domingo, 12 de febrero de 2017

What It Means to Speak for the United States

When you represent the White House, you’d better be speaking the truth. Falsehoods have real consequences.

The day after I left President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, I watched on television as President Donald Trump addressed my former colleagues in government before the Memorial Wall at the Central Intelligence Agency. This is hallowed ground that honors those who died in the line of duty, many of them on missions that remain a secret to this day.
Previous presidents, from either party, would have delivered carefully planned remarks to honor those who serve and have sacrificed. Experts would have pored over each line ahead of time to get the facts right; the press team would prepare a comprehensive media strategy to build on a successful event. On Saturday, President Trump and his advisers skipped these steps, and instead he gave rambling, off-the-cuff remarks ripped from his stump speech. Not only did he attack the media as “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” he also made false claims about the size of his inaugural crowd, brought politics to the agency by claiming that “probably almost everybody in this room voted for me” and said the press would “pay a big price” for disagreeing with him. Not long afterwards, from the White House briefing room, Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared that Trump had drawn the largest inaugural crowd in history, despite copious evidence to the contrary, and accused the media of “deliberately false reporting” when it had accurately conveyed the truth.
The press rightly feels itself under assault, but there are other serious concerns at play here. What the incoming team must understand is that when speaking from the White House, it’s not just your base that you are addressing. Our allies and adversaries are also listening, and taking notes. So the decision to begin the Trump presidency with loose talk and a flurry of falsehoods or—as White House adviser Kellyanne Conway called them on Sunday, “alternative facts”—reflects not just on their relationship with the media but the nation as a whole.
For the most of the last eight years, I helped represent the Pentagon and then the White House to the news media. Although every night before leaving the office, our team would lay out our press plan for the next day, on more times than I could count our plan was overcome by events even before the dawn: the loss of one of our troops in combat, another nuclear test by the North Koreans, the shooting at Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. In those moments, our role was to gather the facts as quickly as possible and, once the president had been briefed, work to accurately explain what happened and the steps we were taking.
I lived in fear of making a mistake. Every statement we issued received tough scrutiny before it was sent to the press. We often agonized over the written word and were even criticized by some of our media colleagues, who urged us to move faster. We stopped and thought of our diplomats, military and intelligence personnel abroad and their families back home. We knew our words mattered to them, their colleagues and loved ones, and we had to try our best to get it right. When we got it wrong, we worked to correct our errors.
Your credibility as a spokesperson for the U.S. government is everything, and the consequences of losing it are potentially very serious. The same Trump administration personnel putting forward inaccurate statistics about Metro ridership and the size of the crowd on the national mall are the same ones who will – at a moment’s notice – be called on to explain President Trump’s decision to use force on the battlefield or rally our allies if we were attacked. They are the same people who need to call out foreign hackers intruding into our networks or talk about where to seek help after a natural disaster. Our fellow citizens and leaders in foreign capitals alike should not be left to debate why there is a contrast between the Trump administration and empirical analysis available to the rest of the world.
Of course, we heard throughout the campaign numerous false claims from candidate Trump. But now those falsehoods come with real-world consequences, not just a bad news cycle. Consider that President Trump said—in front of the top brass of the CIA, no less—that if the United States had kept Iraq’s oil “we probably wouldn’t have ISIS” and that “maybe we’ll have another chance.” How are our diplomats in Baghdad supposed to respond to the Iraqi government when they ask what he meant? Are they supposed to take him seriously or literally? Both? Neither? What are press officers to tell skeptical reporters to convey that the U.S. is seeking to help our partners, not take their wealth? The recent success we’ve had in rolling back the Islamic State—including the recent victory in Mosul—has come at the invitation of a sovereign government into their country to train, advise and assist their forces. Our word matters to them, and our relationships will suffer if President Trump continues to speak without thinking through the consequences. Indeed, the fastest way to erode gains of the last few months is to lose the trust of the anti-ISIS coalition that has put relentless pressure on our common enemy.
It is an extraordinary privilege to speak on behalf of the United States of America. There are thousands of public affairs officers who share in that responsibility, from forward operating bases and embassies to national parks and veteran’s hospitals here at home. Whether they are speaking about the actions of those around them or the policy of the administration, they know that honesty and accuracy is essential to accomplishing their mission. Serving with integrity is a commitment they have made not just to themselves but to the country. The White House must set an example that can be followed across the government.
I’ve seen some speculate that perhaps this was just a tactic by the administration to divert the media’s attention from the nationwide demonstrations yesterday or deflect criticism on the president himself. If true, I hope they learn quickly that the campaign is over. The White House does not belong to any one party or any one president; it belongs to the American people. It represents the credibility of our country and all those who serve. The incoming administration will have another chance tomorrow. For America’s sake, they must do better.

Carl Woog was director for strategic communications on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff and previously deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Communications.

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