Many liberal or leftist critics have offered halting praise for Cheney’s stance while accusing her of having a selective memory. The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, for one, held that Cheney’s father, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, “created the template for Trump’s Big Lie” with his own “Big Lie about the Iraq War.” Dowd argued that Liz Cheney, from her “patronage perch” at the State Department, “cheered on her dad as he spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence.” For Dowd, Trumpism is a continuation of Cheneyism: “Trump built a movement based on lies. The Cheneys showed him how it’s done.”
But this type of assessment represents bad history. This narrative distorts the historical record and erases the distinction between President George W. Bush’s flawed and misleading attempts to prove that Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Trump’s outright and continued fabrications about the 2020 election, among thousands of other untruths. Not differentiating between them only inhibits American democracy’s recovery from the Trump years.
The Bush administration’s approach to WMD in Iraq was driven by the certainty that Hussein had to be removed as well as a broad consensus that he possessed some WMD and was seeking more. This combination led to a distorted fact-gathering process molded to achieve the desired conclusion. As one British liaison to the United States concluded in 2002, “Intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of regime change.
The Bush team inflated and distorted evidence on Iraq-WMD in several ways. One method was creating alternative intelligence-gathering bodies, including an office at the Defense Department that funneled poorly vetted information supporting the case that Iraq had WMD directly to top policymakers, bypassing more skeptical professional analysts. Another method was to interrogate, if not harangue, analysts who cast skepticism on Iraq-WMD claims. Eventually, as numerous analysts recalled, intelligence experts stifled their reservations and provided the administration the material they wanted.
Bush officials also routinely made public claims that went well beyond the available information and ignored intelligence experts’ concerns and qualifications. Much evidence was based on shaky single sources, years-old intelligence and, as one analyst put it, “analytic assumptions and judgments rather than hard evidence.” For example, Bush issued blanket statements like “Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda,” when the CIA judged that Iraq had no functional relationship with that group. In August 2002, Vice President Cheney vastly exceeded intelligence assessments in saying that “there’s no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”
In short, the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence process to prove a case it had already decided upon and then presented the American people with a distorted, exaggerated picture to build momentum for going to war.
Nonetheless, this exaggerated case actually built upon a consensus among intelligence experts that Hussein was developing WMD programs, although there was widespread disagreement about the scale and timeline of those programs. This consensus was bipartisan and predated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The fact that Hussein had obstructed U.N. inspectors for eight years before forcing them out in 1998 fed the assumption that he remained fixated on WMD and that he would use the absence of scrutiny to reconstruct them. Why else subject his country to a decade of crippling sanctions? President Bill Clinton voiced the conventional wisdom in 1998 when he remarked that if the United Nations did not force Hussein to cooperate with inspectors, “He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And someday, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal.”
Analysts’ views of Iraqi WMD were also shaped by the discovery, following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, that Hussein had been much closer to building a nuclear weapon than U.S. intelligence had judged. No analyst wanted to lowball estimates of the Iraqi program after that close call.
Even many opponents of going to war agreed that Iraq was pursuing WMD — including Richard Butler, the Australian arms-control expert who served as the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1997 to 1998. In 2002 he acknowledged, “We do know that it has had such weapons, has used them, remains at work on them.” While U.N. inspectors found no evidence of an active nuclear program in early 2003, continued Iraqi noncooperation and gaps in the record on materials like VX nerve gas and anthrax led inspections chief Hans Blix to conclude: “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance … of the disarmament which was demanded of it.”
Moreover, some Bush administration figures did attempt to ascertain the truth and present Americans with evidence, however selective and exaggerated. Before his speech to the United Nations in February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell received a tendentious draft from Cheney’s office that made wild claims about WMD. Instead of accepting them, Powell spent days with the CIA leadership questioning the intelligence and stripping unsubstantiated claims from the draft. Much of his presentation turned out to be untrue, but it was a systematic, qualified effort at finding the truth that persuaded many fence-sitters on the Iraq question.
While one can reasonably criticize the Bush administration for exaggerating what the experts believed, rushing and pressuring them while building dubious alternative intelligence pipelines, this behavior is far different from Trump’s repeated untruths about the 2020 election — lies that began before it even took place.
Simply put, Trump’s case for a stolen election isn’t exaggerated, it’s pure fiction. No evidence exists to support this idea, as demonstrated by credible reports and the dozens of judges who threw out his frivolous lawsuits. Even worse, Trump lied preemptively, claiming before Nov. 3 that the election would be stolen and asserting during the vote-counting that it was being stolen. He then spun a far-fetched tale of fraud after the election that fueled the anger and delusion that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
While Bush was hampered by the difficulty of knowing the truth about a hostile foreign nation’s weapons program, Trump could easily ascertain that the election was not stolen simply by listening to public statements from election officials in both parties, as well as reading opinions from judges, conservative and liberal alike. Instead he assaulted the very distinction between real and unreal to justify his claims and rile up his fanatical followers.
Trump’s acolytes have shown little concern for the truth, caring instead about currying favor with him and Republican base voters, whom he has convinced that the election was stolen.
The consequences of Bush and Cheney’s distortions on Iraq-WMD were enormous — an unnecessary war that killed more than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The consequences of Trump’s lies are harder to assess at this point, although the peaceful transition of power and the legitimacy of our elections — the basis of American democracy — have been jeopardized in ways unseen since the Civil War.
Nonetheless, for all of the problems with their Iraq-WMD case, Bush and Cheney didn’t write the Trumpian playbook of reflexive, unhinged mendacity. Bush’s mistakes mirrored those in previous foreign policy blunders: unquestioned assumptions, confirmation bias, flawed process, arrogance and ideological rigidity — nothing good, but not atypical. Trump’s assault on the truth, however, is a whole new ballgame: It transforms every question into “What does Trump think?” and “What do I want to be true?”
If anything, the more compelling connection between Bush and Trump is that Bush’s mishandling of Iraq helped discredit the GOP establishment among its base, fueling the hunger for insurgent political candidates who rejected interventionist foreign policies.
To point out these differences is not to defend the Bush administration but to value historical accuracy. No one benefits from lumping Bush with Trump more than Trump himself, who rose to power in part on the claim that all politicians are liars and crooks; if that’s true, then assessing character is an unnecessary exercise. Simply back the candidate who confirms your anger and prejudices.
A two-party democracy cannot survive with one party that lacks any fealty to facts or democratic processes. Republicans like Rep. Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) are fighting a rear-guard action to prevent this situation from becoming a permanent fixture of our political landscape. Lumping Liz Cheney into the Trump camp not only misrepresents the historical record on issues like Iraq but makes this task harder.