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Monday, September 24, 2018

Opinion | Presidential Lying Is Contagious - The New York Times


Doug Chayka

"Everyone wants to curry favor with the boss. If she golfs, you hit the driving range. If he’s a movie buff, you haunt the multiplex. So when the president of the United States continually makes clear that he is a huge fan of “alternative facts,” what’s an eager-to-please administration official to do?

Take Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As Hurricane Florence buffeted the Carolinas last weekend, Mr. Long went on the Sunday news shows to discuss the government’s response efforts. But he soon found himself fielding questions about President Trump’s claim that, contrary to Puerto Rico’s official estimate, “3,000 people did not die” as a result of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island last year. That death toll, according to the president, was manufactured by Democrats desperate to make him “look as bad as possible.

Mr. Trump’s denial of this mass tragedy prompted dismayed pushback, even among Republican officials. But Mr. Long, like a good soldier, rushed right in to shore up his boss’s wild theory on how the data had been cooked. “You might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding: “Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse, you know, after a disaster on anybody.”

Determining which deaths should be included in the official count (2,975 people) is indeed tricky business, which is why the Puerto Rican government commissioned independent researchers at George Washington University to conduct the analysis on which the death toll was based. Mr. Long was dismissing their methodology in his quest to support Mr. Trump’s tale of political victimhood. 

It has been noted that Mr. Long was going through a professional rough patch that might have made him extra keen to stay in the president’s good graces. The FEMA chief has been under investigation by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security for possibly misusing government resources, including personnel and vehicles, while commuting between Washington and his home in North Carolina. On Monday, the news broke that the case had been referred to federal prosecutors, even as the House oversight committeeannounced that it, too, would be looking into the matter. But on Friday night it was announced that Mr. Long could keep his job if he reimbursed the government for use of the vehicles, and that he might not face criminal charges. 

However Mr. Long’s ethical troubles factor into the equation, Mr. Trump has made clear that he considers it the duty of all administration officials to peddle his version of reality to protect his interests, be it on matters of policy, politics or the embarrassing Russia investigation. Failure to do so is the quickest path to the presidential doghouse. (Right, Mr. Attorney General?)

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused of ethical shiftiness in his past business dealings that would get someone in his position booted from any normal administration, or at least swallowed up in a major scandal. Former associates say he cheated them out of more than $120 million. 

So it was no surprise this week when compelling evidence emerged that the secretary may have committed perjury in his zealous pursuit of the president’s agenda. Mr. Ross has been under fire for months for his department’s push to add a question about citizenship status to the census form. Critics see the move as part of the administration’s effort to depress voting among certain demographic groups. The attorney general of New York, Barbara Underwood, has filed suit on behalf of 18 states to block the question.

In March, Mr. Ross testified before Congress that the question had been “initiated” in a request last December from the Department of Justice, as a way to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Various documents have since come to light that appear to contradict his testimony, detailing Mr. Ross’s early enthusiasm for the question. On Monday, Ms. Underwood released an unredacted Commerce Department memo showing that in fact, the Justice Department initially resisted pressure from Mr. Ross’s department to request such a question. On Friday, a federal judge ruled that Mr. Ross can be questioned under oath, and called “the credibility of Secretary Ross squarely at issue.”

Then, of course, there’s Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, who this past spring was reportedly on thin ice with Mr. Trump for her failure to shut down migrant crossings at the border. By early summer, Ms. Nielsen found herself insisting that the administration did not have a policy of splitting apart migrant families even as she was aggressively enforcing and publicly defending that policy.

On other issues, Ms. Nielsen has seemed more conflicted about toeing the president’s line, such as on the question of whether Russia meddled in the 2016 elections specifically with an eye toward helping Mr. Trump win. The federal government’s intelligence community says it did. Mr. Trump says it didn’t. Ms. Nielsen has gone back and forth. In late May, she said she’d seen no reason to believe that Russia had favored Mr. Trump. Hours later, her office walked back those remarks. But come July, Ms. Nielsen restated her original position — after which she and her office promptly issued statements that made her view incomprehensible.

Over at the Interior Department last year, the secretary, Ryan Zinke, and top aides, in their crusade to downsize various national monuments, withheld data pointing to the benefits, both economic and archaeological, of keeping protections in place while they played up the benefits of removing the protections. The deception was discovered in July when the department accidentally released a nonredacted version of the study in question — only to quickly recall it and send out the version tailored to make their case.

And let us not forget Mr. Trump’s most committed and creative defender, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. She is regularly dispatched by her boss to mislead the American people on issues ranging from whether the president paid hush money to Stormy Daniels, the former porn star who claims to have had an affair with Mr. Trump, to whether he dictated a false statement about the Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and the Russians. She has also taken it upon herself to tell whoppers about less salacious matters, including the trend in black unemployment and how diversity visas are issued. 

While scandalous, this kind of behavior is also depressingly predictable. When the president repeatedly sends the signal that he regards honesty as a handicap, he can quickly drag the whole executive branch down to his level." 

Opinion | Presidential Lying Is Contagious - The New York Times: ""

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