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How Trump’s lies may cost him during the Iran saga

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Although he torches norms like a 10-year-old cooks bugs beneath a magnifying glass, Donald Trump is not the first American president to be compromised. In wartime, peacetime, or whatever it is we are calling this incendiary moment.

As the journalist Eric Alterman explained in his 2004 autopsy of executive mendacity, “When Presidents Lie,” [2] FDR lied in Yalta, Kennedy lied in Cuba, LBJ lied in the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon lied in Watergate, Reagan lied in Iran, Bush lied in Iraq, Clinton lied over his affairs, and—if there is currently oxygen in the room where he is standing—Donald Trump is probably lying to someone right now. 

Trump the great prevaricator is most often compared to Nixon, but there is sufficient reason to think more of Reagan in these volatile days after the president ordered Iranian general Qasem Soleimani’s incineration, ostensibly because the Middle East puppet-master was planning “imminent” attacks on Americans. 

“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” said Trump, a man intimately acquainted with being caught in the act.

On this, the president might be telling the truth. The president might also be lying, given the inexorably evolving explanations [3] delivered in recent days by Trump himself, the Pentagon and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

We don’t know how this ends, but it recalls Reagan’s tortuous lies in Iran in the 1980s, in which the Gipper covered up his administration’s arms sales to terrorists and later assured the American public that, contrary to facts, the White House did not trade arms for hostages, which of course it did.    

“We’ll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House,” Reagan famously predicted in the event that their duplicity in Iran was discovered.

Republicans are, predictably, dismissing the inquests as the inane warbling of a thousand unpatriotic pencil necks.

Conservatives, regardless of the apparently trifling quibbles over that era’s economic stratification [4], racist drug reforms [5], the flimsy response to the AIDS epidemic [6], Iran-Contra [7], and, of course, recently unearthed audio of Ronnie going full David Duke [8], still revere Reagan.

And Trump, if he really reveres anything, purports to admire the late president too. Indeed, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” shtick is a Vanilla Ice-level [9] duplication of Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan from 1980.

But let us hope Trump’s Reagan-crush does not extend to Iran. Congressional Democrats are calling upon the White House to declassify any information explaining why the president did what so many administrations before him didn’t as it concerns Soleimani, why he chose—despite the threat of regional instability, the marginalization of Iranian moderates [10], and another prolonged internecine war in the Middle East—to kill Soleimani now. 

Republicans are, predictably, dismissing the inquests as the inane warbling of a thousand unpatriotic pencil necks. And Trump’s admirers, who once swooned over the president’s campaign promise to end the endless wars, have forgotten about such maudlin sentiments as more than 6,500 troops depart North Carolina’s Ft. Bragg for the Middle East [11]

“It is incumbent upon the administration to come to Congress and explain why they had to take this specific action in order to prevent harm to Americans abroad,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said this week.

Incumbency is relevant as well, with some suggesting that the president is, in an election year, shifting attention from his pending impeachment trial and other domestic conflagrations. If so, it is working splendidly. Hardly anyone seemed to take notice this week as new damning documents pertaining to the Ukraine investigation emerged [12], further stretching the administration’s already overtaxed credibility. New York courts will also consider a defamation suit in which Trump is accused of lying about alleged sexual misconduct [13], headline news that now rates little more than a brief on most major news sites.

But, if this is indeed some pernicious distraction, problems loom for the Trump administration. It could be said that as it concerns Trump, the public often struggles to, as the cliche goes, see the forest for the trees, which is to say that the speed and ferocity of Trump’s literal and metaphorical indictments makes it difficult to consider the full scope of his indiscretions.

But with the possibility of a global conflict and an avowedly arming Iran looming, perhaps that ghastly forest is influencing how the public views the call to arms.

It is inherently logical that the American people are more inclined to buy into the wars of a relatively popular leader, as they did for a post-9/11 George W. Bush, than they are one with a body of work this tumorous. 

A new USA Today poll [14] found more than half of Americans want to limit Trump’s ability to wage war with Iran, and—perhaps most importantly—only about a quarter believe the strike on Soleimani made America more safe.     

Perhaps Republicans miscalculated. Because to expect, as conservatives have so bullishly demanded, that the public accept Trump’s pronouncements on this extraordinarily dangerous matter as—all puns intended—unimpeachable requires a suspension of the frontal lobe. Donald Trump is a proven, inveterate liar, one who has taken the George W. Bush model to its natural end.

Donald Trump, according to The Washington Post’s ongoing count, has lied to the American public 15,413 times. And to this point, no one has yet offered a truly compelling reason why we should not consider the possibility that Iran is number 15,414.

“Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother,” the commentator Michael Kinsley once said of W. “Until you realize: They haven’t bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they’d try that too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with ‘nuance.’”  

Trumpers would just as soon punch or threaten you as call you a dweeb, but it stands to reason: If the president cannot be bothered to tell the truth about Ukraine or his payments to past mistresses or the birthplace of former President Barack Obama or even the weather at his inauguration, the most unpatriotic thing imaginable, the most treasonous thing we can do while thousands jet out of Ft. Bragg, is to plunge into the breach without a basic questioning of the president. 

War, above all things, first demands our skepticism.

Donald Trump, according to The Washington Post’s ongoing count [15], has lied to the American public 15,413 times. And to this point, no one has yet offered a truly compelling reason why we should not consider the possibility that Iran is number 15,414.