Donald Trump, we have long known, is a weapon of mass distraction. He detonates daily, or more often.
But now that he is president, the fallout is dangerous.
Just after noon on Tuesday, alarming news began to spread that the Trump administration was imposing a gag order on the agencies of the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department and the Department of Health and Human Services all reported various new edicts restricting federal agencies’ use of social media, appearances in public events or contacts with the press or lawmakers. It was an authoritarian gesture that, in an ordinary time, would dominate the news.
But this is no ordinary time. As word of the gag orders spread, White House press secretary Sean Spicer came before the cameras and said publicly what Trump had already said privately the day before: that Trump believes millions of people voted illegally in the election.
“He continues to maintain that belief,” Spicer confirmed, “based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.”
But what, Spicer was asked, “does that mean for democracy?”
“It means that I’ve answered your question.”
Ka-boom. The president, through his spokesman, had just put himself at odds with leaders of his own party, Republican secretaries of state across the nation and virtually the entire store of human knowledge on the subject – and the social-media and cable news chatter quickly shifted.
Meanwhile, the sweeping gag orders muzzling the federal government quietly take effect.
There have been two yuuuuge stories in the first days of the Trump administration: the president’s insistence on the false claim that the crowd at his inauguration was upward of 1 million people, and his equally erroneous proclamation that he lost the popular vote because of massive voter fraud.
The wild fibs and fantasies can’t be ignored because, as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it, “Trump is now striking at the foundation of a democratic society.” But they are clearly diversions, conveniently removing attention from things Trump has done that will have direct and often severe consequences. Below are some of the jaw-dropping items many Americans probably missed while distracted by Trump’s bogus baubles:
He finished appointing a Cabinet that is 85 percent white – only three of 20 Cabinet-level positions will be held by racial minorities, none by a Latino – and nearly all male.
He eliminated a scheduled cut in the rate that low-income homeowners pay for the housing insurance program. This means some people with low incomes will have to pay hundreds of dollars more a year than they would have otherwise.
He drafted an order that allows the reopening of secret “black site” prisons where torture had occurred. The order also allows for a re-examination of aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
He signed an executive order undermining Obamacare that even a health-care consultant who has been a critic of the law told The Washington Post would be a “bomb,” signaling a “disorderly transition” rather than an “orderly transition.”
His administration froze all EPA grants and contracts. It also ordered the EPA to take down its climate-change Web page, thereby removing links to data on global warming (it has apparently since backed off, saying it will simply be “scrubbing” and putting “freshener” on the page). Trump’s administration also made an immediate move to delete from the White House website information about climate change and gay and lesbian issues.
His White House declared that he would not honor his pledge to release his income-tax returns – ever, apparently – and his Cabinet nominees retreated from Trump’s promises not to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Many other actions have also been overshadowed by Trump’s histrionics – the freeze on federal hiring, abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership, greenlighting oil pipelines, reinstating restrictions on foreign aid to groups that provide abortions – but at least these are items that have long been expected.
Distraction has long been Trump’s modus operandi. He dominated coverage during the primaries with outrageous pronouncements, thereby depriving his opponents of the media spotlight. When news coverage of his transition was particularly tough, he created a new narrative by attacking the cast of the musical “Hamilton.” It’s a constant use of the “dead cat” strategy: throw a dead cat on the table, and prior conversation on any other topic ceases.
But now Trump is president, and the stakes are higher. His fantastic claims about crowd size and voter fraud now divert Americans’ attention from serious and real changes in their government. We gape at dead cats, but the wolf is at the door.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.