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When proven wrong, the administration sticks by lies

  • Author: Jennifer Rubin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 8
  • Published January 8

Firefighters spray water over the west side bike path in lower Manhattan, New York, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Eight people were killed and 12 seriously injured in the Tuesday afternoon attack when, authorities say, Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old legal resident from Uzbekistan, barreled along the path in a pickup truck for more than a dozen blocks. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

"The United States Department of Justice just came perilously close to admitting that it engaged in disinformation about immigrants and terrorism in a formal government report. . . .

“But the letter, sent to us by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael H. Allen, also concedes that ‘the Report could be criticized by some readers, consistent with some of the concerns presented,’ and promises that the department will follow the ‘principles’ of an obscure law known as the Information Quality Act better ‘in issuing future reports . . . to better present such information to the public.’ This is about as close as the Trump administration is going to get to admitting that it used a formal government report to distort data to slime Muslims and immigrants.”

This is all about one of President Donald Trump's egregious lies about immigrants. In February 2017, at his speech to a joint session of Congress, Wittes recounts Trump falsely claimed that "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." There was no such data from DOJ.

After Wittes and others extracted that confession, DOJ persisted in covering for the president, issuing a report that "stopped short of Trump's outright falsehoods, by avoiding the use of the term 'terrorism' in a fashion that included only international terrorism and excluded the much larger category of domestic terrorism. Yet the report still contained gross distortions." When challenged on that report, DOJ squirmed but refused to admit outright fabrication ("the department's position appears to be that it acknowledges error and promises not to make such errors again in the future; it just doesn't acknowledge that the errors are bad enough to warrant correction").

Wittes concludes:

“The president of the United States told a frank falsehood to a joint session of Congress, citing Justice Department data that do not exist in order to do so. He did this despite warnings from career FBI and Justice Department officials that the real data could not support such statements. And the Justice Department, a year later, released a report that - while stopping short of the president’s outright falsehoods - was designed to be as suggestive of them as possible; while the department will not retract this report, it also will not defend it, and it has committed itself, as I read its letter, to not repeating its error in this tawdry episode.”

Let's be clear what is going on here: This is not simply one of thousands of lies the president tells to make himself look good or smear his opponents or hide wrongdoing. This is one in a long line of presidential lies about immigrants. He tells them in order to gin up his base and smear them as criminals, terrorists and welfare scroungers. This, he thinks, helps him push useless, wasteful and counterproductive schemes like the wall or perpetuate cruel, inhumane policies like child separation. The lies are essential to defend his otherwise indefensible positions, which in turn bind him to his xenophobic base and others sealed within the right-wing bubble.

In this particular context, making terrorism solely about Middle Easterners coming into the country is critical to a number of Trump policies and positions — the Muslim ban and the hysteria over the caravan, to name but two. It’s a way also to deflect questions about why his administration has not focused on far more deadly domestic terrorists, including right-wing mass shooters.

When caught in immigration lies — as press secretary Sarah Sanders was in a Fox New interview will Chris Wallace, when she was caught pedaling the falsehood that thousands of terrorists had been apprehended crossing the southern border — Trump and his ilk equivocate and hedge, but never retract or apologize. (NBC later reported, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered only six immigrants on the U.S-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists, according to CBP data as of May 2018.”)

The sin here is threefold: the lie to justify wrong-headed action; the perpetuation of policies known to be based on false information; and the right-wing phalanx that despite knowing better (or practicing willful ignorance), refuses to call out either the lie or the rotten policy.

The lies about immigration help explain why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was misguided when, in a 60 Minutes interview, she first criticized “a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” (To her credit, she caught herself and quickly explained, “It’s absolutely important [to be accurate]. And whenever I make a mistake, I say, ‘Okay, this was clumsy, and then I restate what my point was.’”)

She got it right the second time: Sticking to the truth is critical. It’s one way (though not the only way, to be sure) to avoid perpetuating morally wrong policies. Telling falsehoods, blurring the difference between truth and lies, creating constant confusion and discrediting objective sources of facts are common ways authoritarians hide their ill-conceived, morally indefensible actions.

When Wittes or Chris Wallace or our Post Fact Checker (“Regular readers know Trump and his advisers often pump up the numbers in support of tougher immigration laws and a border wall”) reveal Trump’s lies, they not only reveal his deceitfulness, they demonstrate that his wrong-headed policies can only be defended by lies. It’s an important reason why constant fact-checking is essential to defending our democracy — not just maintaining our sanity.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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