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Mis-Communicator of the Week: US Navy

"Further embarrassment for Donald Trump", "White House denies misleading public over carriers", "A geography lesson needed for the president" were three headlines from the latest wilful misleading of the media from the White House communications team. Or so it first seemed.

Last week, the world was heading for thermonuclear war with North Korea sabre rattling and the United States threatening. As one announced imminent missile tests the other released a photo of a menacing naval "armada" - in Donald Trump's colourful description - which was heading to the "Western Pacific".

This photo whizzed around the world highlighting President Trump's willingness to take action in a way his predecessor was not. It was said to signal a new assertiveness in US foreign policy.

Now it has emerged, via a post on the US Navy's Facebook page, that the USS Carl Vinson and accompanying escort ships were thousands of miles from North Korea and heading in the opposite direction.

So what happened? The media's trust in the White House is at perhaps the lowest point since the Nixon presidency so it is easy to point the finger of blame in that direction.

It is certainly true that Trump did not direct the carrier group to change course yet talked of the "wonderful armada" headed to the "Western Pacific". What had happened was he (and his advisers) had spotted an announcement from the US Navy that the ships had left Singapore and were heading to Korea but failed to mention the route the ships would take was via Australia.

Next came the defence secretary, General James Mattis, who announced a planned exercise in Australia had been cancelled because of the crisis with North Korea.

This all added up to a US fleet steaming to teach North Korea a lesson. In fact all that had been cancelled was one stop over on Australia's west coast. The warships are now due to arrive in the Sea of Japan next week.

While deception and secrecy is a necessary part of getting one over your enemies, this episode looks instead as if the US administration was let down by poor internal communications that undermined its external communications - and its standing with important allies in the region.

Communication between the White House and the Pentagon (the US defence HQ) seems to have broken down while no one was able or willing to step in and admit the story was misleading.

The US Navy was initially at fault while the right level of fact checking wasn't used by the department of defence or the White House. Ultimately though the Navy should have stepped in and admitted it had over-played its hand in spinning the truth.

It's a classic case of a cock-up and, perhaps, a cover-up rather than a conspiracy but has further undermined trust in the White House at a time when it's credibility with some needs to be boosted. That's why the US Navy is my Mis-Communicator of the Week.

Mis-Communicator of the Week is written by Edward Staite.

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