The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With towering lie, Trump highlights the narrow mission of fact checkers

Immigrants from Honduras seeking asylum wait on the Gateway International Bridge, which connects the United States and Mexico, in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2018. (David J. Philli/AP) (David J. Phillip/AP)
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Early in the Trump administration, journalists puzzled over whether the president was an inveterate liar or merely a man who mangled facts with zip-line efficiency. How naive those conversations now appear.

In comments to the media on Tuesday before a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Trump talked about the ongoing turmoil over the forced resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Included in this particular story are reports that Trump favors reinstating family separation at the southern border. “I’m the one that stopped it,” Trump said to assembled reporters. “President Obama had child separation.”

Actually, the opposite: As The Post’s Salvador Rizzo has explained in a fact-check, Obama and George W. Bush border policies allowed family separations “only in limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected human trafficking or another kind of danger to the child, or when false claims of parentage were made.” A “zero tolerance” policy under the Trump administration — which involved prosecutions of all adults crossing illegally — forced systematic family separations because children “can’t be prosecuted with their parents.”

Following Trump’s reheated whopper, Post fact checker Glenn Kessler found himself in the recycling business:

There’s a grim either-or dynamic at work here. It’s remotely possible that Trump — somehow — has bubbled himself off from all the fact-checking on this front. Or perhaps he’s forgotten all the correctives. Not a good scenario for the republic.

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The other, more likely, possibility is that he is just plowing through, lying in the most brazen manner he knows. That would be another unfavorable scenario for the republic.

If there’s a redeeming aspect to this madness, it’s that Trump’s continued lying about child separation highlights the function of fact-checking in American democracy. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential campaign, the since-deceased David Carr of the New York Times lamented that fact-checking teams didn’t prevent the candidates from making false assertions.

Brooks Jackson, then the director of, told the Erik Wemple Blog back then: “Any fact-checker who imagines that he or she can induce politicians to change their behavior is on a fool’s errand. And anyone who thinks that’s what we’re trying to do has jumped to the wrong conclusion.”

Bolding inserted to highlight a prophetic remark that came years before the launch of Trump’s presidential campaign.

Over and over, Trump has shown his incapacity for evolving, improving, learning, reading. American voters, however, are at least somewhat more pliable. “The obligation of the fact-checker is the same as the obligation of the journalists, and that is just to give people the information to help them make smarter decisions in a democracy,” says Bill Adair, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. That said, Adair notes that some politicians, including the GOP’s Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, have publicly expressed their awareness of fact-checkers. “That’s not why we’re in the business,” says Adair, creator of PolitiFact, “but it is a nice side effect.”

A side effect, that is, that appears to be inoperative vis-à-vis our current president. But who knows? “We don’t know how many lies aren’t being told every day because of fact-checkers,” says Adair. Consider the possibility that the 9,000 false or misleading claims of President Trump represent his very best factual hygiene.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: Fact-checking has flourished. But it’s more complicated than it looks.

Anne Applebaum: Fact-checking in a ‘post-fact world’

Erik Wemple: Where’s the fact check, Fox News?

Dana Milbank: The government is trying to turn Trump’s lies into truths

Erik Wemple: Fact-checking makes voters ‘harder to fool’: Claim