Something curious is happening right now: The president of the United States will give a prime-time address on an urgent political controversy, and pretty much everyone acknowledges that in that address he is going to lie to the American people.
The TV networks, which often have aired such speeches when the president asks, are struggling to figure out how to handle it; they seem to have decided that allowing a Democratic response, plus some post-hoc fact-checking, will fulfill their journalistic responsibilities.
But there’s something else going on here, too. This administration is so morally and intellectually degraded that there is not a single major figure within it who retains credibility with the press or the public. In the midst of a political crisis, there is no administration official whose word we can take on anything.
For context, I want to look back on a relevant episode from the recent past. In 2002 and 2003, George W. Bush’s administration was waging one of the great propaganda efforts in U.S. history to convince the public that if we didn’t invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein would soon attack us with his fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. As Vice President Richard B. Cheney put it in a speech, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
This was a lie, and though most of the public seemed to be buying it, as it approached the time when Bush was ready to launch the invasion, the administration needed a rhetorical coup de grace to make the momentum for war unstoppable. So they turned to Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who was not only known to be harboring some skepticism about the case for invading, but who was also held in such high esteem by both the news media and the public that not only would he be given the benefit of the doubt, but just about anything he said would be assumed to be unimpeachable.
Powell gave a speech to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, laying out the administration’s case for war — a speech we would later learn was as full of falsehoods, distortions and tendentious claims as everything else coming out of the administration at the time. But the reception to the speech, just as the administration hoped, was positively rapturous. Such was Powell’s reputation that if he said it, nearly the entire news media concluded, it had to be true.
The point of this story is that Powell’s credibility was a potent resource on which the administration could draw. It happened that they drew on it in service of propagating lies to enable a catastrophic war, but in theory they could have drawn on it to justify something worthwhile.
But try to imagine something like that happening today. Which of President Trump’s senior aides would be able to come before the public and say, “These are the facts, and this is what we must do about them,” and be taken seriously?
Indeed, these days when administration officials do interviews, they’re forced to spend much of their time defending the lies their boss has told on the issue at hand. That’s what happened when Vice President Pence did a round of interviews to make the case that we’re facing a “crisis” on the border that justifies a government shutdown and the declaration of a national emergency that would allow Trump to exercise powers not ordinarily available to the president. Pence’s ability to spin was put to the test, with sad results, as he was questioned about Trump’s lie that previous presidents told him they wished they had built a wall on the southern border, and the lie the administration is telling that thousands of suspected terrorists have been apprehended trying to come in from Mexico.
The vice president isn’t going to convince anyone who isn’t already in Trump’s camp of what the administration would like the country to believe. The president’s press secretary may be the most shamelessly dishonest person ever to occupy that post, which is saying something. The secretary of homeland security is a joke. The acting attorney general is a widely viewed as a contemptible sycophant grossly unqualified for his position. And the person with the highest reputation among Trump officials, former defense secretary Jim Mattis, just quit in disgust.
That isn’t to say that Trump doesn’t have a few people in his administration who have managed to hold on to their reputations. But they have done so only by being invisible. It isn’t as though the administration is going to say, “The American people must know why the flow of asylum seekers at the border is such an urgent crisis. Here to make that case … Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao!”
With no one else able to convince the public, Trump himself — the one with the least credibility of all — is set to step up to do the job himself. And he will fail.