It started the way it always starts. Seasoned watchers of Donald Trump—and who isn't a seasoned watcher, these days?—can, by now, pick up quickly on the signs. We collectively sense that the president is wandering into deeper, darker rhetorical waters, and then suddenly he's in over his head. This time, it was about American soldiers killed in action, but it could have been about almost anything. What happens is Trump, a world-class bullshitter in the old New York mold, gets in front of a microphone and talks until the conversation turns to something he doesn't understand. Then he goes on talking, and says something flatly untrue that offends a lot of people in its rank ignorance.
So: On Monday, Trump held a surprise press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that looked like an attempt to demonstrate the two men might actually still be allies. In the course of taking questions from reporters, Trump answered a fairly routine query about four Green Berets killed 12 days before in Niger by saying he had written letters to their families. He went on:
The toughest calls I have to make are calls where this happens, soldiers are killed. It's a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day, it's a very, very tough day. For me, that's by far the toughest... The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls.
Well, now hold on, Barack Obama didn't call the families of dead soldiers? That seems wrong! A reporter asked if that was what Trump was really saying, and he replied:
I don't know if he did... I was told that he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't—they write letters... I do a combination of both. Sometimes it's a very difficult thing to do but I do a combination of both. President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told.
Trump's waffling suggests, obviously, that he didn't know anything about what calls Obama did or did not make. Except in the immediate aftermath, what drew attention was not Trump's "_probably did sometimes," line but, rather, the initial accusation. The lie/misstatement/word salad was immediately denounced by everyone from former Obama aides, who called it "an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards" and referred to Trump as a "deranged animal," to San Antonio Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich, who told a _Nation reporter, "This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others."
That's the second step of a fairly routine mico-scandal life cycle in American politics: First a public figure says something dumb and offensive, then people call them out on it. Normally, that callout leads to an apology, or a clarification, and the world moves on. But Trump's thing is to always—always!—dig in in the face of criticism. There's no hill too small to die on, no controversy too minor to be stoked into a bonfire of outrage.
So you had White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling the press Trump "wasn't criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact" because technically, presidents haven't called the families of every single killed military service-member. You had Trump himself going on a FOX News radio show Tuesday to say, "To the best of my knowledge, I think I've called every family of somebody that's died." And you had Trump, in that same interview, going even farther by bringing up White House chief of staff John Kelly's son, who died in Afghanistan in 2010: "As far as other representatives, I don't know, I mean you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"
(The press is investigating all this—the AP reported Tuesday afternoon that while it's unclear whether Obama called Kelly, he hosted the general as part of a breakfast for the families of slain service-members in 2011.)
This is how a nonsensical aside turns into a grotesque spectacle: by Trump's loose-lipped style of speaking on one hand and his refusal to ever back down on the other. It's a pointless diversion in an administration full of them—wasted energy on the part of everyone involved. That kind of inane battle has been a hallmark of Trump's almost nine months in office, going all the way back to the bizarre spat with the press over the size of his inaugural crowd.
And though the accusation about Obama got the most play because of its sheer unbelievability, it was hardly the only untruth uttered by Trump at Monday's press conference. Even relatively centrist journalists like Mike Allen of Axios and CNN's Chris Cillizza denounced Trump's absurd claims about healthcare and his relationships with Republicans in Congress.
The media is continuing to grapple with a president who doesn't care about truth, runs his mouth on everything under the sun, and feeds on petty bullshit. It's still not at all clear how to do that. On Tuesday, journalist Mike Sacks asked Trump why he keeps referring to the US as the highest-taxed nation in the world when that's obviously false. Without a beat, the president responded that "in many cases" people think he's right, but technically he just means the US is the highest-taxed developed country in the world.
The only problem: That isn't true either.
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