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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s very bad defense of her falsehoods

In a wide-ranging interview with CBS News's “60 Minutes,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said there’s “no question” President Trump is a racist. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has made a bigger splash than any freshman in the 116th Congress — in either the House or Senate. And a big reason is an often-overzealous conservative effort to knock her down a few pegs. The congresswoman has put on a PR master class in using those efforts to build her profile and social media following. (Her retort to the overblown dancing-video kerfuffle last week has been viewed nearly 20 million times.)

But she’s also shown a tendency to exaggerate or misstate basic facts. And her defense of this in a Sunday interview with “60 Minutes” was very bad.

When Anderson Cooper confronted her with The Washington Post Fact Checker’s Four-Pinocchio verdict on her claim about $21 trillion in waste at the Pentagon, Ocasio-Cortez offered this (emphasis added):

COOPER: One of the criticisms of you is that-- that your math is fuzzy. The Washington Post recently awarded you four Pinocchios --
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Oh my goodness --
COOPER: -- for misstating some statistics about Pentagon spending?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.
COOPER: But being factually correct is important--
OCASIO-CORTEZ: It’s absolutely important. And whenever I make a mistake. I say, “Okay, this was clumsy,” and then I restate what my point was. But it’s -- it’s not the same thing as -- as the president lying about immigrants. It’s not the same thing at all.

The first problem here is that Ocasio-Cortez is really minimizing her falsehoods. Four Pinocchios is not a claim that Glenn Kessler and The Post’s Fact Checker team give out for bungling the “semantics” of something. It’s when something is a blatant falsehood. It’s the worst rating you can get for a singular claim.

In the case of the $21 trillion, Ocasio-Cortez was suggesting that this was all Pentagon waste and that cleaning it up could pay for two-thirds of the estimated $32 trillion price tag for single-payer health care, which she and others are referring to as Medicare-for-all.

“$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions ‘could not be traced, documented, or explained,’" Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet that still appears on her timeline and has been shared more than 26,000 times. "$21T in Pentagon accounting errors. Medicare for All costs ~$32T. That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon.”

But that $21 trillion estimate isn’t necessarily waste; it’s just sloppily accounted for, according to that study. It’s also not just money the Pentagon spends; it includes money coming into the Pentagon. And that $32 trillion price tag is an estimate for the first 10 years of Medicare-for-all, while the Pentagon number accounts for a 17-year period. Ocasio-Cortez’s numbers weren’t just wrong on the margins; her conclusion made no logical sense in light of the actual facts. What’s more, this isn’t the only claim she’s made that has been debunked; The Post’s team documented five false claims she made during an August media blitz following her primary upset of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.).

What might be most problematic about Ocasio-Cortez’s defense, though, is the idea that people should care less about specific facts and more about being “morally right" — as if this is a zero-sum game in which the two can be weighed against one another. She’s practically saying, “Well, maybe I was wrong, but at least my cause is just.”

But this is the slipperiest of slopes — the kind of attitude you can use to justify pretty much anything to yourself. And it also just so happens to be the underlying ethos of the entire Trump presidency.

Trump has made more than 7,000 false claims as president, and to the extent his base of support processes those false claims, it has essentially dismissed them as unimportant in the scheme of things. Most recently, this has taken the form of saying or suggesting terrorists are flooding the U.S.-Mexico border, despite Trump’s own State Department saying there is no evidence that even one has crossed. Trump’s base would probably argue that this stat is nitpicking — that it’s unimportant since his underlying goal to build the border wall and protect the American people is “morally right.” But the fact remains that this claim leads to a badly skewed sense of the actual dangers Americans face and could lead to a misplacement of priorities.

And you can apply this approach to many of the biggest Trump falsehoods. If the ends justify the means and the policy is “right,” you can excuse pretty much anything.

None of this is to compare Ocasio-Cortez’s falsehoods to Trump’s; she’s right that there is no comparison. Trump’s are both exponentially more numerous and more impactful, coming from the president of the United States. But just because something is worse doesn’t mean something else can’t be bad. People need to recognize that “morally right” is a subjective definition, and there need be no choice between making your case and using actual facts. Using exaggerated or made-up facts actually suggests your cause is weak — and that you haven’t done your homework. If politicians misunderstand these very basic and crucial distinctions, how can we trust them to know what’s best about the underlying policies? How much have you really studied this thing?

Taking Trump “seriously, not literally" has always been a false choice, and that’s true for Democrats, too.