Dana Milbank: The government is trying to turn Trump’s lies into truths

Washington - They say you can fix anything with duct tape. But using it to repair a presidency?

That can get a little sticky.

The Washington Post's Katie Mettler recently caught President Trump in one of his frequent fabrications, this time his oft-repeated claim that migrant women are commonly bound and gagged with tape (alternately duct, painter's or electrical, in Trump's telling) across their mouths and smuggled across the border. Baffled experts called the claim "divorced from reality."

And there it would have ended -- had the Trump administration not sent the Border Patrol in search of duct tape.

After The Post's report, a senior Border Patrol official, apparently acting on behalf of Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, emailed an urgent request to agents seeking "any information that you may have (in any format) regarding claims 'that traffickers tie up and silence women with tape before illegally driving them through the desert from Mexico to the United States in the backs of cars and windowless vans.'" The email, reported Sunday by Vox, linked to The Post's article.

That Trump told a lie is unremarkable. That government officials continue to use federal resources in vain attempts to turn the president's lies into truth is unacceptable.

Such efforts began almost as soon as Trump was inaugurated, when he called the acting director of the National Park Service for photographic evidence supporting his false claim that attendance for his inauguration had set a record. It continued with his forming of a since-disbanded presidential commission to substantiate his false claim that there is widespread voter fraud in the United States.

In October, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker detailed several instances 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."

Officials retroactively tried to find supporting evidence for Trump's dubious claims that voters would receive a 10 percent tax cut before the midterm elections, and that "unknown Middle Easterners" were part of a migrant caravan, among other things.

Similarly, after CNN's Jim Acosta annoyed Trump in November with aggressive questioning at a news conference, the White House justified revoking Acosta's press credentials by saying he placed "his hands on a young woman" at the news conference -- and then, to support the dubious allegation, shared a doctored, high-speed video.

The routine, extravagant efforts to convert fiction into fact remind me of the work of the great con artist Stephen Glass 20 years ago, when we both worked at the New Republic. Glass partially or wholly fabricated 27 (literally) fantastic articles for the magazine before he was caught. Even more stunning was the web of deceit he employed to cover up his fraud once editor Chuck Lane (now a colleague in The Post's opinions section) began asking questions: fake notes, fake memos, fake business cards, a fake website, fake voicemail and even the use of his brother to pose as a fake source.

The difference, of course, is that Glass wasn't running the country. As Trump is discovering, the administration's backfilling of his untruths keeps the con going for only so long.

Everywhere, the lies are unraveling. On Friday, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's team indicted longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, in part over falsehoods he told Congress concerning the Trump campaign's Russia contacts. Stone, who has denied the allegations, is just the latest of many Trump loyalists to be ensnared by the Mueller investigation because of lies.

For all Trump's claims that his policies will make the economy grow at 4 percent or more each year, the Congressional Budget Office on Monday forecast growth slipping to 2.3 percent this year and averaging 1.7 percent through 2023.

For all Trump's claims about implementing a massive increase in border agents to combat a border "emergency," the Los Angeles Times reports that a Customs and Border Protection contract to recruit and hire 7,500 border officers over five years has produced only 33 new hires so far.

As his fictions unravel, Trump does what Glass did: He lashes out (Trump even attacked Fox News journalists on Twitter on Sunday because he didn't like their border coverage) and piles on more fictions (now a fanciful claim that "58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas").

Somewhere, some hapless government workers have probably just been tasked with searching for the phantom 58,000 alien voters, joining those already searching for illusory duct-tape incidents on the border.

No matter how much tape they "find" or how many yarns they spin, it won't be enough to make Trump's unraveling claims hold together.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics.