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Fake News, Exposed
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor to US President Barack Obama, speaks about the President's upcoming trip to Cuba during a daily press briefing at the White House February 18, 2016 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Fake News, Exposed

Lee Smith

In an article on the Atlantic website, a former Obama White House staffer explains why she resigned from the Trump White House after only eight days. Rumana Ahmed thought she should “try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration” she writes, “in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America’s Muslim citizens.”

But then the executive order suspending visa issuance for Syrian refugees and suspending it temporarily for nationals of seven Muslim majority countries forced her hand. She quit. She “had to leave because it was an insult walking into this country’s most historic building every day under an administration that is working against and vilifying everything I stand for as an American and as a Muslim.”

The basic premise of the story doesn’t pass the smell test. Trump campaigned with an opening bid to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. But Ahmed wanted to stay on anyway. And then she left, after eight days, when a much more lenient policy was implemented. It doesn’t make sense.

Hers was the second story in less than a week in which a government official explained that they’d resigned because of Trump’s policies. Ned Price, a CIA analyst who worked at the Obama White House, authored a cri de coeur for the Washington Post to explain why his disagreements with Trump’s policies prompted him to leave government service. “To be clear,” wrote Price, “my decision had nothing to do with politics.”

What a strange coincidence that Price and Ahmed worked for the same person in the Obama White House, national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes. In fact, they worked in the same room, outside of Rhodes’ office, as the 2016 New York Times Magazine profile of Rhodes showed: “In the front office, [Rhodes’] assistant, Rumana Ahmed, and his deputy, Ned Price, are squeezed behind desks, which face a large television screen, from which CNN blares nonstop.”

Among their other duties, Price and Ahmed helped manage Rhodes’ “echo chamber” to market Obama’s policies. Former CIA analyst Price explained to the Times magazine how he manipulated American public opinion from his desk in the White House. The Obama NSC relied on “compadres” in the media to proliferate its message, Price said. “I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — “

Atlantic magazine journalist, and now editor, Jeffrey Goldberg was one of the Obama White House’s validators, according to the Times magazine. With the Rumana Ahmed story, it’s not clear if Goldberg was complicit with the echo chamber, or if he was used by it. When I emailed the editor of the Atlantic to ask for clarification regarding Ahmed’s employment status in the White House, Atlantic magazine senior director for communications Anna Bross replied: “Rumana Ahmed was a direct hire by the NSC and not a political appointee. She was staff and planned to stay on.”

That’s wrong. Ahmed was a political appointee in the Obama White House. According to Trump White House officials, it was very late in her tenure in the Obama administration when she applied for a civil service position with administrative duties. “Burrowing,” as it’s commonly called, is the process through which political appointees move into career government status. She was granted her new status at the end of January, just as the Trump team was moving into the White House. That is, Ahmed took the highly unusual step for a White House staffer of choosing a considerably less ambitious career path in government, as she went from a junior policy position to a secretarial post.

Why? Because as a political appointee from the Obama administration she was inevitably going to be replaced by a Trump appointee and she wanted to stay on. And yet in only four days—not eight, because, say sources, she took several days off—she came to the conclusion that she had failed in her attempt to influence the Trump team, which in fact “was attacking the basic tenets of democracy.”

Right, it was a set-up. The article is part of an information operation. Paired with that of her former officemate, Ned Price, Ahmed’s story pushes the message that Trump is so bad that gifted public servants are resigning from their positions. The Washington Post story from late January incorrectly reporting that the mass exodus of senior officials from the State Department was unique to the Trump White House, rather than the normal bureaucratic turnover that greets every new administration, touched on the same narrative. In this case, it seems that Ahmed applied for a post only in order to resign from it, after collecting a paycheck for four days. Thus, U.S. taxpayers covered research expenses for an Atlantic story.

Is Ben Rhodes behind this latest echo chamber campaign? Who knows? It’s equally unclear why Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, rightly sensitive to charges that he’s a willing political operative, would put himself in position to be compromised. In the email, I asked Goldberg why Ahmed didn’t just play it straight. Why did she have to misrepresent her employment status? Isn’t the story good enough to stand on its own without misleading the public? Her argument is not totally unreasonable, and supported by lots of other people.

As it stands, her article, along with that of her former NSC staff colleague Ned Price, is part of a political campaign, the effect of which is to further undermine one of America’s key political institutions, the press.

As I argued elsewhere recently, “Everyone knows that the press typically tilts left, and no one is surprised, for instance, that The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican candidate since 1956.” A little less well known outside of Washington, D.C. is that the CIA also leans to the left, at least many agency analysts, like Price, do.

But this is no longer simply about bias. Large parts of the press have willingly become instruments in a campaign of political warfare. This, as Rhodes told the New York Times Magazine, was the purpose of the echo chamber. “I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” Rhodes explained. “But that’s impossible.”

The damage that the echo chamber has done to the public sphere is part of Obama’s legacy—and, many contend, part of the reason for Trump’s success. Payback is why the Trump White House banned the Times, CNN and several other major news organizations from a press briefing Friday.

For many, this will confirm Trump’s hostility to a free press. It is difficult to make that case, however, when the press continues to lease itself out to the Democratic operatives managing the echo chamber, even out of power. Eroding the public space with information operations, like the Ahmed and Price articles, does not preserve democratic institutions, but further tests the public’s faith in them.

The logic at work here—retaliation and doubling down—is not conducive to procedural politics. Rather, it the logic of eliminationism, in which power cannot be shared but must be held absolutely by one side or the other. It is the style typical of Third World regimes and other morally corrupt polities. It is inimical to building consensus and respecting the shared rights, privileges, and obligations that are the hallmark of liberal democracies. If there is no consensus available in the public sphere, because that space has been corrupted, the only possible way to govern is by taking all the other side’s players off the board. This is not governing but ruling.

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