President Trump’s first Oval Office address to the nation aims to do what weeks of rhetoric and tweets haven’t: convince Americans of the need for a wall on the border with Mexico. Polls show that most Americans remain unconvinced of the need for the barrier and that half the country doesn’t think building the wall is a priority at all. Trump aims to leverage the weight of the presidency to change some minds.
Will the presidency be effectively persuasive when wielded by a president who’s widely viewed as dishonest?
ABC’s Jonathan Karl raised that point with Vice President Pence in an interview that aired Tuesday morning.
“How can the president be — how can his word be trusted on this when he’s said so many things that are just not true about this crisis?” Karl asked, pointing to several recent examples of Trump and his team misleading the public. “How can the American people trust the president when he says this is a crisis when he says things over and over again that aren’t true?”
Pence’s response was not robust.
“Well, look, the American people aren’t as concerned about the political debate as they are concerned about what’s really happening at the border,” he said.
“This is credibility,” Karl replied. “The White House said nearly 4,000 terrorists come into our country. That’s not true.”
And, with that, Pence happily engaged in a debate over that specific number instead of addressing Karl’s larger point.
Since even before his election, Trump has been viewed as dishonest by the American public according to Quinnipiac University polling. The lowest percentage of poll respondents to say that Trump was not honest came in November 2016, shortly after Trump won the presidency and during the brief stretch that constituted his honeymoon period.
That 52 percent who said Trump wasn’t honest actually matched the highest percentage ever to say that about Barack Obama, which happened in 2013, after the botched rollout of the Obamacare website.
That was a low point for Obama that contributed to a distrust in the executive branch during his presidency, according to polling from Gallup. That data is available back to the second term of Bill Clinton’s administration and shows a pattern: Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all enjoyed general confidence in the executive branch that Trump hasn’t seen.
Even during his impeachment, Clinton’s White House was viewed as much more trustworthy than Trump’s ever was. Bush’s White House held a lot of trust and confidence from Americans that evaporated following then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations about the risk posed by Iraq — an incorrect argument, as it turned out — and the war in that country that followed.
Bush deployed Powell to spend some of the capital that he’d earned as president, including through his navigation of the aftermath of 9/11. Bush gave his own Oval Office address a month after Powell’s U.N. appearance hoping to convey the seriousness and deliberateness of his decision to invade Iraq. It was an attempt, in part, to use the White House as a character witness to his argument.
By giving an address from the Oval Office, Trump is doing something similar: Asking America to trust him because he is the president. But the presidency is viewed as untrustworthy at least in part because Trump holds the position. Even Trump’s vice president can’t argue that Trump is viewed as untrustworthy, instead trying to argue, bizarrely, that concerns about the factual accuracy of Trump’s statements fall into a nebulous category of “political debate” and therefore not something that Americans care about.
“The passion you hear from President Trump, his determination to take this case to the American people as he will tonight in his national broadcast from the Oval Office, comes from his deep desire to do his job to protect the American people,” Pence told Karl later in the interview — after reiterating the debunked statistic about terrorists trying to enter the United States that Karl himself presented as an example of Trump’s misleading rhetoric. “[W]e’re going to continue to carry that case forward until the Democrats in Congress come to the table and start negotiating not just to end the government shutdown but to end what is an undeniable crisis at our southern border.”
In other words, the administration, unchastened, stands by and will continue to stand by Trump’s inaccuracies if they’re in service to Trump’s policy goals.
Some Americans will certainly assume that if Trump is leveraging the heft of an Oval Office address, it is in service of something that deserves that attention, this “undeniable crisis” in Pence’s formulation (that became urgent only after Trump changed his mind about agreeing to a funding deal when he saw conservative media expressing frustration about his not picking a fight over the border wall). It’s worth remembering, though, that Trump has a long track record of making false claims to try to get what he wants.
It’s also worth remembering that this is not the first time that Trump has made a dramatic sales pitch for a construction project that probably doesn’t live up to the hype.