While the made-for-TV optics of President Trump’s bizarre, contentious Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders Tuesday got the bulk of the media attention, the coverage distracted from the numerous falsehoods the president uttered during the argument. For one, Trump claimed that 10 terrorists were recently captured at the southern border. They weren’t, but that kind of presidential distortion is now an everyday thing in Washington.
Trump’s falsehoods have tangible implications for how Congress functions. The executive branch is the gatekeeper for much of the information presented to legislators, and Republicans have largely refused to question the talking points spoon-fed to them by the administration.
While Republicans have tended to accept any false data points to back policy they support — such as the border wall or withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement — cracks started to form in this tacit agreement last week when 14 Senate Republicans bucked the president and voted to end U.S. aid for the Yemen conflict. The vote was a rare rebuke to Trump, triggered by the misleading intelligence the administration provided about the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis were dispatched to the Capitol this month to brief senators on the killing, rather than CIA Director Gina Haspel, and they took Trump’s side instead of the CIA’s.
“I think when Pompeo and Mattis spoke, I think we all knew the score,” Sen. Jeff Flake told VICE News. “The fact that she wasn’t there spoke volumes.”
Flake’s leaving the Senate after repeated spats with Trump dried up support with his GOP base at home, and other Republicans seem to have taken note of his demise: He stood up to the president and got trumped.
That’s why many politicos believe GOP legislators are wary of confronting Trump, even if they’re angered by his playing fast and loose with facts.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was the most vocal after the misleading Khashoggi briefing from Pompeo and Mattis, but he’s up for re-election this cycle, which might explain the limits of his outrage.
“I would imagine if they were in a Democratic administration, I would be all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia. But since I have such respect for them, I’m going to assume that they’re being good soldiers [for the president],” Graham told reporters upon leaving the classified CIA briefing on Khashoggi last week.
When pressed on that statement by VICE News, he demurred.
“I’m not giving them a pass; I think I was pretty direct about it. I don’t agree with their assessment,” Graham said.
To others, that episode reveals the hypocrisy plaguing congressional Republicans.
“If they lie to us, they’re just being good foot soldiers for our Republican president”
“That tells you everything you need to know. That has been the perfect descriptor of Republican oversight of this administration: that if they lie to us, they’re just being good foot soldiers for our Republican president,” former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) told VICE News in a phone interview.
For Jolly, the president and his administration have lost all credibility, and he says he no longer puts any trust in what he hears from them.
“No. Not at all,” Jolly said. “I just think it’s the basic principle that when you’ve lost your credibility, you’ve also lost the benefit of the doubt. That’s why whenever the administration issues a statement in response to something, it just can’t be taken on face value, because of the history of the lies.”
Oversight is coming
Besides on foreign policy, Jolly says that extends from the White House’s denial of climate science to how they’ve helped explode the debt and deficit. Jolly says many Republicans on Capitol Hill have become complicit with the White House, but he expects a new day in Washington when Democrats formally take over the House in January and initiate a slew of investigative hearings, document requests and subpoenas, if the administration stonewalls them, giving both parties a look under the hood of the executive branch.
“We’ll finally get to see that the administration has been lying about a lot more. It’s just we haven’t seen it because of the lack of oversight,” Jolly continued.
But Jolly remains in the minority of the contemporary GOP. Fact-checkers at the Washington Post have identified more than 5,000 false or misleading statements from Trump. When reporters repeatedly ask Republicans about those falsehoods, most of them say they haven’t seen what Trump said, which Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) claims isn’t because the GOP is trying to cover for the president.
“There is an information overload that maybe makes any inconsistencies seem less significant,” Blunt told VICE News. “There’s a lot of information out there, and I think you’re constantly looking for the information that impacts what you’re trying to advance, rather than all the information available.”
Many other Republicans argue there’s always a natural tension between Congress and any White House, but they say it’s Trump’s style that’s different.
“We’ve never seen an administration like this before”
“It’s no doubt it’s an unorthodox presidency, but the previous administration wasn't always forthcoming,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told VICE News. “I think in general there’s always a tension between the information the executive branch has and the oversight Congress wants to conduct. Obviously you add in some of the unorthodox elements of the administration...and it’s a new element. We’ve never seen an administration like this before.”
Still, most Republicans on Capitol Hill, along with the president’s base, have gotten used to a president who utters falsehoods and unsupported claims at a rapid-fire pace.
“I don’t think the American people look at what Trump says at rallies and runs it through the truth-o-meter in order to guide what their opinions are on things,” outgoing Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “That’s not what they are. Those are WWF – those are Wrestlemania events.”
The moderate Republican does say members of his party have been frustrated when Trump sends out a tweet or makes an off-the-cuff remark that differs from what Cabinet secretaries or other officials have told them.
“The uncertainty is around the president might say this when the administration is working on something else, and you’re like, which is it? Where’s that going?” Costello said. “That kind of stuff drives people crazy sometimes.”
Indeed, Costello believes that while the falsehoods or half-truths enrage Congress, they delight Trump’s base.
“A lot of middle America, particularly fly-over country and conservative talk radio, they love the blunt talk”
“If anything, the administration has bluntly said what their position is. That pisses Democrats off, but a lot of Republicans – a lot of middle America, particularly fly-over country and conservative talk radio, they love the blunt talk,” Costello contended.
As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation inches closer to Trump's inner circle and the president himself, Democrats see the case for impeachment growing stronger, while many Republicans remain unwilling to question the president and would rather explain away the inconsistencies.
That’s on display this week after federal prosecutors in New York indirectly implicated Trump for directing what they say were two illegal payments to silence two of his former mistresses ahead of the 2016 election. But the information came from Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, which some Republicans are seizing on.
“He's obviously a sleazoid grifter, and if I were a prosecutor, I wouldn't base a prosecution on evidence given to me by Mr. Cohen,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told reporters at the Capitol this week.
When pressed on what that says about Trump having him as a longtime associate, Kennedy brushed aside the question.
“You can draw your own conclusions about whether someone should hire him,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know what the president knew about the guy. I’m just telling you what my observation is.”
It’s unclear whether any fact uncovered by Mueller will make a difference to GOP elected officials.
“We just don’t have the full picture yet. I think we have to kind of wait until we get a Mueller report,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.C.) said Monday.
When VICE News pointed out that those are Republican talking points, Thune quipped: “We’re on message anyway, right?”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump argues about border security with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in the Oval Office on December 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)