A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Phony ‘Fake News’ Claims


President Donald Trump often dismisses news stories or media outlets that he doesn’t like as “fake news.” How often? A database of his public remarks contains 320 references last year to “fake news.”

Usually, it’s a general complaint about news coverage — such as his Christmas Eve tweet: “The Fake News refuses to talk about how Big and how Strong our BASE is.”

But there are times, too, when he has labeled accurate news reporting as “fake news” or spread false information himself, while at the same time accusing the media of being “fake” or “dishonest.”

To mark the president’s pending announcement of “THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR,” we compiled a partial list of Trump’s phony “fake news” claims from last year. Trump says he will present the awards “to the losers” on Jan. 17.

Jan. 18: On job creation

In two tweets, President-elect Trump said: “Totally biased @NBCNews went out of its way to say that the big announcement from Ford, G.M., Lockheed & others that jobs are coming back…to the U.S., but had nothing to do with TRUMP, is more FAKE NEWS. Ask top CEO’s of those companies for real facts. Came back because of me!”

As we wrote, industry experts and company officials say the announcements were largely market-driven and were in the works before Trump was elected.

Ford CEO Mark Fields said, “Yes, absolutely,” when asked if the company would have made the announcement had Trump not been elected president. GM leaders stressed that the investments in the U.S. were part of a longtime trend that predated Trump.

As for Lockheed Martin, the jobs aren’t “coming back”; they are being added as part of a larger contract for more F-35 planes. The additional jobs were tied to increased production of F-35s called for in a new government contract that was in the works before Trump became president.

Jan. 21: On his feud with the U.S. intelligence community

On his first full day in office, Trump visited the CIA and said of journalists: “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth. And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community. And I just want to let you know, the reason you’re the number-one stop is exactly the opposite — exactly.”

As we wrote, Trump was feuding at the time with the intelligence community. He belittled its investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and repeatedly questioned its motives:

  • Trump disparaged the intelligence community’s track record. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” he said in a Dec. 9, 2016, statement.
  • In a Jan. 3, 2017, tweet, Trump dismissively used air quotes around the word “intelligence” to describe his scheduled briefing on the Russia investigation, and asked if the briefing was being delayed “to build a case” against Russia.
  • In a Jan. 11, 2017, tweet, Trump accused intelligence agencies without evidence of leaking an unsubstantiated report that claimed Russia had compromising information on him. He compared the leak to “living in Nazi Germany.”

The media didn’t make it “sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.” Trump did.

Feb. 3: On his phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia

Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about. Very nice!”

The media did not “lie” about Trump’s conversation with Turnbull.

Trump’s tweet was in response to a Washington Post story a day earlier about a tense phone call between the two leaders.

Washington Post, Feb. 2: President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.

At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”

Based on unnamed sources, the Post story was an accurate account, and it was documented six months later, when the paper obtained a transcript of the call.

The transcript shows the conversation was tense. Trump expressed his anger at a refugee agreement struck between the two countries before Trump took office, and the call ended with Trump saying, “I spoke to Putin, Merkel, Abe of Japan, to France today, and this was my most unpleasant call because I will be honest with you.” The call was just as the Post reported it.

Feb. 24: On anonymous sources

In a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump claimed news organizations “make up sources,” citing one news story with nine anonymous sources as evidence.

Trump, Feb. 24: A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make ’em up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said, “Nine people have confirmed.” There’re no nine people.

As we wrote, the White House did not identify the story that Trump criticized. But there was one story at the time that had nine anonymous sources, and it turned out to be accurate, not “fake” at all. That was the Washington Post story on Feb. 9 that said then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials.”

Flynn resigned five days later after admitting that he misled Vice President-elect Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

March 7: On reports of Trump administration infighting

Trump tweeted: “Don’t let the FAKE NEWS tell you that there is big infighting in the Trump Admin. We are getting along great, and getting major things done!”

The president was responding to news reports of staff infighting after less than two months on the job. On March 4, ABC News reported that Trump was upset to learn that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation — quoting an unnamed “senior White House source” as saying Trump “summoned some of his senior staffers to the Oval Office and went ‘ballistic.'” A day later, Politico (“Knives are out for Reince”) and the Washington Post (“Inside Trump’s fury: The president rages at leaks, setbacks and accusations”) followed with articles that portrayed the administration in “disorder,” as the Post put it.

Although Trump denied there was “big infighting,” the president would later admit that he was upset with Sessions for recusing himself, saying he would not have appointed Sessions had he known about the recusal in advance and calling it “very unfair to the president.” As for Priebus, the chief of staff resigned after just six months on the job.

In fact, the Trump White House had a record number of staff departures – a 34 percent turnover rate, according to the Wall Street Journal. In a four-week stretch from July 21 to Aug. 18, Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon all left the administration. (See USA Today‘s list of notable administration staff departures.)

May 8: On collusion with Russia

Trump tweeted: “Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows- there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion w/ Russia and Trump.”

This is an example of Trump passing along false information, while criticizing the “fake media.” Trump misquoted the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

As we wrote, Clapper in a March 5 interview said “at the time, we had no evidence of such collusion,” meaning when he left office on Jan. 20. He was not referring to evidence that may have been collected after Jan. 20 or evidence that may have existed at the time but his office did not know about.

July 18: On his unscheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin

Trump tweeted: “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!”

As we wrote, the media — including the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN — did not describe the event as a “secret dinner.” They accurately described it, as the Times did, as a “private conversation” that took place at a “leaders-and-spouses dinner.”

And while the media knew about the dinner, which was on the public schedule, reporters did not witness the two leaders talking because the dinner was off-limits to the press. The White House did not disclose the unscheduled meeting, which went unreported for more than a week.

July 24: On Amazon paying taxes

Trump tweeted: “Is Fake News Washington Post being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly?”

The president frequently attacks Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post. In a June 28 tweet, Trump accused Amazon of “not paying internet taxes (which they should).” In that tweet, he also described the “#AmazonWashingtonPost” as “FAKE NEWS!”

Trump’s description of Amazon as a “no-tax monopoly” earned him a “Pants on Fire” rating from PolitiFact, which called the statement “inaccurate and ridiculous.”

As PolitiFact wrote, Amazon “pays federal corporate tax, and charges sales taxes in 46 U.S. jurisdictions” that have a sales tax. “It also supports federal legislation that would require other online retailers to pay state tax on internet sales.”

Aug. 22: On the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally  

At a political rally in Phoenix, Trump blamed the “dishonest” news media for cherry-picking his words to distort his Aug. 12 statement about the Charlottesville rally.

Trump, Aug. 22: So here’s what I said, really fast, here’s what I said on Saturday: “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia” — this is me speaking. “We condemn in the strongest, possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.” That’s me speaking on Saturday.

But Trump, not the “dishonest” media, cherry-picked his words.

Trump’s Aug. 12 statement actually read, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.” In his version, Trump left out the highlighted words — which were roundly condemned by members of both parties.

Sept. 30: On the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Alabama

Trump tweeted: “In analyzing the Alabama Primary race, FAKE NEWS always fails to mention that the candidate I endorsed went up MANY points after endorsement!”

An Alabama newspaper called this tweet “odd.” The conservative Breitbart called it “false.”

In a special U.S. Senate race, Trump endorsed Sen. Luther Strange on Aug. 8. The primary was Aug. 15. In two polls taken just prior to the president’s endorsement, Roy Moore was leading Strange by 2 percentage points (31 percent to 29 percent) and 8 percentage points (30 percent to 22 percent), according to Real Clear Politics, which tracks public polling. They were the top two candidates in a large field.

No Republican candidate received 50 percent of the primary vote. Moore received 38.9 percent of the vote, and Strange came in second with 32.8 percent — a six-point advantage for Moore.

The top two candidates met in a runoff election on Sept. 26. Moore won with 55 percent to Strange’s 45 percent — a 10 percentage point margin of victory for Moore.

Clearly, there was no pick up of “MANY points after endorsement!” Polling showed the race was in single digits before Trump’s endorsement, and Strange wound up losing by 10 points.

Oct. 19: On his call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson

Trump tweeted: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

Rep. Frederica Wilson was not listening “SECRETLY” when the president called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. His widow allowed Wilson to listen in.

In an Oct. 23 interview with ABC News, Myeshia Johnson said she was in a limousine headed to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when the president called. Sgt. La David Johnson was one of four U.S. soldiers killed by ISIS fighters in Niger earlier that month.

Johnson’s widow told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that she asked that the president’s call be placed on speaker phone “so my aunt and uncle could hear as well.” The congresswoman, a longtime family friend, was in the limo.

Stephanopoulos, Oct. 23: The president said that the congresswoman was lying about the phone call.

Johnson: Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated. What she said was 100 percent correct. It was Master Sgt. Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle and the driver and Ms. Wilson in the car, the phone was on speaker phone. Why would we fabricate something like that?

Nov. 29: On Joe Scarborough and the “unsolved mystery”

Trump tweeted: “So now that Matt Lauer is gone when will the Fake News practitioners at NBC be terminating the contract of Phil Griffin? And will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!”

“There’s no ‘unsolved mystery,’ according to officials, but the conspiracy theories continue,” the Miami Herald wrote in response to Trump’s tweet.

The president was referring to the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, an aide to then-Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Florida Republican. Scarborough, a frequent and vocal Trump critic, is now a co-host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. Klausutis was found dead in Scarborough’s office in Fort Walton Beach.

“Local Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Berkland ruled that Klausutis, an avid runner, lost consciousness because of an undiagnosed heart condition and collapsed, hitting her head on the desk as she fell,” the Herald wrote. “The head injury caused the death. Authorities said there were no signs of foul play.”

PolitiFact, the fact-checking website based at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida, gave Trump’s statement its worst rating, “Pants on Fire.”

Correcting the Record

Of course, there have been times when the media have made mistakes — as Trump has been quick to point out. But Trump is wrong to label reporting errors as “fake news.”

When published news stories contain wrong – not “fake” – information, news organizations correct the record. They may even retract the story or take disciplinary action if the mistake was serious enough and the journalists involved did not follow internal editorial procedures. For example, ABC News suspended Brian Ross in December for four weeks, and three CNN journalists were forced to resign in June.

That’s what legitimate news organizations do when they make mistakes.