As you’ve heard, President Trump displayed a chart that appeared to be doctored with a Sharpie to retroactively demonstrate that he had been right when he falsely warned that Alabama was threatened by Hurricane Dorian.
But it’s also illuminating to look at this as part of a much larger pattern: Again and again, government officials have wheeled into action in an effort to make Trump’s lies, errors and obsessions into truths, in some cases issuing “official” information explicitly shaped or doctored to do so.
By my count, this has happened at least seven times:
- In January 2017, after the media reported on Trump’s paltry inaugural crowd size, resulting in enraged but preposterous pushback from Trump, he dispatched then-press secretary Sean Spicer to tell multiple lies buttressing his stance. As Glenn Kessler crucially noted, some of these were part of a prepared White House statement. Trump also ordered his then-acting National Park Service chief to hunt for helpful photographic evidence. The NPS does not estimate crowd sizes, and the official was shocked, but he carried out Trump’s request, finding nothing.
- After Trump repeatedly alleged widespread fictitious voter fraud in 2016, the White House set up an official commission to “study” the issue. When it flopped, a dissenting member explicitly declared the motive was to make Trump’s lies true. Remember that this was rooted in rage at losing the popular vote.
- When Trump declared before the midterm elections that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with migrant caravans, multiple officials tried to bolster this claim by offering an official-seeming statistic about terrorism arrests that was entirely spurious and proved nothing of the kind.
- When Trump vowed a surprise 10 percent middle class tax cut before the midterms, officials were caught off guard, but nonetheless sprang into action to try to create the impression this was a real promise by, for instance, discussing a nonbinding pledge. The tax cut never happened.
- To justify suspending the credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta after he annoyed Trump, then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders shared a video that experts determined had been deceptively edited to make Acosta look physically abusive toward a press aide.
- To fear-monger for his wall, Trump repeatedly told stories about traffickers tying up migrant women and silencing them with tape. After The Post flatly debunked Trump’s assertion, a top border official circulated an internal request for “any information” that would support the claim.
- To buttress Trump’s distortions of the migrant threat, the Department of Homeland Security produced a slick official presentation about the border that claimed nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists had been blocked from entering the United States. But this number had nothing whatsoever to do with efforts to cross the border, a distinction multiple officials also dishonestly fudged.
Some time ago, Dana Milbank noted that in multiple cases such as these, government officials are using “federal resources in vain attempts to turn the president’s lies into truth.”
That appears to be happening once again with Sharpie-gate. The initial official forecasts, as Philip Bump demonstrates, decidedly did not include Alabama in the target zone of the hurricane. But Trump claimed that Alabama would “most likely” be among the areas hit, prompting frantic official denials out of the state.
Then, on Wednesday, a video in which Trump shows off the new chart in which a black line does loop Alabama into the storm’s target zone was released — on the official White House Twitter feed.
As Politico notes, someone inside the administration appears to have done the doctoring of the chart, which might have broken a law against falsely representing weather forecasts. But it’s unclear who: When pressed by reporters on what happened, Trump repeatedly said, “I don’t know.”
One interesting question is why Trump doesn’t just concede he made a mistake — or, to get even more outlandish about this, try to learn from it.
After all, It’s not like this is one of the big, foundational lies Trump regularly tells to support the entire narrative of his presidency, such as the claims that he was totally exonerated by the special counsel probe, or that China is paying his tariffs, or that he inherited a horrible economy and converted it into the greatest economy in the history of this country.
By contrast, this was in all probability a mistake. Yet Trump has now kept this story going again, raging on Twitter that “certain models” did say Alabama might be hit. For what it’s worth, that’s a downgrade from another Trump rage-tweet claiming that “almost all models” said this.
Why bother? One likely explanation is that Trump sees admitting error as a form of fatal weakness. As I detailed in my book, Trump has a long history of crafting illusions about himself, going back to his reality TV days and his spinning to New York tabloids, and it was a natural transition for him to segue into wielding rank disinformation as a political weapon, as a species of power.
In this telling, admitting to having gotten something wrong on the facts is akin to allowing for the existence of such things as controlling factual reality and sincere, fact-based argumentation in search of genuinely agreed-upon truths.
What’s so galling about all this is that presidents have a formidable range of sources of good-faith information-gathering and empirical inquiry at their disposal. Yet Trump sees no discernible value whatsoever in all of that — if anything, he sees that apparatus as an instrumental weapon to undermine the very possibility of those things.