WASHINGTON — The precise path of Hurricane Dorian may have been uncertain for much of the week, but President Donald Trump's decision to highlight, rather than retreat from, his early forecast misstatement was entirely predictable.
A weather map doctored to fit Trump’s false assertion that a hurricane had been heading toward Alabama was the latest attempt by the president or the White House to create misleading evidence to support his version of events.
While Trump routinely makes false statements, sometimes dozens a week, his administration has repeatedly gone even further by creating evidence to support the president’s alternative reality — in some cases marshaling government resources in the task.
It's been the pattern since the first day of his administration, when he sent out his press secretary to show edited photos inflating his inaugural crowd size. Or a few months later, when he created a commission to search for evidence of widespread voter fraud, after falsely claiming there were millions of illegal votes in 2016. (The commission was quickly dissolved.) Or in between, when he asked Congress to investigate a baseless allegation that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower.
The president has repeatedly dug in, claiming the right to his own personal preference on otherwise uncooperative reality, on everything from wind direction to the progress of his top policy priority: After he was unable to get new wall funding from Congress, Trump tweeted out photos that he suggested depicted the debut of his border wall with Mexico — but actually showed the replacement of the existing 1990s-era barrier.
Trump’s false statements on everything from the economy to windmills have been well-documented, but his team — sometimes caught off-guard initially — has generally scrambled to back him up, with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway famously describing the inauguration claims as “alternative facts.”
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They have also employed some of the same tactics to boost their version of events, as when then-press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted out a video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta refusing to turn over the microphone to a White House intern during a news conference that had been altered by a right-wing commentator in a way that exaggerated the exchange. Trump has also shared misleading videos made by third parties as false evidence to back his claims.
The president's own use of false or misleading evidence to back up inaccurate claims rather than back down from them has had the effect of super-charging his falsehoods, creating entire news cycles of their own, often personally reviving stories in a bid for vindication just when a news storm had seemingly passed.
Three days after Trump was criticized for warning Alabama residents that they could be affected by a storm that wasn't on track to hit the state, he displayed an apparently doctored map in the Oval Office on Wednesday to support his inaccurate claim.
The map Trump displayed was the same as a model produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week showing the hurricane's projected path cutting through central Florida. But where the original projection ended, a smaller black circle drawn in black Sharpie was added to include a small part of Alabama in the model.
Hours later, Trump tweeted another map, dated four days before his Alabama comments, that showed a small number of projected routes for the storm that could take it through parts of Alabama. But the image, credited to a local agency called the South Florida Water Management District, includes fine print that says, "NHS Advisories and County Emergency Management Statements supersede this project. This graphic should complement, not replace, NHC discussions” and “if anything on this graphic causes confusion, ignore the entire product.”
Nonetheless, Trump tweeted the image, again demanding an apology from the media for pointing out his original misstatement, followed by a series of other images that showed early projections for tropical storm force winds in Alabama. But those models had been out of date by Sunday, when Trump tweeted that Alabama could be hit.
While the doctored map might not have convinced anyone Trump was correct in his assertion, it was effective in getting himself in the news during a period when most media coverage would be focused on the storm.
For a president whose career has been dedicated to the motto that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Trump shows no signs of wanting the media storm to dissipate, spending a fifth day on Thursday repeatedly tweeting his defense and calling Fox News reporter John Roberts into the Oval Office to make his case.
And he retweeted a storm readiness message from the Alabama National Guard — one from before Labor Day weekend. "I was with you all the way Alabama. The Fake News Media was not!" he said. On Friday, he launched another tweetstorm slamming coverage of his storm track misstatement, accusing reporters of going "Crazy, hoping against hope that I made a mistake (which I didn’t)."
Even as Hurricane Dorian finally weakened, the clouds inside the Oval Office only darkened — and with his map, a fresh flood of defiant tweets and his staff's support, Trump spent days making a hurricane story about himself, positioning himself as a victim at the center of the week's main news event.