The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Time to stop chasing Trump’s lies down the rabbit hole

President Trump speaks at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation in Annapolis on Friday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

You may have noticed that today’s news is not dominated by the blockbuster revelations of what members of Congress learned yesterday when they met with Justice Department officials to review information about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, specifically the bureau’s use of a confidential informant who contacted Trump campaign officials after learning of suspicious links involving Russia.

Why is it that the results of that highly unusual meeting (two meetings, actually) are not splashed across every front page and dominating every minute of cable news today? Because the whole thing was a farce, and it didn’t give Republicans what they were hoping for.

This reveals the absurd pattern we’ve fallen into. It goes like this: President Trump makes a ridiculous accusation that almost everyone immediately understands to be false. Then we in the media, because it’s the president, treat that accusation as though it’s something that has to be taken seriously. Then governmental resources are mustered to deal with the accusation. Then Republicans try to twist the mobilization of those resources to give them the answer they’re seeking. But because it’s all based on a lie, they fail once Democrats force some measure of truth to be revealed.

President Trump's 'Spygate' is a dishonest and effective marketing ploy, says columnist Eugene Robinson. (Video: The Washington Post)

Worst of all, we’re going to end up doing it again.

Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly run through some of the iterations of this maddening pattern. Barack Obama tapped my phones! The Obama administration illegally “unmasked” Americans caught up in surveillance of Russian targets! The Democrats colluded with Russia! The whole Russia investigation happened because of the Steele dossier!

No matter what ludicrous charge Trump makes, the entire political system reacts as though it might be true. If tomorrow the president said that “Robert Mueller” never existed and the person claiming to be him is actually Nancy Pelosi in elaborate makeup, we’d all find ourselves debating whether Mueller is a real person while House Republicans angrily demand that he produce a DNA sample.

In this latest case, we learned that in 2016, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation when it discovered that people associated with the Russian government had made contact with Trump campaign officials. The bureau went about its investigation in the most circumspect way possible: Instead of marching agents into Trump headquarters to interview people on the campaign, they used an experienced informant who quietly reached out to those officials to see what the nature of the Russian contacts was. Then they kept the results of their investigation quiet until after the election so as not to affect the outcome of the race.

Yet Trump took those facts and twisted them around to claim that the bureau, on the direction of the Obama White House, planted a spy in his campaign in order to help Hillary Clinton. This preposterous lie was dutifully repeated by Fox News and talk radio, ramping up pressure to the point where Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein felt it necessary to ask the department’s inspector general to take a look. Then the Trump White House instructed the Justice Department to brief two Republican committee chairs, including shameless Trump lickspittle Rep. Devin Nunes, on the department’s use of that informant. It was only later that they agreed to hold a second meeting to give the same information to the “Gang of 8,” the bipartisan group of congressional leaders who are regularly briefed on intelligence matters.

After the meetings were over, the Democrats who attended released a brief statement in which they said this:

Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a ‘spy’ in the Trump Campaign, or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols.

Republicans have not contradicted them. Indeed, Republicans have said almost nothing about the meetings, other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who agreed with the Democrats. Rest assured, if the meetings had produced even an iota of evidence that there was anything inappropriate in the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation, they would have run to Fox News to trumpet their outrage so fast the soles of their shoes would have melted.

So that’s where we are: President Trump made an obviously false charge, everyone acted as though it might be true, and we went through all this rigamarole only to find out that, yes, it was obviously false. Yet this morning, the president tweeted this:

By now we’ve all learned to dismiss Trump’s tweets as just the crazy stuff that rolls around his head while he’s watching “Fox & Friends,” but this is absolutely appalling. After learning that there is zero evidence anywhere that the FBI was attempting to do anything other than investigate what was essentially a Russian attack on our election system — just as FBI agents should have done — Trump chose to tell three separate lies to the American public in the course of this single tweet. “Spies” were not “placed” in his campaign. The investigation was being conducted by the FBI, not by Democrats. And it was not “for the sole purpose of political advantage and gain.”

These are lies. They’re not “unconfirmed,” they’re not “misstatements,” and they’re not “exaggerations.” They’re lies. They should have been greeted with headlines reading, “President Trump Lies to Public About Russia Investigation.”

How many times do we have to go through this charade?

At this point, Trump has earned the presumption that everything he says on the topic of the Russia investigation is offered in bad faith and is almost certainly false, until proved otherwise. So we should treat his statements the way we do press releases from the North Korean state news agency. They may be newsworthy in that they show what the regime would like people to believe, but we don’t assume that they have any relationship to actual facts. When they claim that Kim Jong Un could drive at age 3 and win yacht races at age 9, or that his father Kim Jong Il wrote 1,500 books while at university and once sank 11 holes-in-one in a single round of golf, we don’t set about to determine whether they’re true.

We keep letting Trump push us into this inane cycle where his fevered imaginings produce blanket media coverage and even government action. It has to stop.