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By Stinky Pete
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How Trump gets his fake news
The president rarely surfs the web on his own, but his staff have made a habit of slipping news stories on to his desk—including the occasional internet hoax.
By SHANE GOLDMACHER 05/15/2017 05:11 AM EDT

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a stern warning at a recent senior staff meeting: Quit trying to secretly slip stuff to President Donald Trump.

Just days earlier, K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, had given Trump a printout of two Time magazine covers. One, supposedly from the 1970s, warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming, according to four White House officials familiar with the matter.

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Trump quickly got lathered up about the media’s hypocrisy. But there was a problem. The 1970s cover was fake, part of an internet hoax that’s circulated for years. Staff chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it.

The episode illustrates the impossible mission of managing a White House led by an impetuous president who has resisted structure and strictures his entire adult life.

While the information stream to past commanders in chief has been tightly monitored, Trump prefers an open Oval Office with a free flow of ideas and inputs from both official and unofficial channels. And he often does not differentiate between the two. Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.

The consequences can be tremendous, according to a half-dozen White House officials and others with direct interactions with the president. A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda. Current and former Trump officials say Trump can react volcanically to negative press clips, especially those with damaging leaks, becoming engrossed in finding out where they originated.

That is what happened in late February when someone mischievously gave the president a printed copy of an article from GotNews.com, the website of internet provocateur Charles C. Johnson, which accused deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh of being “the source behind a bunch of leaks” in the White House.

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No matter that Johnson had been permanently banned from Twitter for harassment or that he offered no concrete evidence or that he had lobbed false accusations in the past and recanted them. Trump read the article and began asking staff about Walsh. Johnson told POLITICO that he tracks the IP addresses of visitors to his website and added: “I can tell you unequivocally that the story was shared all around the White House.”

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon defended Walsh, who has since left the administration to advise a pro-Trump group, in a statement to POLITICO: “Katie was a key member of the team and is a trusted friend and ally of the White House. No one in the White House took that article seriously.” Walsh declined to comment.

But the smear of one of Priebus’ closest allies — Walsh was his chief of staff at the Republican National Committee — vaulted from an obscure web posting to a topic of heated conversation in the West Wing, setting off mini internal investigations into who had backstabbed Walsh.

When Trump bellows about this or that story, his aides often scramble in a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out who alerted the president to the piece in the first place given that he rarely browses the internet on his own. Some in the White House describe getting angry calls from the president and then hustling over to Trump’s personal secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, to ferret who exactly had just paid a visit to the Oval Office and possibly set Trump off.

Priebus and White House staff secretary Rob Porter have tried to implement a system to manage and document the paperwork Trump receives. While some see the new structure as a power play by a weakened chief of staff — “He’d like to get a phone log too,” cracked one senior White House adviser — others are more concerned about the unfettered ability of Trump’s family-member advisers, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, to ply the president with whatever paperwork they want in the residence sight unseen.

“They have this system in place to get things on his desk now,” the same White House official said. “I’m not sure anyone follows it.”

Priebus has implored staff to do so in order to abide by presidential record-keeping laws, which require cataloguing what the president sees for the archives.