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‘We have a profound problem’: Mark Sanford has some thoughts about Trump and the truth

In a stunning upset, first-term state lawmaker Katie Arrington unseated incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford, following President Trump's eleventh hour tweet. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

It was just one tweet out of dozens the president sent this week, but it was so unmoored in reality, so objectively false and so insulting to one of their own that a number of House Republicans are still taken aback that President Trump sent it.

Trump was speaking with House Republicans on Tuesday about immigration, but he couldn't resist verbally kicking Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who lost his primary a few weeks ago after another insulting tweet Trump sent about him.

“Is Mark Sanford here?” members in the room said Trump asked, out of the blue. (He wasn't.) There was nervous laughter. Then, something to the effect of: “He's a nasty guy.” There were groans, guffaws, even some boos. And when those boos were widely reported the next day, Trump tweeted that the room “applauded and laughed loudly.” It didn't, according to Washington Post interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers in the room.

Was the president straight-up lying? And why would he about this relatively brief moment in his busy week? The Fix caught up on Thursday with Sanford at the Capitol, to talk about why this tweet has him profoundly concerned about Trump, the truth and the erosion of democracy.

Our conversation was less a Q&A and more of Sanford spilling his thoughts. It has been lightly edited for length.

On hearing what the president tweeted about him

SANFORD: So a friend called me about that last night. And their point was: “Well, he's got a bigger microphone, and what he says is what people would believe.”

And my response was: “If that's the case, we have a much bigger problem.”

Because the beauty of an American political system is we can agree to disagree. But the starting point in that conversation, in a reason-based republic, is that there are objective facts, that there is truth. And if truth is determined by the person with the loudest bully pulpit as opposed to what is objectively true, we have a profound problem.

That tweet, and what it represents, is the reason that I spoke up as I did prior to the election and the reason I will continue to speak up post election. We're playing with real fire in a reason-based republic.

On his relationship with the truth

SANFORD: I get the irony of me talking about truth. It's not lost on me. A lie was told on my behalf, and more significantly, I was living a lie in a chapter of my life. [Editor's note: Here's background on a 2009 affair Sanford had while he was governor of South Carolina.] 

But maybe that's the reason I've come to feel so strongly about this. There was an incredible consequence for me. The lie was discovered, and I suffered the consequence politically, socially, maritally — I can go down the list. And that's the way the system's supposed to work. And yet now, we've morphed into some kind of larger collective amnesia where we accept something that isn't the truth multiple times in a day as just being the way it is.

There is something big about that tweet, irrelevant to the tweet itself, but symptomatic of the larger amnesia that we're collectively in as a society.

THE FIX: When I ask your colleagues to challenge the president's telling of events, many of them decline. Are there symptoms of that amnesia right here in the Capitol?

SANFORD: Certainly. Because this is more than just about dancing on some guy's grave. It's about really, one could argue, a very corrosive message being sent to everybody in that conference. He's saying: “I'm going to send a message to every one of you guys that if you mess with me, there could be a consequence for you.”

There's no motivation like self-motivation. There is a preservation component, where people don't want to get run over by the train, and I don't blame them. So you have a handful of folks who will be particularly courageous in those moments, but you have the full bell curve of life, and you have those folks who say: “I see what happened to Sanford. I don't really want that tweet in my district.”

On whether Trump's struggle with the truth hurts the president's ability to get Congress to do his bidding

SANFORD: Our actions and our words have consequences, and if somebody goes before a body and says things that aren't true, one could argue it causes that body to trust the person speaking just a little less than they otherwise might have.

I think people have long been concerned — particularly on immigration — of having their legs cut out underneath them [by Trump]. That: “Okay, he might be here today, but where might he be tomorrow? And given his latitude with words, I'm not sure I want to step out boldly if I don't know that he's going to have my back.”

On his single biggest concern for the Republican Party

SANFORD: It doesn't know what it is. We need to get a gut chuck about where we are as a party.

It's telling that my opponent, on the night of her electoral speech, said: "This is the party of Donald J. Trump." I could not more wholeheartedly disagree. Parties are built on the backbones of people who have worked and labored in the vineyard for years, sticking envelopes and putting up yard signs, and it's moored most of all in a shared philosophy. It's not, to [Sen. Bob] Corker's point, about a single personality. Our Founding Fathers set up a system that was designed to guard against individual personality. They said we would be a nation of laws, and not men. And so I don't know exactly where the party is right now, but it's a long way from the party I've always believed in.