The Consequences of Having a Liar-in-Chief

Trump has broken the last vestiges of trust Americans had in their government.

For the last four years, the busiest people in journalism have been the fact-checkers who compile Trump’s lies, which total well over 20,000. Early in this administration, there were discussions about what it would mean to have a president that the people couldn’t trust. At the time, it was feared that, should Trump proclaim that military intervention in a country like Iran was necessary, the majority wouldn’t believe him. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened.

These days, however, the president is compounding his own lies with a corruption of the entire federal government. We saw that happen last fall with the controversy that became known as “Sharpie gate.” The White House pressured the Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service, to contradict its scientists in order uphold a presidential lie about potential damage from Hurricane Dorian in Alabama.

More recently, federal officials are lying in ways that are far more dangerous. For example, Attorney General Bill Barr continues to spread misinformation about how left-wings groups like Antifa are responsible for the kind of violence that is erupting from protests against police brutality. As a result, some Oregonians were susceptible to lies about how Antifa was responsible for the fires in their state and were refusing to leave, posing a great danger to themselves and first responders.

The most recent report from Brian Murphy, a whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security,  documents how leadership at the department politicized intelligence to back up Trump’s lies. That included doctoring reports to ramp up the idea that terrorists were pouring across our southern border, downplaying the threat posed by white supremacists groups, and covering up Russia’s attempt to influence the 2020 election. On the latter, the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has been doing the same thing.

Now we know that, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the lying has been happening at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The health department’s politically appointed communications aides have demanded the right to review and seek changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly scientific reports charting the progress of the coronavirus pandemic, in what officials characterized as an attempt to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals…

CDC officials have fought back against the most sweeping changes, but have increasingly agreed to allow the political officials to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording, according to three people familiar with the exchanges. The communications aides’ efforts to change the language in the CDC’s reports have been constant across the summer and continued as recently as Friday afternoon…

But since Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official with no medical or scientific background, was installed in April as the Health and Human Services department’s new spokesperson, there have been substantial efforts to align the reports with Trump’s statements, including the president’s claims that fears about the outbreak are overstated, or stop the reports altogether.

For a while now, many of us have realized that we can’t trust anything Trump says. But what these examples point to is that it would be imprudent to believe anything we are told by the federal government.

Perhaps the best way to capture how dangerous this is would be to remember what Peter Pomerantsev wrote about the goal of Vladimir Putin’s information warfare back in 2014 (emphasis mine).

[I]nsisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.

The Republican Party has spent decades trying to undermine the public’s trust in government. Trump managed to break the last vestiges of that faith. He’s counting on the fact that, having done so, anything is possible.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.