Stelter: Trump and his media boosters live in a hall of mirrors

Stelter examines Trump's hall of mirrors
Stelter examines Trump's hall of mirrors

If you've ever been in a Mirror Maze attraction at an amusement park, you'll know that it's disorienting and repetitive. You're seeing the same thing over and over again, but some of the reflections are distorted and confusing, making it difficult to find your way out.

That's what it's like to step inside President Trump's hall of mirrors.

See, Trump's media cheerleaders repeat what he says, and he relays the message back to them, and the mirror effect continues. You might start to feel dizzy.

There is a fresh example of this effect nearly every day. On Monday night, one of Trump's biggest boosters, Lou Dobbs, and his guest Tom Fitton advocated for former FBI agent Peter Strzok to be criminally investigated. Strzok's lawyer announced earlier in the day that the agent was fired from the bureau, a move that was praised by Trump and other conservatives. Dobbs and Fitton both bashed special counsel Robert Mueller, tried to discredit his entire probe, and called for a house-cleaning.

Dobbs, parroting Trump's false claim that Mueller's team is composed of "17 angry Democrats," said "his 13, now 17, angry Democrats poised to attack the president at every turn." The rant was dripping with resentment, asking why there aren't investigations of Democrats going on.

Trump relayed this same message back to his Twitter followers on Tuesday morning. He posted several tweets quoting Dobbs and Fitton with all the usual talking points -- "17 angry Democrats," conflicted investigators, no collusion -- and finished up by echoing Dobbs' claim that "the Dems are the ones who should be investigated."

"Thank you Lou, so true!" the president exclaimed.

The talking points travel in both directions. Pro-Trump media personalities reflect Trump's claims right back to him, no matter how outlandish, giving him much-needed reinforcement. Trump, in turn, promotes his boosters' shows and books.

Dobbs is on Fox Business, the little brother of Fox News, which is the most-watched cable news network in America. Hosts like Dobbs and Sean Hannity have big audiences on the radio and social media, too. This means that millions of people watch and read and believe this reflection of the world. The result is an "alternative reality" where Trump is the innocent victim of an illegal plot to undo his presidency.

This version of reality has been dismantled by fact-checkers. But that hasn't made a difference for Trump and his allies. In a speech on Monday, Trump called fact-checkers "bad people."

In any case, a pessimist would say the facts are no match for the story Trump and his boosters are telling. It's a story about Trump standing up to the forces that are trying to take him down. Trump's Twitter feed and his favorite talk shows are almost mirror images of one another, complete with the same claims (attorney general Jeff Sessions is weak) and catch-phrases ("witch hunt").

Oftentimes this is called an "echo chamber." I've never been in one of those. But I have gotten lost in a Mirror Maze, and that's what I see here.

Consider last Friday, when Sean Hannity took a day off from his radio show, and two of Trump's lawyers filled in.

"Jay Sekulow and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, how about that?" Sekulow said.

"Isn't that nice?" Giuliani joked.

It would be funny if it weren't so serious. The decision to have the pair fill in for Hannity was almost an admission that there is no difference between them. All three are committed to Trump's defense.

As a self-described opinion host and advocate, Hannity is not bound by journalistic standards. He is free to have anyone fill in for him.

But it's worth noticing how Trump's media defense team draws attention away from what matters most -- Russia's efforts to attack America in 2016 and the ongoing efforts to sow division and hurt the public discourse.

Shows like Hannity's and "Judge Jeanine," which is hosted by Jeanine Pirro, a staple of the Fox News weekend lineup, concentrate on clearing Trump and convicting his opponents in the court of public opinion. Republican Senator Ben Sasse called this out last week.

"One of the giant costs of the Trump-centric framing of the Mueller investigation (by cable news chyrons & by the President himself) is that few Americans understand Putin's agents are now picking at the scabs of every cultural skirmish we have -- from race to guns to media tribes," he tweeted.

But there are political and financial reasons for the "Trump-centric framing." It's been lucrative for figures like Gregg Jarrett, a longtime Fox News anchor who has refashioned himself as one of the president's staunchest defenders.

Now a legal analyst with a regular spot on Hannity's show, Jarrett came out with a book called "The Russia Hoax" last month. It was subtitled "The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump."

The hall of mirrors helped "The Russia Hoax" become a best-seller. Trump plugged the book at least three times on Twitter. Arguably more important were Jarrett's many appearances on pro-Trump talk shows. The book has been No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for two weeks. Of course, that success helps Jarrett get booked on even more shows.

On Tuesday morning, when Jarrett was on "Fox & Friends," Trump watched and tweeted out a part of Jarrett's argument.

That's what provoked Trump to attack Sessions again, claiming that "if we had a real Attorney General, this Witch Hunt would never have been started!"

In the hall of mirrors, tweets like that -- no matter how unpresidential -- help set the agenda for pro-Trump programming.

Twitter is convenient. But sometimes the coordination happens in person. Earlier this month, Hannity and his colleague Mark Levin, who has a Sunday night show on Fox, dined with Trump at the president's golf club in New Jersey.

These meetings typically are not announced publicly by the White House, but are revealed by other dinner guests or anonymous sources.

In some cases, hosts like Pirro will post pictures with Trump, revealing the meetings that way.

Trump was watching when Pirro went after Mueller on Saturday night. He approvingly relayed her opinion to his Twitter fans -- "Bob, I really think it's time for you to give up your phony investigation" -- the next morning.

New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt reacted by saying, "15 months into Mueller, I'm still not convinced Trump understands the depth and breadth of obstruction investigation, the threat it poses and the issues his own public statements (and tweet) have created for him."

So why is that? Why doesn't Trump get it? It's at least partly because of the pro-Trump media world -- this hall of mirrors.

Trump says he doesn't trust the fact-checks. He seemingly doesn't trust the people who are trying to explain to him how serious this probe is. Sometimes he doubts the intelligence about Russia's interference. He only trusts his Fox friends.

Trump willingly walked into this house of mirrors. In fact, he helped build it. But does he know how to get out?


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