[MUSIC FROM TRIGGERED OPENER]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: It's a Thursday night, 8 PM. Some big golden block letters appear on the screen — you know the style. They say, “Team Trump Online.” Cut to shots of the White House, the Map Room. There are two chairs, placed in front of a fireplace.
There are lots of lights, microphones, monitors. The set-up looks like President Trump might be sitting for an interview with a network news anchor.
[DONALD TRUMP JR. SPEAKS INDISTINCTLY UNDERNEATH NARRATION]
This is an interview, but it's with his son, Donald Trump Jr. It's a special "Father's Day Edition” of Don Jr.'s online show, Triggered.
DONALD TRUMP JR.: Who is your favorite Trump child, and why is it Ivanka? [CHUCKLES]
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: [SLOWLY, A LITTLE HUMORLESSLY] Wise guy over here.
DON JR.: I have had a couple of calls from you from the White House, saying, “You know, Don, maybe you're getting a little hot on social media."
PRESIDENT TRUMP: That’s true.
DON JR.: Do you understand irony and how that works?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I do. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: In the world of this show, there's no coronavirus, and the economic crisis is only glancingly present.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: The job numbers came out last week, and they were through the roof. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: There are references to the growing protests around police brutality and racism, but only in the context of, say, blaming the Democrats for running Minneapolis and Seattle so poorly they threaten “bedlam” —
PRESIDENT TRUMP: … bedlam all over the place. There won’t be law and order. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: — or when Donald and Don Jr. talk about football and whether there should be tolerance of protests by players. (Their answer is “No.”)
DON JR.: [FADING UP] … Drew Brees. What — what do you think about him, sort of cowering to the mob? Uh, and — and that whole controversy? [FADES UNDER]
[MYSTERIOUS MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: There's a point Don Jr. wants to make. He heard a report about some documents uncovered during the raid of Osama bin Laden's compound in 2011.
DON JR.: They finally declassified them. And in there, there were paperwork from Osama bin Laden saying that he wanted to assassinate President Obama because it would put Joe Biden in charge.
BERNSTEIN: This did happen. The documents say that Bin Laden said, "Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis." [A BREATH] The Washington Post reported on it eight years ago. The Obama White House said it didn't take the plot seriously. [ANOTHER BREATH] Then Fox News resurrected the story a few weeks before Don Jr.'s interview with his dad was taped.
DON JR.: What does it say to you that basically the Democrat nominee for President of the United States got the posthumous [A MOMENT] Osama bin Laden endorsement — that this guy is the guy that they put forth?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: It says to me — I didn't know that — and it says to me we're going to immediately make a commercial out of that, if that's true. [DON JR. LAUGHS] Is that true?
BERNSTEIN: And then the President proclaims, it is true.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Okay. We speak the truth.
BERNSTEIN: And then, just like that, Triggered cuts to a brand new commercial.
COMMERCIAL VOICEOVER: Joe Biden received endorsement by Osama bin Laden.
BERNSTEIN: Premiered on Youtube, by Donald Trump Jr., interviewing his father in the White House.
COMMERCIAL VOICE OVER: Joe Biden: China's candidate, Iran's candidate, and Osama's candidate.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I'm Donald Trump and I approve this message.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: This link to bin Laden is trope. In 2016, a fake image of Hillary Clinton shaking Osama bin Laden's hand was widely circulated by Russian social media accounts.
BERNSTEIN: Don Jr.’s show Triggered is just one part of the Trump media network. Donald Trump, the President, is famous for using non-traditional ways to reach voters, especially through Facebook and Twitter. Beginning in the spring of 2020, as Trump put his campaign rallies on pause, the President's team began ramping up in a third area of non-traditional media: podcasts and Youtube shows.
Campaigns do have podcasts. Hillary Clinton had one. Joe Biden has one. (It hasn’t been updated since May.) Donald Trump Jr.’s show? It airs every week. Some episodes get more than a million views.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME BEGINS]
BERNSTEIN: Triggered, like other shows produced by the campaign, offers — as you’d expect — a Trumpian view of the world. Like the President’s social media feeds, there are plenty of lacerating put-downs. Unlike those feeds, these shows wrap the put-downs inside banter, friendship, and family.
In this world, what Trump says is always true. And mainstream news, critics, and naysayers? They're all fake.
Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the business of Trump. I'm Andrea Bernstein. Today on the show, we're going to pull back the curtain on a branch of this business that might pass you by, if you're not already a dedicated Trump supporter: Trump media.
[THEME MUSIC SLOWS AND CHANGES PITCH]
BERNSTEIN: This is a world, like Trump's business and the White House, that is populated by Trump's close family. The Trump campaign has poured a lot of money and effort into direct-messaging their supporters through Youtube and podcasts in a way that's unusual, even innovative. For the last year, our producer, Alice Wilder, has been consuming this content.
ALICE WILDER: I started paying attention to the Trump Campaign podcast last summer. It's called "Donald J. Trump Podcast," and I've listened to every episode ever produced.
It's usually hosted by senior campaign advisor Lara Trump, who is married to Eric Trump. It comes out weekly and features interviews with politicians like Matt Gaetz and conservative commentator Candace Owens.
BERNSTEIN: So Alice was listening to the podcast for about nine months, and then, around March, people started staying home because of the pandemic.
WILDER: And I noticed the campaign started rolling out new videos every night. That's when Triggered, Don Jr.’s show, started. It usually has the vibe of a guy who just drank six Red Bulls and then turned on his livestream.
DON JR.: [OVER ACTION-Y MUSIC] We figured, since everyone's been locked up in their house for a few weeks now, we're going to have a little bit more fun.
WILDER: There's also shows like the Trump War Room, which does general campaign chatter; Truth Over Facts, which is kind of an ‘80s-style true crime series all about Joe Biden; and a bunch of shows targeted to specific groups: women, evangelicals, Black people, veterans.
And then there's the show that really answers the question that followed me through college: "What are you going to do with a women's studies and communications double major?" And it turns out the answer is obsessively watch Lara Trump talk about her father-in-law on a show called The Right View.
LARA TRUMP: The Right View — you see what we did there?
WILDER: If you're curious what a show called The Right View actually is, just imagine The View, conducted entirely on Zoom, if Megan McCain was considered way too liberal to be on the panel and if no one ever disagreed.
LARA TRUMP: Wednesday just got better, because the ladies are live, discussing the hottest topics of the week with you tonight.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: And we will make America great again.
[POPPY MUSIC PLAYS, THEN FADES UNDER NARRATION]
WILDER: These Trump shows are full-on primetime entertainment that reinforce the Trump campaign's worldview.
BERNSTEIN: You can think of them as something of a prototype for a Trump Media Network.
WILDER: Right. In 2016, there was reporting that Trump was considering starting a TV network if he lost the election. I had a moment when I looked at the Youtube channel and realized that the thing people predicted in 2016 was coming to fruition. Trump's team was producing programming for seven nights a week, and there was an audience for it. The campaign didn't answer my questions about viewership, or their strategy for these shows. As best I can tell, there are over a million viewers a week.
[MUSIC CHANGES TO BE FASTER]
BERNSTEIN: Alice is going to take it from here.
WILDER: There are three big things that I've noticed about these shows that set them apart from other media. One is the way the questions are phrased. To call them leading questions is kind of an understatement. Questions are like: “How important is it to re-elect Donald Trump?” “How shameful is Nancy Pelosi's behavior?” Here's Lara Trump:
LARA TRUMP: I really do think that, uh, our first lady Melania Trump is an incredible role model for women and families out there. What do you think about Melania?
WILDER: And the guests just say, “Oh, yes, Lara! I totally agree.”
BECKI FALWELL: I agree, 1000%. I've had the blessing to get to know her on a personal level. [FADES UNDER]
WILDER: Number two, the shows all operate under the assumption that everything Donald Trump does is part of a plan to Keep America Great. When he said he took the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine, it was an act of bravery.
UNSPECIFIED THE RIGHT VIEW PANELIST 1: And I think it speaks volumes about the President — his character. He's willing to, like, lead and be the one to go first. And then he says, “America first. Come in right after me.” It's amazing.
WILDER: The third thing is that there are these big tonal shifts. So, for example, on The Right View, they were talking about the George Floyd protests and speculating — misleadingly — about the role of “Antifa.”
LARA TRUMP: Well, tragically, Antifa and other far-left anarchist groups are using this tragedy as an excuse to violently riot, burn down businesses and homes, and hurt the livelihoods of many Americans.
WILDER: And then, suddenly, a hard pivot —
LARA TRUMP: [OVER GUITAR MUSIC] But there's also inspirational stories — those stories that really touch your heart and make you think, “You know what? The spirit of America …” [FADES UNDER]
WILDER: — to wanting to blast into orbit with Trump's new branch of the military: Space Force.
UNSPECIFIED THE RIGHT VIEW PANELIST 2: I mean, how cool is that, right? To be done in our lifetime! It will be done with President Trump —
UNSPECIFIED THE RIGHT VIEW PANELIST 3: So that'd be one of the four of us?
UNSPECIFIED THE RIGHT VIEW PANELIST 2: — exactly.
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: What does — what does that entail? Does that entail, like, 150 days without your husband? Or, what does that entail? [LAUGHTER]
UNSPECIFIED THE RIGHT VIEW PANELIST 4: Where do we sign up? I'm just kidding!
UNSPECIFIED THE RIGHT VIEW PANELIST 3: If I could take one of my dogs, I’d do it.
WILDER: All these conversations are wrapped in this sense of relatability. These women present themselves as being just like your neighbors. [LARA TRUMP SPEAKS UNDER NARRATION] Take Lara Trump. Her brand is Southern. Her Instagram is mostly pictures of her dogs and her kids. On this show, she ping-pongs between regular mom and a fighter for the President.
It's kind of funny. The whole concept of The View — the ABC version — is that the women on the show have different viewpoints. The Right View has no debate. It's just people agreeing with each other for an hour.
[ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYS]
WILDER: There’s no anchor asking skeptical questions, no caveats or qualifiers you might find in a newspaper op-ed. It's not even like posting to Twitter, where a hot take can get ratio’d and quote-tweeted.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
WILDER: [PUNCTUATED BY SNIPPETS OF THE PODCAST, FADING IN AND OUT] When I tuned in to the campaign's Donald J. Trump podcast last summer, they were talking about Mueller. In the fall, it was Ukraine. This winter, impeachment and the primaries. This spring, the coronavirus.
That's when all these new campaign shows premiered.
That's also when, as state officials began thinking about how to run an election in a pandemic, the Trump shows zeroed in on a new target: vote by mail.
WILDER: Trump has been making false claims about voter fraud for years — and now he saw a conspiracy by Democrats to steal the election.
A big moment in all this happened in late May. That's when President Trump sent a couple Tweets alleging that, if mail-in voting was used, "Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed."
That claim was widely discredited. Even Twitter marked two Trump Tweets as potentially misleading — the first time the site had ever fact-checked the President.
It infuriated Trump, and his team mobilized behind him. All the way from the daily YouTube shows to the Press Secretary Kayleigh McEneny in the White House Briefing Room.
PRESS SECRETARY KAYLEIGH MCENENY: I would also — I assume you care about fairness and accuracy in our elections. Do you not?
WILDER: McEneny was once a host of the Trump Campaign podcast. The White House didn't respond to our questions.
PRESS SECRETARY MCENENY: So there's evidence — you can go look this up on ProPublica — there is a bipartisan consensus on the fact that mass mail-in voting can lead to fraud.
WILDER: I did look it up on ProPublica. The story was reported by Jessica Huseman.
JESSICA HUSEMAN: And then all of a sudden my phone was, like, buzzing with all of these people being like, “Is this right?” She had said — she used my article to say that vote by mail was prone to fraud. When, in fact, what my article said was voter fraud across the board is rare. It is slightly less rare when it comes to vote by mail.
WILDER: Jessica’s been covering election security since before the start of the Trump presidency. That's why I called her. I wasn't sure if vote by mail was a bad idea.
HUSEMAN: And I think that that is my beat. Like, just telling everybody to calm the hell down.
WILDER: Jessica told me that, yes, rolling out vote by mail will be challenging. But it's not impossible — states like Colorado, Utah, and Washington have been doing it for years. They've worked out the kinks, and now other states can follow their lead.
WILDER: So after Trump's tweet, and Twitter's fact-check, and McEnany's defense of the President, Trump's online media world really jumped in. Here's Lara Trump on The Right View later that night.
LARA TRUMP: They were trying to slip in legislation that would say that, on November 3rd, we can't actually go to a polling location to vote. You would have to vote by mailing in your vote. Now, I mean, the -- the problems with that are through the roof.
[FADES OUT, AS JESSICA HUSEMAN FADES IN]
HUSEMAN: I think that it's particularly easy to make claims about the way that voting works, because it's this odd thing where people think that they know how voting works because they do it every two or every four years. But they don’t.
WILDER: So Jessica says that when Donald Trump or Kayleigh McEnany or Lara Trump makes a false claim about voting, it's particularly hard to understand that it's not true.
HUSEMAN: Like, “Oh, if we don't have photo ID, then someone could totally go to the polls and say that they're me and cast a ballot in my name.” If you don't know how voting works, and you don't know the systems that are set out, or the way that poll workers are trained, or the way that voter list maintenance is happening, or the — all of the other identification that goes into voting … if you don't know anything about that, that claim actually sounds true.
[INTRIGUING ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: In the media world that Alice has been reporting on, there are a lot of false claims. But this one about vote by mail is particularly insidious, because so few people have enough information to put the claims in context. Undermining confidence in vote by mail is a key part of Trump campaign messaging.
LARA TRUMP: We're going to take one quick commercial break. Stay right where you are.
COMMERCIAL VOICEOVER: [DRAMATICALLY] Antifa is destroying our communities: rioting, looting. Yet Joe Biden kneels down … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: The Trump, Inc. podcast will be right back.
BERNSTEIN: We're back, talking about the world of Trump campaign media with producer Alice Wilder.
WILDER: Trump Media is made up of Trump stans — people who are as dedicated to their idol as possible. They're extremely loyal and extremely online.
BERNSTEIN: Trump media exists inside a bigger constellation of conservative media that is also rushing to bolster Trump's version of the truth and sow mistrust:
WILDER: Places like Fox News and One America News Network. Then there's all the conservative websites, podcasts, talk radio. Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow has a radio show. Trump's other lawyer Rudy Giuliani has a podcast and a radio show. And this whole ecosystem works together to further Trump's message —
FRANCESCA TRIPODI: — that you cannot trust the media because mainstream media is biased, or is pushing a political agenda that does not agree with conservative ideals.
WILDER: This is Francesca Tripodi of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies the right-wing media ecosystem. This is how she describes their pitch:
TRIPODI: “This media is more trustworthy than other news sources because it's dealing with conservative concerns that others are not.”
WILDER: Tripodi has paid special attention to the media produced by the Trump campaign. She's the only person I've met who also listens to the Trump campaign podcast for work. She says people on these shows talk in a very particular way.
TRIPODI: A lot of research has gone into the right-wing media ecosystem, and they’re, quite frankly, much better at changing the conversation.
WILDER: Remember back in 2016 when we started hearing people talk about the "deep state”? That phrase was picked up and popularized by right-wing media. There's also "Obamagate" and "ballot harvesting," terms that really only get used on one side of the political conversation.
TRIPODI: There is a really important and effective communication strategy going on in terms of focusing in on key words that don't necessarily have a lot of information readily available about them online.
WILDER: That lack of information is what academics call a "data void." And it means that conservative media has a blank slate to work with, free of any facts but their own.
TRIPODI: And when little to nothing exists around these phrases, you can, like, push a bunch of content to the top of a search query. And so, by focusing in on these keywords and ideas, and saying, “Go search for it yourself! Look at these tests. Do your own research.” Where do people go? Google, right? And when you type in these key phrases, the only content returned is conservative news media.
WILDER: So type into Google a phrase like "ballot harvesting,” and other than a bit of fact-checking, what mostly comes up is a mix of alarmed local news stories, Fox News coverage, and Republican House Committee reports. They’re all reinforcing the same ideas expressed on the Trump campaign shows. Here's Jenna Ellis, a senior legal advisor to the campaign, speaking on the Trump Campaign podcast.
JENNA ELLIS: And the Democrats know that they can't win fair and square. So they are wanting to manipulate the rules at every single turn. They're wanting to manipulate, uh, our election system to try to impose a nationwide mail-in voting, and they're trying to impose ballot harvesting and all of these ways that are ripe for fraud so that they can overturn elections in America. We’ve seen this happen … [FADES UNDER]
WILDER: What Jenna Ellis said isn't unusual. These commentators, they see every check on the President's power — the Mueller investigation, the Mueller report, impeachment — as an attempt by Democrats to overturn the results of the 2016 election. And now we're coming up to the ultimate check on the President's power, the 2020 election. It's not Congress checking the President, it's the American people. But the Trump media is using the same framing — that the only way Democrats can win is by stealing the election using vote by mail.
BERNSTEIN: This is a key part of Trump's campaign strategy. The Republican National Committee says it is budgeting $20 million for litigation, including to fight efforts to expand vote by mail. ProPublica's Jessica Huseman:
HUSEMAN: They know, probably, that the vast majority of these lawsuits are going to be unsuccessful. But the farther and farther and farther they can push the implementation of vote by mail, the more chaotic vote by mail will end up being. And so then they can say, “Look, I told you so! It was always going to be chaotic!,” when really it was chaotic because of them. Um, so I think that, you know, either way, the President wins here. He either wins the lawsuits, or the lawsuits drag it out so far that vote by mail ends up being just as chaotic as he said it would be.
WILDER: [ON TAPE] Mmm. Um, what — what do you think the risks are when public figures engage in this type of, like, theorizing about the security of our elections?
HUSEMAN: You know, I think that it deters people from voting. The number of voters that I've talked to in the last few years who say things to me, like, “Oh, I'm not going to vote. My vote doesn't count anyway, so why bother?”
They have this loyal fan base — that is Trump's fan base — that will just believe whatever they say. And that's troubling for me as a journalist. Like, the number of people — the number of conversations I have with voters who just believe fundamentally incorrect things about how their votes are cast and counted is really troubling.
BERNSTEIN: ProPublica's Jessica Huseman, speaking with Trump, Inc. producer Alice Wilder.
In late June, Trump told Politico that vote by mail is one of the biggest threats to his campaign. He said that's why he's suing to block it. "My biggest risk is that we don't win lawsuits. We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don't win those lawsuits, I think — I think it puts the election at risk."
On June 22nd, he Tweeted, "Because of mail-in ballots, 2020 will be our most rigged election in our nation's history.”
[MUSIC BECOMES INTENSE]
This episode was reported by Alice Wilder and edited by Nick Varchaver and Meg Cramer. Jared Paul does our sound design and original scoring. Hannis Brown wrote our theme and additional music. Production support from Beau Coco. Special thanks for his insight to Daniel Kreiss.
Matt Collette is the Executive Producer of Trump, Inc. Emily Botein is the Vice President of Original Programming for WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
By the way, we're keeping an eye on decisions by the Supreme Court and we’ll bring you an update on the Trump v. Vance ruling as soon as their rulings comes out. And we'll be back with another regular episode of Trump, Inc. later next month.
I'm Andrea Bernstein. Thanks for listening.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT SLOWLY]