The Truth Still Matters
“The truth still exists; the truth still matters.”
With those powerful words, U.S. district judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced President Trump’s pal Roger Stone to more than three years in prison for lying to Congress.
The defendant’s “belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the foundations of our democracy,” she continued. “If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another. Everyone loses.”
Judge Jackson could well have been talking about the president himself. Trump also takes pride in his own lies, and continues to act as if the truth doesn’t matter. The Washington Post has documented 16,241 “false or misleading statements” made by the president during his first three years in office, and since the Senate cleared him of impeachment charges earlier this month, Trump has only accelerated his war on facts and fact-finders.
The Lord of the Lies is urgently purging his own government of independent professionals whose job it is to tell him the truth, even when it contradicts his decisions and delusions. “We have a president who refuses to recognize reality and who increasingly demands the people around him refuse to recognize it, too,” editorialized the Washington Post.
“As Americans, we should be frightened -- deeply afraid for the future of the nation,” William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral, wrote in the Post. “When good men and women cannot speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security -- then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”
Start with the president’s assault on the legal and judicial system. Trump thinks that any and all federal law-enforcement officials, from judges and prosecutors to FBI agents and border guards, should work only for him and advance his political interests. But they all serve another master as well -- the force of facts, the rule of law -- and that drives Trump completely nuts.
This fundamental flaw in his mindset was on full display in the Stone case, when he repeatedly tried to influence the outcome by denouncing “rogue prosecutors” who were bringing a “horrible and very unfair” case against his buddy. When Attorney General William Barr bowed to the pressure and truncated the prosecutors’ recommended sentence, four career government lawyers quit the case in protest, and one left the Justice Department entirely.
As former Justice Department official Mary McCord told the Post, this incident leaves the impression “that Justice is taking its orders from the president and pandering to the president. This is causing lasting and long-term damage to the department’s reputation and credibility.”
If anything, Trump’s campaign against his own intelligence agencies is even more damaging. After a senior career intelligence officer warned Congressional leaders that Russia -- which had worked to help elect Trump in 2016 -- was again intervening on his behalf, the president fired the briefer’s boss, Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. He replaced Maguire with a staunch loyalist, Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, who often defends the president on Fox News.
Maguire’s ouster is only a small part of Trump’s “systematic attempt to sweep out officials perceived to be disloyal,” reports Peter Baker in the New York Times. He’s fired or transferred key witnesses who testified during the impeachment proceedings, and “dozens of policy experts have been cleared out of the National Security Council staff,” writes Baker.
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, an expert on government staffing at the Brookings Institution, tells the Times, “Many key departments and White House entities have been hollowed out.”
A career official in another government agency confirmed to me that the council’s expertise on counter-terrorism has been decimated. “There’s no one left to deal with over there,” the official says.
This is serious business -- far more serious than, say, Trump lying about the size of his crowds or the length of his wall. Laura Rosenberger, a national security expert in the Obama administration, said in the Post that the president’s refusal to recognize reality and respect the role of professional analysts is “sending a signal that the intelligence community will be penalized if it presents analysis that the president doesn’t like.” And that, she warns, “risks leaving our country dangerously blind to threats against it.”
Judge Jackson could not be more right: “The truth still matters.” And when the president willfully and wrongfully denies that truth, whether in a domestic court or a foreign conflict, everyone does, indeed, lose.
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)