The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s promoters have no good answer for his economic falsehoods

Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett said Sept. 10 he couldn't explain President Trump’s false tweet about the economy. (Video: The Washington Post)

The White House held its first news briefing in nearly three weeks Monday — apparently for the purpose of arguing that former president Barack Obama shouldn't get credit for the current economy, and President Trump should.

But even as Kevin Hassett, chairman of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers, was pitching that fact-based case, Trump had already undermined it with falsehoods. Trump has rather inexplicably taken a very good economy and insisted upon embellishing and outright fabricating things about it. On Monday, he left his spokesmen to twist in the wind.

In the span of an hour, both Hassett and Trump ally Matt Schlapp were confronted with Trump's false Twitter claims that the GDP was higher than the unemployment rate for the first time in 100 years and that Obama had said Trump “would need a magic wand to get to 4% GDP.” The former is far from true (it's actually been just 12 years), and the latter quote appears to have been invented (Obama did reference a “magic wand,” but it was about manufacturing jobs, not GDP).

Hassett opted to acknowledge the falsehoods but suggested Trump was being ill-served by aides rather than making stuff up; Schlapp went another route.

"From the initial fact to what the president said — I don't know the whole chain of command,” Hassett said of the 100-year claim.

He then theorized that “at some point, somebody probably conveyed it to him adding a zero to that, and they shouldn't have done that.” So basically, Trump somehow got from 10 years — which would be accurate — to 100 years because of a clerical error. And this statement was tweeted out before anybody bothered to check.

Except it wasn't even Trump's only economic falsehood of the day. When Hassett was then asked about the apparently fabricated Obama quote, he had no real response and sought to end the whole line of questioning. “I am not chairman of the Council of Twitter Advisers,” he said.

Appearing on MSNBC with Katy Tur just before the briefing, Schlapp was more combative. And Tur, to her credit, wouldn't let the point slide. Here's a key part of the exchange:

TUR: There’s some apples-to-oranges there; we’ll leave that aside. It is not, though, for the first time in 100 years. That is factually incorrect.
SCHLAPP: When was the last time that was true?
TUR: That happened during George W. Bush — 2006. It happened multiple times before that. That’s factually not true. Is he just not aware of how those numbers work? Is he putting it out there knowing it’s false? What’s happening there?
SCHLAPP: All I would say is, is this — that the apples and the oranges when it comes to economic analysis actually matter. What kind of data are you looking at?
TUR: He said it’s the first time in over 100 years. That is not true.
SCHLAPP: But the part that — I don’t know how many years it is, but what’s the point of the tweet? The point of the tweet is that, for all Americans — liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, no matter the color of your skin — there is greater economic opportunity today than before Donald Tru—
TUR: But why won’t he just come out and say something that is true that doesn’t force everybody to fact-check him? Is the point that he enjoys it when the press fact-checks him, because then he can make it look like we are his foil? Is that intentional, what he is doing, or does he just not understand the numbers, and does he not care about being correct when he’s talking to the American people?
SCHLAPP: Or where the press gets it wrong — are they lying? 

A little back-and-forth ensues, and then this:

SCHLAPP: So what you do is you try to find the one little way in which there’s a flaw, and you miss the general point. 
TUR: But he could just come out and say something true, and that would be the end of it. And then we’d report that that is true.
SCHLAPP: He did say something true. Is it true — is it true that the unemployment rate is historically low and economic growth is historically high?
TUR: It’s not true that it’s the first time in over 100 years. It is not true.
SCHLAPP: How many years is it? Twenty-five years?
TUR: 2006 was not over 100 years ago. 
SCHLAPP: The point is this: The economy is doing well, and you should cover that.
TUR: I would like to cover that, but I’m forced to fact-check the president on the smallest little things.

The exchange is well worth a watch:

Schlapp's argument basically boils down to this: The specific fact doesn't matter as long as it's pointing in the right direction. If the economy is good, it doesn't matter if you exaggerate by 88 years. But the entire point of the tweet is that 100 years fact. Schlapp is forced to pretend as though it's merely a couple words in a tweet with a much broader message. It's not.

Hassett, to his credit, was somewhat more forthright. But we've also been down this road too many times to believe this is just Trump being ill-served by staff. In fact, that's an excuse Trump himself has used before, when NBC News's Peter Alexander confronted him last year on a badly overcooked claim about his 2016 electoral college victory.

"Well, I don't know, I was given that information,” Trump said. “I was given — I actually, I've seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory; do you agree with that?"

Again, as long as it's pointing in the right direction, it might as well be true.

But the idea, after more than 4,000 false and misleading claims, that this is merely bad staffing really strains credulity. Trump clearly has either no regard for objective facts, or he's making them up as he goes. The proliferation of them points in the latter direction.

That means that people like Hassett and Schlapp are forced to explain why he can't tell he truth about the good economy, rather than talking about the good economy. And it undermines the idea that the economy is really that good. If it is, then why the need to inject your own fantasy into it?