President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency) President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

When Attorney General Eric Holder appeared at a Judiciary Committee hearing this week, most of the attention was on Benghazi. My colleague Glenn Kessler reports on a less widely remarked upon exchange this week between Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Holder during the fiery hearing. The issue concerned the contempt citation issued by Congress with regard to Holder’s refusal to turn over documents regarding the Fast and Furious debacle.

Asked if Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, made his own decision regarding whether to prosecute Holder for criminal contempt of Congress, Holder said:

I did not order Mr. Machen not to do anything with regard to — I won’t characterize it — the contempt finding from this Congress. He made the determination about what he was going to do on his own.”

But that was false. As Glenn explains, Holder’s deputy James Cole (the same one who subpoenaed the Associated Press’s phone records) wrote to Machen even before the contempt citation reached the U.S. attorney’s office telling Manchen that the DOJ “has determined that the Attorney General’s response to the subpoena issued by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform does not constitute a crime.”

Whoa. The Justice Department is preemptively telling the U.S. attorney to forget about enforcing the contempt citation? And Holder said the DOJ didn’t have anything to do with it. “From this record, it is pretty clear that Machen did not make the decision on his own, as Holder asserted,” Glenn concludes.

Well, get this: Holder’s offices says the AG “misspoke.” The DOJ claimed, ““Since he had not been involved, he did not recall the details.” So instead he made something up at the hearing. Got it.

How many times have we seen this routine from the administration? There is a screw-up, a conflict of interest or an instance of overreach (e.g. Benghazi, IRS, AP). Then comes a misstatement  (no higher ups at the IRS knew about targeting opponents; the Benghazi incident stemmed from a spontaneous demonstration; the Health and Human Services secretary didn’t shake down health-care companies; the sequester will be a cataclysmic event) or a simply unbelievable assertion (Holder recused himself from the AP case with no evidence of having done so). Then comes a claim of ignorance (the president knows nothing about anything; Holder didn’t know about communications on the contempt citation or about the AP records request). They do it again and again.

You can buy this routine once or twice. But when the prevarication repeats over and over again, followed by more prevarication about the original falsehoods (We said it was terrorism right away!), you get the sense the truth doesn’t matter. What matters is keeping Congress and the media at bay, ducking accountability and wielding power over other branches of government, the press and political opponents.

This is how the public and, belatedly, the mainstream media get to the point at which they trust nothing coming out of the administration. Virtually nothing said is the whole truth; the trick is in finding out what part is false and trying to determine whether the falsehood is intentional or not.

The president’s defenders increasingly sound like an “Onion” headline (“Obama Supporter Has Perfectly Improbable Explanation Absolving President From Blame For Scandals”). But if you’ve been paying attention, it’s no longer possible to conclude this crew is leveling with us.