It was just a few weeks ago that the White House press corps raked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders over the coals for her previous assurance that President Donald Trump knew nothing about a payment made to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. Thanks to TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the rest of Trump’s team, that assertion was subsequently shown to be categorically false. Sanders was hard-pressed to explain why she’d conveyed false information.
“We give the very best information that we have at the time,” she weakly offered.
Well, in the recent words of Giuliani, Trump’s recollection of events keeps changing, as do his answers to Sanders. It’s Sanders’ burden to clean up the mess.
The same sad story replayed on Monday. The Post reports:
“During a televised media briefing, journalists pressed Sanders about her insistence in August that President Trump ‘certainly didn’t dictate’ a misleading statement to the New York Times on behalf of his son Donald Trump Jr. In a January letter to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, published for the first time over the weekend by the Times, the president’s private legal team conceded that Trump had, in fact, dictated the statement.
”‘What’s the reason for that discrepancy?’ the Hill’s Jordan Fabian asked Sanders.
”‘This is from a letter from the outside counsel, and I’d direct you to them to answer that question,’ Sanders replied.
“That. Doesn’t. Make. Sense.”
Well, not logical sense or moral sense, but it makes perfect sense in the Trump White House. This is a White House that survives on untruths, and to confess to untruthfulness is to destabilize the rickety scaffolding that keeps the presidency from collapsing entirely. There are several considerations here for Sanders, the White House and the press.
To begin with, Trump has told Sanders lies — let’s be clear, they were deliberate falsehoods concerning his own conduct — on multiple occasions. She was sent out wittingly or unwittingly to convey those lies to the media. Any respectable spokesperson would quit because one cannot work honestly for a liar, and because the press secretary has an obligation to the media and to the American people to be honest. Her boss’s nonstop fabrications make that impossible. She has an ethical obligation to quit. She works for the people — who don’t pay her to lie to them.
Then there is the White House’s operation more generally. Be it the Air Force One statement regarding the Daniels payment, the firing of Rob Porter or any policy matter, it has become entirely acceptable to tell falsehoods. The president does it, and he praises aides who lie on his behalf. The White House occupants mislead one another (as Trump does with Sanders, and as Chief of Staff John F. Kelly did with his staff regarding Porter’s firing) as well as the public. When everything is a lie or possibly a lie, no one can tell for sure what is going on and no one can be held accountable. This is more than nihilism; it’s a strategy.
The Trump White House’s lies are not the sideshow but, rather, the main event, which increasingly is not any specific policy aim but rather the preservation of the presidency. A loyal staffer says anything to advance Trump’s interests, no matter how preposterous or objectively false; the only sin is to apologize for a lie.
Political scientist and lecturer Yascha Mounk has written on slate.com:
“When two reasonable political parties make diverging yet reasonable arguments for diverging yet reasonable policies, it makes sense to treat their claims with equal respect. By contrast, when some politicians have started to invent claims at will, without bothering to produce evidence for them or to make their lies internally coherent, it is a retreat from truth-based politics to treat them as though they were equivalent. Big newspapers should beware becoming political partisans — but lest they cease serving any real function, they must become proud partisans of the truth.”
He also warned that “much of the function of everyday falsehoods is to cloak the importance of dangerous lies and obfuscations. So while we should call out all lies, we must take special care to chronicle the erosion of basic democratic norms, especially when they are happening in secret or when the government is out to mislead us.”
That leaves the media with the dilemma of how to deal, if at all, with Sanders. We’ve recommended ending the live daily press briefings, which afford the White House an unfiltered opportunity to lie.
Beyond that, responsible media must not convey her false assertions as one version of the facts; they must say straight up when she is lying or has been caught lying. And frankly, it is about time that every statement from her be cast as “Sanders claims” or “Sanders alleges.” Her word cannot be taken at face value. Being partisans of the truth, the press must convey to its audience the utter unreliability of her statements.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective.