President Trump has made more than 7,000 false claims as president — and that doesn’t even include his clearly ridiculous, fanciful claims that can’t be directly disproved. Such is the case with his recent claim that other presidents have told him they should have built the border wall when they were in office. There are only four living former presidents, three of them have denied it was them, and a fourth — Jimmy Carter — has never endorsed a border wall and seems unlikely to have done so, given his focus on humanitarianism. (Update: The Carter Center now says it wasn’t Carter, either.) The idea that even one of them confided this in Trump is hard to stomach; the idea that multiple did so is just bonkers.
But alas, when you work for Trump, you can’t just admit your boss made it up. So you do what Mick Mulvaney did Sunday: squirm.
The acting White House chief of staff was confronted about the claim by CNN’s Jake Tapper, and he commenced stumbling through a largely nonsensical argument about semantics and what the word “wall” means. Then he finally just admitted he doesn’t know who the president is/presidents are:
MULVANEY: My guess is, this boils down to some of the semantic difficulties we had with Leader Schumer just yesterday, okay? Mr. Schumer kept saying, ‘You don’t have money for a wall now. You don’t have money for a wall now.’ And we’re showing pictures of what we’re building on the border with the money that we received last year. It’s a very similar style to what the president wants to build in the future.
It’s the steel — what they call a bollard fence. It’s a 30-foot-high steel barrier. And our understanding is, that that’s not a wall in the law. Right now, the law actually limits our use of concrete, for example, on the border. And we’re like, that’s fine. That’s completely fine. So I’m not really sure ...
TAPPER: You don't know what president it was, though?
MULVANEY: No, I don't know what the presidents mean when they said they weren't supporting a wall. I know that George Bush was president in 2006 when they signed the Secure Fence Act, which is what we're using right now to build the wall.
TAPPER: But which one told him? Which president said —
MULVANEY: I have no idea.
TAPPER: You don't know?
MULVANEY: No, I have not asked the question — I have not asked the president that question.
Mulvaney seems to be suggesting Trump’s comment has been misconstrued. He compares it to the debate over whether the wall is actually being built. Yes, some sections are being built, just as in past administrations, but it’s technically not considered a wall, and nothing Trump has promised has come to fruition. So Mulvaney is arguing that we’re really just quibbling when we say Trump’s wall isn’t being built. (Which …)
Similar to all that, Mulvaney seems to be saying that Trump’s comment about other presidents has been misconstrued. But is it? Here’s what Trump said Friday:
We mentioned the price that we want — $5.6 billion — very strongly. Because numbers are thrown around — 1.6, 2.1, 2.5. This is national security we’re talking about. We’re not talking about games. We’re talking about national security. This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me. And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.
You can almost see Trump piecing together his claim as he goes along. He says other presidents should have done it and they know it — something he has said previously — and then decided to layer on a new claim to make it fresh.
But there’s really no ambiguity here; Trump says “some of them” — meaning ex-presidents — have “told me we should have done it” — i.e. build the wall. The most charitable reading of Mulvaney’s comments is that maybe some presidents said there should have been some fencing and now a wall? Or maybe he’s saying they said the border should have been secured? But Trump’s comments are clearly about building a large section of wall, which is what the $5.6 billion figure is about. It’s not clear what other presidents could have told him that would have made his statement accurate.
And last — and perhaps most important — the idea that Trump got votes of confidence from other presidents and his own acting chief of staff hasn’t bothered to ask about it pretty much says it all. This would seem to be something you’d want to promote as you’re making your case. A past president supporting the wall would be big!
The fact that Mulvaney hasn’t asked suggests he knows what the real answer is.