The Infowar for Donald Trump's mind

New White House chief of staff John Kelly is trying to steer the president's media habits away from Alex Jones

By Matthew Sheffield

Published August 25, 2017 5:38PM (EDT)


Thanks to the crises that President Donald Trump routinely provokes by his freelance morning tweets and unscripted lines in his speeches, there is one thing that can be said about this White House: It is perhaps the most transparent administration ever.

A huge part of the reason for this is that Trump seems to base his opinions on whichever person he spoke with most recently. The Washington Post's Amber Phillips documented this in April. Journalists talking to administration officials have reported it as well.

This chaotic decision-making process only became worse for Trump once he assumed the presidency. Under his first chief of staff Reince Priebus, the Oval Office became the place where any number of senior aides were able to waltz in whenever to shoot the breeze or to drop off suggested reading materials. Given the close ties that some Trump family members and aides have had to conspiracy websites, idiotic nonsense has long been a part of the president's media diet. Staffers have also literally given him deliberately fabricated stories without knowing they were fake.

Under Trump's new chief of staff John Kelly, however, some of that is beginning to change. There is now an infowar on for the president's mind, according to Politico's Eliana Johnson and Nancy Cook:

In a conference call last week, Kelly initiated a new policymaking process in which just he and one other aide — White House staff secretary Rob Porter, a little-known but highly regarded Rhodes scholar who overlapped with Jared Kushner as an undergraduate at Harvard — will review all documents that cross the Resolute desk.

The new system, laid out in two memos co-authored by Kelly and Porter and distributed to Cabinet members and White House staffers in recent days, is designed to ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports and even news articles that haven’t been vetted. Kelly’s deputy, Kristjen Nielson, is also expected to assume an integral role.

The keystone of the new system is a “decision memo” that will — for each Trump policy — integrate the input of Cabinet agencies and policy councils and present the president with various options, as well as with the advantages and drawbacks of each one.

Kelly's more disciplined media regimen is proving frustrating to some of the conspiracy-oriented websites that have become favorites of Trump fans across the country.

"I'm scared that the military complex is taking over the formerly populist White House," Lucian Wintrich, a writer for the right-wing Gateway Pundit blog told BuzzFeed.

According to pro-Trump conspiracy-monger Jack Posobiec, White House interns have been threatened with firing if they share posts from Infowars, the website operated by radio host Alex Jones that has moved from catering to UFO theorists to reporting on politics.

"The news will undoubtedly bolster complaints emanating from Trump’s base that he has been isolated and surrounded by globalists who have no interest in furthering Trump’s 'America first' message," Paul Joseph Watson, the editor-at-large of the site wrote on Friday.

Kelly's efforts to contain intellectual flotsam within the White House may ultimately be doomed, however, given that some Trump family members will still have direct access to him. As the New York Times' Maggie Haberman reported, the president's wife Melania and his daughter Ivanka will still be able to meet with Trump without having to make an appointment. Some pro-Trump media outlets also seem unconcerned that their access to the president's brain since they can count on his eldest son, Donald Jr. to forward their articles and videos.

"If it's good enough, Don Jr. will give it to him," Mike Cernovich, an Infowars contributor and chief promulgator of the Pizzagate conspiracy, boasted to BuzzFeed.

Of course, there is also the president's television addiction, particularly his devotion to "Fox and Friends," the dim-witted morning infotainment show that has become famous for influencing Trump. He appears to be addicted to it, even recording it so he can watch it later in case he misses it live. Within Fox News, the program and its hosts have long been regarded as an embarrassment according to multiple sources. But given Trump's dedication to the program, it is quite likely the most influential single media outlet in the world right now.

Unlike the feckless Reince Priebus, John Kelly seems much better suited to being chief of staff. Despite his best efforts to decrease the flow of conspiracy news to the president, however, it seems unlikely that he will succeed. And that's assuming this arrangement can last more than a few weeks given how much Trump hates the perception that he's being controlled by his staff.

Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via or follow him on Twitter.

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Conspiracy Theories Donald Trump Ivanka Trump John Kelly Lucian Wintrich Mike Cernovich