LOS ANGELES — It’s fitting that President Donald Trump finished up 2018 with inaccurate statements launched at the nation via Twitter. And it’s also pathetic.
The government is partially shut down because the president insists, like an intemperate 4-year-old, that he must have his way and waste billions of dollars in tax money extending existing walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, even though there is no evidence such a monstrosity would achieve what he thinks it will. He tweeted again last week about the “open border,” which he described as an "‘Open Wound,’ where drugs, criminals (including human traffickers) and illegals would pour into our Country.”
In fact, the number of illegal border crossers has been steadily decreasing, and most drugs come across at ports of entry smuggled inside of motor vehicles, through tunnels beneath the existing walls and fences, and by boat. Not much impact from a wall there.
Trump also tweeted about his announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, complaining that “Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working.” Actually Trump is being criticized for the suddenness of the withdrawal; his abandonment of Kurdish allies in the region, setting the stage for a likely attack by Turkey; the appearance that in walking away he has handed a victory to Russia and Syria; and his rejection of advice from the Pentagon. So the president distorts the criticism of his actions to make himself look like a woebegone victim.
But that the president lies, or at a minimum distorts the truth, has become so common that what once was received as outrageous now gets a shoulder shrug, a recognition that the president cannot be shamed for his falsehoods because he’s impervious to personal embarrassment.
The Washington Post has doggedly tracked the president’s utterances and reports that Trump has made an average of 15 errant statements per day the past year. Fewer than a third of Americans believe the president’s untruths, according to a Post poll, which means that an overwhelming majority of Americans know their president lies. Yet few of them seem interested in holding him to account.
Whatever happens in the 2020 election — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced her candidacy last week, the first of several likely high-profile Democratic challengers — Trump has perhaps irretrievably damaged the relationship between the presidency and the people. Yes, Richard Nixon lied, as did Bill Clinton, but no other president has lied with the persistence and impunity of Trump.
He lies about matters big and small. He lies to try to make himself look better — remember the crowd size claims at his inauguration? — and he lies to disparage his critics. He lies about things that don’t matter, almost as a verbal impulse. He brings to mind comedian Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan character, a member of Pathological Liars Anonymous, whose every statement is an embellishment or outright lie.
Lovitz did it as comedy; Trump does it as reflex.
So here’s a wish for the new year: That more of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress call out his lies for the damage they do to the country, and to the presidency. And that his voters finally begin to care that he lies to them, too, and start holding him accountable for it.
Martelle is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer.