Any American with an ounce of self-respect should feel personally insulted that Trump lies so brazenly – and that his designated latrine cleaner, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, earns her pay by stonewalling all efforts to hold him accountable for the fake news he concocts in the catacombs of his mind.
We got a taste of that earlier this summer when Trump declared that the president of Mexico and the boss of the Boy Scouts had personally phoned him to lavishly praise several of his speeches. It turned out, of course, that neither the president of Mexico, nor the boss the Boy Scouts, had phoned him for any reason whatsoever. But when Sanders was asked by the press corps to explain Trump’s brazen lie, she sought in her reply to rewrite the dictionary definition: “I wouldn’t say it was a lie.”
Every administration bobs and weaves and spins and trims, but never before now has any regime marketed outright fraud in the manner of a tinpot banana republic. Sean Spicer pioneered it on day one by echoing Trump’s fake-news fantasies about The Biggest Inaugural Crowd Ever, and his successor duly plays it down and dirty by insisting under questioning that a lie is not a lie, that in essence the sky is whatever color Dear Leader deems it to be.
One of her other frequent moves is simply to play deaf and dumb. We saw this yesterday, in the midst of her first press briefing in three weeks. A lot has happened these past three weeks, which means Trump had a lot to answer for. One classic example was his response to the terrorist attack in Barcelona, when he tweeted: “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”
Yesterday, Sanders was twice asked about that tweet. But to best assess her response, you first need to know the back story – the fake back story.
In his tweet, Trump was referring to a tale he repeatedly told on the campaign trail. America occupied the Philippines in 1898 and spent years fighting Muslim insurgents who resisted our rule. General John “Black Jack” Pershing governed the province. Here’s what Trump said on the trail, teaching history to his credulous fans:
“(Pershing’s troops) were having terrorism problems, just like we do. And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood – you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. OK? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.”
This never happened. Give Professor Trump an F.
Just like the purported phone calls from the Mexican president and Boy Scout leader, his story was pure fiction. It’s impossible to “study” Pershing’s tactic of using pig’s blood bullets, because there’s nothing to study.
Historian Brian McAllister Lin, who wrote a book tracking the American army in the Pacific from 1902 to 1940, says: “The story is a fabrication.” That’s the historians’ consensus. And Trump lied when he said the insurgents were pacified for 25 years (35 years in the tweet, 42 years in other speeches). Michael Hunt, another expert on America’s miliary role in Asia, says “the pacifying effect that Trump claims is nonsense. (The Philippines) remained in constant unrest during the period of American rule” – until December 1941, when the Japanese invaded.
So. At yesterday’s White House press briefing, Politico’s Matt Nussbaum confronted Sanders about the Pershing yarn:
“Does the president know that the story is false, and if so, why does he keep repeating it?”
There was more to the question – did the White House think it was “appropriate” for Trump to “perpetuate the false story”? – and Sanders promptly went deaf and dumb: “I haven’t had a chance to ask him about this. I can’t speak to it.”
When Sanders is pushed by the press, this is one of her frequent defaults – saying that she knows nothing, a la Sgt. Schultz in “Hogan’s Heroes,” because she’s kept in the dark, either by choice or diktat.
But Nussbaum followed up: “So the president’s spreading false information via his Twitter account that seems to encourage wartime atrocities – no one in the White House has thought to inform him that the story is false?”
Sanders: “I didn’t say no one had. I said I haven’t had that conversation with him. So I wasn’t going to speak to something I wasn’t aware of.”
A case can be made that these press briefings have devolved to worthlessness, that it’s a waste of time to seek clarity from a fake-news frontwoman. On the other hand, it’s perversely fascinating ro watch her labor with mop and pail, spraying aerosol at Trump’s persistent stench. Those of us who prize empirical truth would like to believe that such latrine duty is ephemeral, that the next administration, whenever we are so blessed, will surely choose to dwell in the factual realm.
Or so we have to hope.