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
To the casual observer, two seemingly unrelated political stories broke Thursday in Washington. First, The Washington Post reported that doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which she appears intoxicated at a political event, had spread across the internet and social media platforms. (It should be noted that Pelosi doesn’t drink, but facts sometimes take a back seat to smears from opponents.) Later, at the White House, President Trump opened a new line of attack on Speaker Pelosi, saying, “She’s a mess. … She’s lost it. … I think she’s got a lot of problems.” He called her “crazy Nancy.”
To veteran watchers of the right-wing media food chain, the two events immediately raised alarm bells. Having been through the coordinated attacks on President Bill Clinton and his family, when I saw the Trump remarks, I immediately tweeted to a reporter, “Any connection between that (Trump’s) remark and the phony videos on the net?” It was a rhetorical tweet and my instinct seemed to prove exactly right as the rest of the day’s events played out.
For context, the previous day, Speaker Pelosi scored a direct shot on the President when she detailed Trump storming out of a meeting moments after it started because she had said earlier he was engaging in a cover-up. President Trump’s Rose Garden news conference did little to help his cause as he implied that no work would be done with Congress until the Democrats stop investigating him. Simply put, it was a no good, terrible, political day for President Trump.
The next morning, the attack on Pelosi began when multiple videos making it appear that the speaker was slurring her words began spreading like wildfire on social media. Trump’s remarks about “crazy Nancy” being “a mess” hit the exact same theme as the doctored video – that Pelosi was out of control with some sort of problem – and helped turn what could have remained a petty internet attack on the speaker into a major news story.
Then the machine kicked in. With the predicate set, a Fox Business News program aired a doctored clip of Pelosi sounding drunk. Team Trump then took the attack and ran with it, trying to substantiate the claims that Pelosi isn’t all there. The President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tweeted an edited clip, saying, “The last couple of weeks, she’s been talking funny. I’ve noticed it, and a lot of other people have noticed it.” Giuliani’s tweet was later deleted. And the President got in the game for himself, tweeting out the Fox video.
Now, there is no direct evidence that the attack on Pelosi was a coordinated effort, and it’s hard to know the President’s level of involvement in the spreading of conspiracies and misinformation, but the precision and the sequencing of the videos and tweets strongly suggest active coordination.
We should pause here just to underline one major point. The President of the United States made a statement and posted a tweet that helped spread completely false information against one of his political opponents. That alone is major news, but the bigger story is this has been going on within the right wing of American politics for decades.
Working for President Clinton, I lived through the days of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” as First Lady Hillary Clinton famously dubbed it. There were phony stories about the President ordering the murder of White House lawyer Vince Foster and the shooting down of a government plane to kill Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. That evolved with the Trump-led birther campaign designed to show that President Obama was not an American citizen and was born in Kenya.
However, the claims being leveled now against Pelosi are much more common – and much more dangerous for several reasons.
First, these smear campaigns have the active participation of the President of the United States. By sharing a phony video to his over 60 million Twitter followers, he is leading the vast right-wing conspiracy in plain sight and using the most powerful platform in the world, the Presidency, to spread nutty and damaging misinformation. It demeans the presidency and the United States at the same time.
Second, the tools to spread information are much more powerful and pervasive today. The internet and social media, in particular, allow for the rapid, viral distribution of information – including misinformation – to all corners of the world.
Finally, those who engage in and promote these campaigns don’t seem at all deterred anymore by fear of getting caught. It stands to reason when the President of the United States is a participant in an activity, there is an unspoken understanding that it is acceptable.
The most important question is: Do these possible coordinated campaigns work to discredit those being attacked? The answer is unambiguous. They do. They are often aimed at shoring up support for a candidate or elected official of the right-wing media machine. Remember, Pelosi put Trump on his heels Wednesday, so it was almost expected the machine would launch Thursday in order to keep the Make America Great Again crowd on the offensive.
News organizations did a good job discrediting the videos and the overall smear effort, but only after countless page views and shares that delivered the reassurance to Trump supporters that their team was winning the fight. The bottom line is that by Thursday night, a new narrative had been created out of lies and deception.
There are very few coincidences in politics. This effort was likely not some random series of events that independently played out. The worst part? While Fox has acknowledged that the videos were fake, the President has not, which indicates that if he had to do it over again, he would. Well, maybe this time he’d tack on to the end of his tweet: “SAD.”