The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘In the service of whim’: Officials scramble to make Trump’s false assertions real

President Trump said Oct. 23 he has "no proof" of Middle Easterners in the caravan of migrants headed to the U.S.-Mexico border, but there "could very well be." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The great election-eve middle-class tax cut began not as a factual proposal, but as a false promise.

When President Trump abruptly told reporters over the weekend that middle-income Americans would receive a 10 percent tax cut before the midterm elections, neither officials on Capitol Hill nor in his administration knew anything about such a tax cut. The White House released no substantive information. And although cutting taxes requires legislation, Congress is not scheduled to be back in session until after the Nov. 6 elections.

Yet Washington’s bureaucratic machinery whirred into action nonetheless — working to produce a policy that could be seen as supporting Trump’s whim.

One such option now under discussion by administration officials is a symbolic nonbinding “resolution” designed to signal to voters ahead of the elections that if Republicans hold their congressional majorities they might pass a future 10 percent tax cut for the middle class. And House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said Tuesday that he would work with the White House and the Treasury Department to develop a plan “over the coming weeks.”

President Trump said on Oct. 22 that he will propose a middle-income tax reduction of "about 10 percent" to Congress within the next two weeks. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The mystery tax cut is only the latest instance of the federal government scrambling to reverse-engineer policies to meet Trump’s sudden public promises — or to search for evidence buttressing his conspiracy theories and falsehoods.

The Pentagon leaped into action to both hold a military parade and launch a “Space Force” on the president’s whims. The Commerce Department moved to create a plan for auto tariffs after Trump angrily threatened to impose them. And just this week, Vice President Pence, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House all rushed to try to back up Trump’s unsupported claim that “unknown Middle Easterners” were part of a migrant caravan in Central America — only to have the president admit late Tuesday that there was no proof at all.

“Virtually no one on the planet has the kind of power that a president of the United States has to scramble bureaucracies in the service of whim,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whatever Donald Trump wakes up and thinks about, or whatever comes to mind in the middle of a speech, actually has the reality in that it is actionable in some odd sense.”

Consider Trump’s ongoing commentary this week about the caravan of Central American migrants traveling toward the U.S. border with Mexico.

The president tweeted an unsubstantiated warning Monday morning that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” and later repeated it. His claim received extensive news coverage, but administration agencies did not immediately provide information supporting it.

By the day’s end, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Trump “absolutely” has evidence that there are Middle Easterners in the caravan — but she cited only a statistic that each day 10 suspected or known terrorists try to enter the United States illegally.

Though Trump’s claim was not about suspected terrorists specifically, he and his administration seemed to imply — again with no evidence — that his hypothetical “Middle Easterners” may have intentions to commit terrorism.

Pence sought to back up his boss’s claim, saying Tuesday morning in a Washington Post Live interview that it is “inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border.”

But just hours later, Trump admitted to reporters during an Oval Office event that he has no evidence to support the claim about the caravan.

“There’s no proof of anything,” Trump said, “but there could very well be.”

Daniel A. Effron, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who studies the psychology of lies, said political leaders such as Trump can make falsehoods seem true through imagination and repetition.

“When falsehoods feel familiar, one concern is you don’t actually know what’s true and what’s false,” Effron said. “There’s a lot of information to keep track of, and you use familiarity as a cue to what’s true. The other concern is when you’re invited to imagine how something could be true, you actually know that it’s false, but you don’t necessarily think it’s unethical to say.”

Simon Blackburn, a retired philosophy professor at the University of Cambridge and author of the book “Truth,” said, “If you control the agenda efficiently, then there’s no possibility of independent inquiry, and I think that’s what Trump is a genius at.”

Trump has a pattern of catching his aides off guard with random policy announcements that are rooted more in his imagination and desires than any organized administration initiative.

Trump has sometimes issued directives publicly if he believes his subordinates are not executing his agenda forcefully enough or taking his wishes seriously. “He thinks, ‘Hey, if I say it on Twitter, then these guys will have to follow,’” said one former White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly share the president’s process.

In July 2017, Trump revealed in a tweet his decision to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. His social media missive preempted a policy review with several options that he was set to receive from administration officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his underlings scrambled to react and reconcile the president’s sudden demand with the military’s practices and protocols.

The Pentagon was also forced to develop a “Space Force” after Trump announced last spring that he wanted to create a sixth branch of the military. The president initially said it was conceived as a joke, but “Space Force” has become a frequent chant at his campaign rallies, and he has tasked Pence with overseeing the initiative.

Trump also sent military leaders reeling in January when he said in a meeting with Pentagon brass that he wanted a grand military parade like the one he had gleefully witnessed in Paris on Bastille Day — complete with soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards of Washington.

Pentagon officials took his desire as a presidential directive and worked reluctantly to stage a parade for this fall, but Trump backed off plans in August, citing cost concerns and blaming local officials in Washington.

After winning the electoral college in 2016, Trump falsely claimed he only lost the popular vote against Hillary Clinton because of widespread voter fraud — leading to a formal commission on the issue chaired by Pence. The panel was eventually disbanded after it became mired in lawsuits and only managed to hold two meetings.

Trump has set off similar surprises in trade, one of his signature political crusades. Incensed that his initial tariffs were not bending Canadians, Japanese and Europeans to his demands, Trump in June threatened to impose import duties on all foreign auto imports before a government plan was ever put together.

The threat, which he had repeated numerous times and once referred to as the “mother lode,” prompted the Commerce Department to move forward with a review and spooked U.S. allies.

Trump’s pledge to cut taxes, which he first floated Saturday, followed a familiar pattern.

The president has been boasting for days about an imminent tax cut, despite the lack of legislation so far — as well as any concrete details of the plan shared by any of the people who would need to be involved.

At a rally Monday night in Houston, Trump said, “We’re going to be putting in a 10 percent tax cut for middle-income families. It’s going to be put in next week.” He added, “We’ve been working on it for a few months,” and singled out Brady, who was seated in the audience and responded with a sign of affirmation.

Trump went on: “This is for middle-income people, all middle-income people, a big tax, 10 percent. We’ll be putting it in next week.”

Meanwhile, racing to respond, administration officials began discussing a far more modest step of asking Congress to eventually vote on a nonbinding resolution for a 10 percent tax cut in the future.

But no decision has been made, and for the most part, lawmakers and senior administration officials are trying to temper expectations and deflect questions over a tax plan that, as of now, exists only in the president’s telling.

Though the president has a tremendous capacity to create his own reality, Jamieson said, the challenge lies in the execution.

“It is infeasible to say we’re going to have a middle-class tax cut before the November elections unless Congress agrees to come back into session,” she said. “But there is a sense of reality about it when someone describes it in the terms that Trump described it. That is, the Republicans don’t stand up and say, ‘No, we haven’t,’ ‘No, we aren’t,’ and ‘No, we won’t.’ ”

By virtue of his position, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett probably would be involved in crafting administration policy on taxes. Yet he told reporters Tuesday that he could not answer questions on the matter.

“Right now, the person who’s discussing the 10 percent tax cut for the White House is the president,” Hassett said, “and so you should go to the press office and to the president if you want more information on that.”

Damian Paletta and Erica Werner contributed to this report.