They both grew out of stories in the first weeks of 2017 about Trump and Russia that wound up being significantly flawed or based on uncorroborated or debunked information, according to FBI documents that later became public. Both relied on anonymous sources.
Before the 2016 election, most Americans trusted the traditional media and the trend was positive, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. The phrase “fake news” was limited to a few reporters and a newly organized social media watchdog. The idea that the media were “enemies of the American people” was voiced only once, just before the election on an obscure podcast, and not by Trump, according to a Nexis search.
Today, the US media has the lowest credibility—26 percent—among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In 2021, 83 percent of Americans saw “fake news” as a “problem,” and 56 percent—mostly Republicans and independents—agreed that the media were “truly the enemy of the American people,” according to Rasmussen Reports.
Trump, years later, can’t stop looking back. In two interviews with CJR, he made it clear he remains furious over what he calls the “witch hunt” or “hoax” and remains obsessed with Mueller. His staff has compiled a short video, made up of what he sees as Mueller’s worst moments from his appearance before Congress, and he played it for me when I first went to interview him, just after Labor Day in 2021, at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
During my interview with Trump, he appeared tired as he sat behind his desk. He wore golf attire and his signature red MAGA hat, having just finished eighteen holes. But his energy and level of engagement kicked in when it came to questions about perceived enemies, mainly Mueller and the media.
He made clear that in the early weeks of 2017, after initially hoping to “get along” with the press, he found himself inundated by a wave of Russia-related stories. He then realized that surviving, if not combating, the media was an integral part of his job.
“I realized early on I had two jobs,” he said. “The first was to run the country, and the second was survival. I had to survive: the stories were unbelievably fake.”
The Clinton campaign put out a statement on Twitter, linking to what it called the “bombshell report” on Yahoo, but did not disclose that the campaign secretly paid the researchers who pitched it to Isikoff. In essence, the campaign was boosting, through the press, a story line it had itself engineered.