Even before he became president, Donald Trump was known as a routine liar, a bullshit artist of the first order even by the standards of high-end real estate and reality TV. The question when he took office wasn't so much about whether he'd become more honest and restrained—that was never on the table—but whether his habit of outright fabrication would seep into the government he oversees. His press secretaries have lied on his behalf, of course, and his allies have dishonestly defended his most heinous policies, but a recent response to a lawsuit from the Department of Justice shows just how deep the Trumpian rot has spread.
The lawsuit was filed by Lawfare's Benjamin Wittes, a national security journalist who has become a prominent Trump critic and favorite of liberals. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request in response to a statement Trump made in a speech to Congress last year: “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.” Wittes didn't think that statistic was right—a lot of domestic terrorism is obviously committed by US citizens—and he didn't think that the DOJ even kept that kind of data on where terrorists were born. So he asked for information, and in February got some documents from the National Security Division that were only related to international terrorism. This did not back up Trump's claim, as Wittes wrote on Tuesday:
Both NSD and the FBI emphasized the limitations of this data. The Justice Department explicitly warned the White House that the data did not “include convictions related solely to domestic terrorism.” And the FBI noted that “database checks are limited in their ability to accurately identify a date/place of birth.”
So Wittes sued for additional documents from the DOJ, and after some lawyer-on-lawyer action, the government eventually told him that there were "no responsive documents" related to his request. If the DOJ had data showing most terrorists were born outside the US, it would have been able to find it in response to Wittes's request—the data's absence means that wherever Trump got that (likely made-up) statistic, it wasn't the DOJ.
"What the President of the United States said before a joint session of Congress was not true," Wittes wrote. "It wasn’t true about immigrants and terrorism. And neither was it true about the Justice Department."
This is far beyond a casual falsehood that Trump might throw out in the heat of an interview or improvised rally (though even then, you'd rather the president not lie, period). It was part of an official speech to a joint session of Congress, and therefore presumably vetted by multiple people. Nor was Trump simply spinning obviously fake personal anecdotes as he so often does—this time, he was hitching his lie to the Department of Justice, the top law enforcement agency in the land.
The proof that Trump's nonsensical claim about immigrants being terrorists was in fact nonsense won't have much practical effect on American politics, unfortunately. It barely qualifies as a scandal; I can't imagine it will make even a minor dent in Trump's nativist crusade. (An absence of facts has never slowed him down before.) But it's worth pausing on this lie because of how much effort it took to prove it definitively to be a lie—Trump can invent a statistic in a second, but it might take a journalist months to disprove it, by which point the public has moved on.
By the Washington Post's count, Trump made over 3,001 "false or misleading statements" as of this May. Not all of these can be properly classified as "lies"; Trump might have been shading the truth in the manner of many politicians, or just getting something wrong. A lie is a more malicious concealment, rarer than the garden-variety "misleading statement," but that's plainly what his lie about terrorism was: A conscious effort to mislead the public. In this case, the lie obviously served his larger purpose of limiting immigration to the US, and he's continued to link immigrants to terrorists in dubious fashion since that speech.
It's impossible to chase down every falsehood Trump has birthed—that 3,000 number is impressive, in a way. He talks constantly, whether it's through Twitter or in speeches or during impromptu encounters with the traveling press corps, and when he talks he's likely to say something untrue or incorrect. Evidently, no one in the White House is trying to make sure what he's saying is true—it's only a moderate surprise that that isn't even the case when it comes to addresses before Congress. Instead, Trump's cronies are often working overtime to cover for him. It took a FOIA lawsuit for the government to cop even implicitly to the stupidest, most obvious sort of lie on Trump's behalf.
Trump's dishonesty isn't new or novel or even all that interesting. What should worry us is the dishonesties that are being deployed every day to block the truth from getting out. The lesson here is if you still trust the government, stop doing that right now.
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