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Did Trump’s White House Use the Associated Press to Invent a “Fake News” Story?

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer participates in a White House daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room February 14, 2017 at the White House in Washington, DC. Spicer discussed various topics including the resignation of Michael Flynn from his position as National Security Adviser. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Friday morning, the Associated Press published a story with frightening implications: Based on a draft of a Department of Homeland Security memo, it alleged that the Donald Trump administration was considering mobilizing 100,000 National Guard troops in 11 states to round up illegal immigrants for deportation. But almost as soon as the story went to press, White House press secretary Sean Spicer denied its accuracy, claiming there is no such plan to activate the Guard. If it sounds to you like the AP made a rare flub despite its reputation for sober and solid news reporting–well, that’s all the better for Spicer and the White House.

Trump and his cronies, of course, have been going to war with the press since day one, when the president accused reporters of lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Looked at a certain way, the flareup over the National Guard memo this morning takes on a sinister glow. The White House scored a perfect “fake news” moment with which to further undermine the media–and it’s not ludicrous to wonder whether they knew exactly what they were doing.

Spicer admonished the AP for the story while aboard Air Force One this morning. “It is false. It is irresponsible to be saying this,” Spicer told reporters. “There is no effort to utilize the National Guard to round up immigrants. I wish you’d asked before you tweeted.” An AP reporter responded by saying that the newswire had asked the White House for comment several times before the story ran, and that the White House never responded.

In an ordinary administration, if the AP were to bring bad information to the press secretary and ask for comment, the press secretary would simply inform them that their story was wrong before it went to press. Depending on the circumstances, the AP would either kill the story or include the White House’s denial in their reporting. There are only two reasons why the White House would have avoided commenting in this case. Either they thought that a no-comment would be sufficient enough for the AP to not to run with the item, or they saw a strategic opportunity in letting them publish something untrue.

The former option seems unlikely, considering the provenance of the documents: a DHS spokesman admitted that the draft memo was genuine, but said that it was a “very early pre-decisional draft” that “was never seriously considered” for implementation. But without a denial or comment of any kind from the relevant parties, there was no way for the AP to know how seriously the National Guard policy was being considered. The document was authentic, and it was all they had to go on–publishing a story was a reasonable course of action, and the White House would have known this.

The latter option–letting the AP publish a bad story, then slapping them around a bit for being irresponsible after the fact–sounds like just the kind of thing Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller could have cooked up in their little demon brains. Whatever draconian policies they do end up writing to supplement Trump’s immigration executive order will now look reasonable next to the prospect of 100,000 soldiers banging on doors from Texas to Oregon. And any opportunity to make a respected news organization look dumb is a win for Trump. As if on cue, a few hours after the fracas, the president tweeted this: