The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s claim that he prevented air-traffic deaths is his most questionable yet

President Trump walks up the steps of Air Force One on Dec. 2. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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See, what happened is that the boy cried wolf so many times that, when there actually was a wolf, no one believed him. That’s the moral of the story: Keep saying something is happening when it isn’t and no one will believe you when it is.

The title of today’s fable, then, is: The President Who Cried Success.

We’re used to President Trump taking credit for things, deserved or not. He started taking credit for the economy less than two months after his election — and a month before being inaugurated. (In December 2016, he tweeted that “Christmas spending [was] over a trillion dollars,” something he attributed to the world no longer being “gloomy.”) He often takes credit in the abstract for other things, such as his Dec. 31 tweet about how his administration was making American great again “and much faster than anyone thought possible,” as though that were something quantifiable.

But his Tuesday tweet about airline safety? That one sets a new standard for credit-taking.

“I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation,” Trump says of his first year in office, a claim that is not only hard to back up but fairly easy to debunk. A check of, a database of Trump’s comments, shows only a handful of mentions of air travel as president. One of the primary moments during which he did so was when he unveiled a short-lived effort to reform the air-traffic control system last June.

“If we adopt these changes, Americans can look forward to cheaper, faster, and safer travel,” Trump said, “a future where 20 percent of a ticket price doesn’t go to the government, and where you don’t have to sit on a tarmac or circle for hours and hours over an airport — which is very dangerous also — before you land.”

That’s Trump saying that the existing system is dangerous. That system didn’t change, but 2017 was indeed the safest year in history for commercial air travel. So how does Trump get credit for this again?

President Trump repeatedly praised his record throughout the year, often claiming to have achieved more than his predecessors. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Steve Helber/The Washington Post)

Especially given two complicating aspects to that statistic. The first is that this was a global statistic. One reason 2017 saw fewer fatalities among commercial flights is that 2016 saw a fatal accident in Colombia in November — the last time there had been a fatal passenger jet airliner accident. Did Trump spend his first year quietly bolstering the safety of airlines in Colombia, Lithuania, Tanzania and Indonesia?

The other complication is that the number of deaths on American commercial airlines didn’t change in 2017 relative to 2016 — because it’s hard to go lower than “zero.” The last time someone died in the crash of an American commercial flight was in February 2009 — less than a month after Barack Obama first took office. Yet apparently we are supposed to believe that Trump’s eventual election reached its grip back eight years in time to ensure that flights would be safer moving forward.

This brings us back to our modern-day fable about wolves. Trump’s repeated insistence that he deserves credit for things he doesn’t necessarily weakens his claims to credit for things that exist more in a gray area. The economy is a good example of that: He keeps claiming, for example, that he deserves credit for the rising stock market — though global indexes also rose at the same rate in 2017. Where does the line exist between what’s deserved and what’s claimed? Trump’s constant tugging at the line should make people skeptical of wherever it ends up, regardless of the issue.

That Trump’s claim on air-travel safety is so ludicrous — which it is — will not dissuade many of his supporters from assigning him credit for the shift. Sure, there was no actual change in the U.S. and sure Trump didn’t actually do anything publicly to push for changes to a tough-to-change system, but a rationale will be developed to defend his claim. Some may seize on the ambiguity in the tweet, a patented Trump move to tell his base what it wants to hear but to give him breathing space from critics: “He didn’t say explicitly that it was because of him!” Others, though, will simply accept the claim as intended.

The real problem with the boy who cried wolf was not that he kept crying wolf and eventually put his village in danger after his warnings lost their effectiveness. The problem was that he didn’t spend months building a loyal following of supporters who would always accept his wolf-crying as accurate, and who would defend his actions no matter what.

All those other times there weren’t wolves? More fake news from the lamestream media.