President Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

If you’re president and you’ve done something morally abhorrent and politically unpopular, such as setting up a “zero tolerance” policy at the border that literally tears children from their parents’ arms, there are a few ways you can handle the fallout. You can reverse the policy and admit it was a mistake. You can make a case that it was justified.

Or you can claim that despite widespread comments about that policy by you and your aides, and literally thousands of news reports documenting what went on, none of it actually happened.

Want to guess which one President Trump has chosen?

In an absolutely gobsmacking new interview with José Díaz-Balart of Telemundo, Trump attempted this up-is-downism with regard to his administration’s family-separation policy, in which thousands of children were taken from their families at the border.

First, the background. When they implemented the policy, Trump officials were clear that its shocking cruelty was precisely the point: The horror of children being taken from their parents and tossed in cages would provide a powerful deterrent to those considering coming to the United States illegally.

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked, “Are you trying to deter people from bringing children, minors, across this dangerous journey, is that part of what the separation is about?” he replied, “Yes, hopefully people will get the message.”

Within six weeks of implementation, the blowback was so fierce that Trump officially rescinded the policy. But during the time it was enforced, nearly 3,000 children were taken from their families. And there are still large numbers of minors in federal custody, some in shocking conditions with poor food and sanitation, in which small children are being forced to care for toddlers.

“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” said one immigration attorney.

This is what’s happening in Trump’s government. But he is now claiming that it was all a dream, something you imagined but never actually occurred. Here’s a passage from the Telemundo interview:

TRUMP: When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy. I didn’t have it, he had it. I brought the families together. I’m the one that brought them together. Now I said something when I did that.

DIAZ-BALART: Mr. President —

TRUMP: Watch. Many more people will come up. And that’s what happened. But President Obama is the one that built those prison cells.

DIAZ-BALART: I understand 2,800 —

TRUMP: Do you remember —

DIAZ-BALART: 2,800 children were reunited with their parents in the last year. We don’t even know. The government doesn’t even know how many children are still not with their parents. They don’t even know, which I find incredible.

TRUMP: Ready?

DIAZ-BALART: My question is —

TRUMP: Are you ready? Under the Obama plan —

DIAZ-BALART: Sir, we’re talking about your plan.

TRUMP: We — no. No, we’re not. Because I’m the one that put people together.

It goes on like that for a while.

Just for the record, while there were some immigrant children separated from their parents during the Obama administration, it happened only in extraordinary circumstances, such as when the parent was deemed to be a threat to the child or was caught carrying drugs into the country. Under Trump, on the other hand, family separation became official policy, applied as widely as possible, and done with the intention of deterring future migrants.

Trump is now waving his hand and insisting that the monstrous thing he did was actually someone else’s fault and in fact he stopped that monstrous thing. If that rings a bell, it’s because he followed the same script just weeks before the 2016 election.

After spending years as the nation’s foremost advocate of the racist “birther” lie, Trump held a news conference to announce that he no longer believed that — and also, the whole thing was Hillary Clinton’s idea. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said. “I finished it.”

This is Trump’s worst kind of lie, worse than the numbers he makes up, or the idiotic hyperbole, or the insistence that any information he doesn’t like is “fake news.” In the Trump presidency’s catalogue of horrors, this kind of attempt to convince all of us not to believe what has been in front of our eyes for months or years will rank high.

It brings to mind George Orwell’s “1984,” in which the protagonist, Winston Smith, is forced to say that his torturer, O’Brien, is holding up five fingers when in fact he’s holding up only four. What the regime demands of Smith is not only that he say there are five fingers but also that he believe it, despite what his eyes tell him. And with enough torture, it begins to work:

But there had been a moment — he did not know how long, thirty seconds, perhaps — of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O’Brien’s had filled up a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth, and when two and two could have been three as easily as five, if that were what was needed.

That moment is what Trump is trying to force us into, when we finally say to him, “Yes, there were five fingers. Yes, Obama separated families and you reunited them. Yes, Hillary Clinton started the birther lie and you ended it. Yes, you are the greatest president in history.”

The difference between us and Winston Smith is that we’re not being physically tortured, a shock of pain delivered every time we refuse to assent to Trump’s lies. We can resist.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Donald Trump just summed up his entire despicable campaign in 30 seconds

Enrique Acevedo: Trump is firing up another anti-immigrant campaign. This time, immigrants are ready.

The Post’s View: Trump’s Family Separation 2.0 comes at a cost to immigrants and the government

David Bier: It’s not just immigrants. Trump is separating American families, too.

Jennifer Rubin: Trump lies all the time. And yet the toadies keep covering for him.