Donald Trump’s ubiquitous spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, coined a new term in the new president’s first week. In an exchange about Inauguration Day turnout with NBC’s Chuck Todd, she called false White House claims of record-setting crowds “alternative facts.”
While the term “alternative facts” is likely to become a signature catchphrase, forever associated with Trump, Conway, her boss and press secretary Sean Spicer are playing an old White House game.
Ron Ziegler, the late press secretary to President Richard Nixon, tried over four decades ago to characterize White House lies as something other than lies. Past falsehoods were “inoperative” during the Nixon administration, he explained, and corrections to the record simply became “operative.”
“The president refers to the fact that there is new material; therefore, this is the operative statement,” Ziegler said at a press briefing in the early 1970s. “The others are inoperative.”
This is also a very old game for Trump, who has spent more than 40 years extravagantly and publicly lying in order to burnish his reputation, mislead the public about his track record as a businessman, and draw attention to himself as a man-about-town.
Trump partially owned up to this during his early ascent as a national celebrity, when he and his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, published “The Art of the Deal” in 1987. Trump described repeated falsehoods, doublespeak and exaggerations as tools he used to get ahead in business and life, and labelled them “truthful hyperbole.”
Schwartz, at least, feels bad about this. “ ‘Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms,” he told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer last year, in a mea culpa of sorts. “It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?’ “
Schwartz also told Mayer that he regretted his collaboration with Trump and that if he were to write the book today he would title it, “The Sociopath.”
Trump once sued me for libel, claiming that my 2005 biography of him, “TrumpNation,” had damaged his reputation and business prospects. He lost the case in 2011, but during a deposition with my lawyers, Trump was revealed as having lied over the years more than 30 times about everything from the success of his business deals, and how much debt he had, to his actual ownership stakes in joint ventures, sales at his condominiums and even his speaking fees.
During one exchange with my attorney during that deposition, Trump added another term to his lexicon of euphemisms for untruth: “mental projections.”
After boasting about the profitability and success of his golf developments, Trump conceded in the deposition that those claims weren’t based on anything other than his imagination; he had never undertaken a formal financial study of the projects’ performances or prospects.
“No, I have never done an analysis,” Trump said.
“Have you ever done a projection as to how much you will profit on these courses over time in light of the contributions that you’re making in cash?” asked my lawyer.
“Yes, I’ve done mental projections.”
“These are projections that you’ve done in your head?”
During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump lied repeatedly, asserting that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton founded the Islamic State jihadist group; that “large-scale voter fraud” always happened on and before Election Day; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; that there were 30 to 34 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.; that he had always opposed the Iraq War, and so on.
Like Trump’s public relations advisers in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s — and like Spicer and Conway today — Trump surrogates are forced to rationalize Trump’s meanderings.
“In his mind, he’s taking information and rendering an opinion,” the developer Tom Barrack told CNN earlier this week, explaining how Trump came up with data points no one else had indicating that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election.
Over the last week, Conway has tried to rebrand “alternative facts” as “alternative information” and “incomplete information.” The latter two are unlikely to be the phrases that stick, however. Even so, Conway continues repackaging Trumpisms with brio, telling the Hollywood Reporter this week of her zeal for her role and the power Trump has invested in her. “If you see me on TV, it’s because he wants me there,” she said.
Spinning takes energy, however, and it requires unpeeling some moral glue to do it day after day — especially in the Trump era, when misdirection and lies are likely to be regular occurrences. For his part, Trump has done this for decades and it hasn’t appeared to take much of a toll on him.
All of this is also likely to take a toll on a public that Trump has just settled in to serve for the next four years — unless Congress, the business community and other institutions join average citizens in standing up for the idea that old-fashioned facts do matter.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump fulfilled his campaign pledge to restrict funding from organizations abroad that perform abortions. He is expected to announce several dramatic changes to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program, including a temporary moratorium on all refugee resettlement, an indefinite ban on those coming from Syria, and a dramatic reduction to the overall number of refugees the United States will consider receiving this year.
As I join the annual March for Life Friday in Washington, I’m struck by a deep sense of contradiction. Because I am a Christian who believes the biblical teaching that each person is made in the image of God, with inherent dignity and potential, I am grateful for President Trump’s actions within the first few days of his presidency to limit abortion — and I am deeply troubled by his decision to halt refugee resettlement.
This is personal for me. For eight years, I lived in an apartment complex where most of my neighbors were refugees — individuals who had fled horrific persecution in countries like Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Iran, Rwanda and Sudan. These victims of terrorism and government repression were among the most brave, resilient, generous people whom I’ve ever encountered. Our nation is better off because they are here.
For local churches, welcoming refugees is part of our mission: It is a tangible way for us to live out the biblical commands to practice hospitality, to stand with the vulnerable and to love our neighbors.
Jesus — who himself spent the early years of his life as a refugee in Egypt, forced to flee the genocidal King Herod — made clear that the “neighbor” whom he commands his followers to love cannot be narrowly defined to include only those who share our religion, country of origin or ethnicity. The “good Samaritan” he extolled as the model of neighborly love was of a different faith tradition than the Jewish person beaten on the side of the road whom he helped. Jesus’ command to his followers is, “Go and do likewise.”
These lives matter to God, and they matter to the Christians marching today for life: Whether born or unborn; refugee, immigrant or citizen; Christian, Muslim, of any other faith or of no faith, of any and every ethnicity; we believe that each human life is made in the image of God.
Of course, the lives of our American citizen neighbors matter, too, and it is our government’s responsibility to carefully vet individuals being considered for resettlement, to ensure both that they are legitimately refugees and that they in no way present a security threat to our nation.
The reality, though, is that this vetting process already exists: Each refugee admitted to the United States is subjected to a thorough screening process coordinated between the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense along with the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center.
This process, which usually takes at least 18 months to complete, includes biographic and biometric background checks and in-person interviews with trained offers of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It’s the most “extreme vetting” that any category of visitor or immigrant to the United States is required to undergo. And it has a remarkable record: Since the Refugee Act was signed in 1980, not a single American life has been lost in a terrorist attack perpetrated by someone who came through the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
Nearly one year ago, the proposed Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine was announced at the governor’s office alongside dozens of supporters. On that historic day, we knew we had several opportunities in front of us: the opportunity to grow graduate medical education in our state so more students can stay and train in Idaho and surrounding states; the opportunity to partner with great hospital systems already doing innovative work; and the opportunity to educate the next generation of physicians in Idaho.
Of course, with most great opportunities come obstacles. We’ve encountered some opposition along the way — conversations we readily entertained to educate on the dire need for physicians in Idaho and the huge economic opportunity of Idaho’s own medical school. Many of the initial concerns have been alleviated with more information and the demonstrative progress ICOM has made in the last year. We’ve worked hard to foster strong partnerships, build a formidable team, and recruit enthusiastic and talented preceptors.
In December, ICOM presented at our first public accreditation hearing in Chicago. It was the first important step toward securing the future of medical education and improving access to health care in Idaho. Prior to that meeting, ICOM hosted accreditation inspectors in Meridian. While both meetings returned favorable reviews, the commissioners — as is often the case — determined the need for further review. In researching the accreditation process, we anticipated this possibility. In the end, the time allows ICOM the opportunity to continue those critical conversations and education. ICOM anticipates being on the agenda for the next accreditation body meeting and we are excited to participate in the next step of this rigorous and thoughtful process.
ICOM has been instrumental in advancing the development of graduate medical education in our five-state region by securing a letter of intent from Benefis Health System in Montana for 78 new residency positions. They are committed to these positions and will soon resubmit an application to the graduate medical education accreditation body. We are confident Benefis — and other ICOM partners — will be ready to accept ICOM residents by their 2022 medical school graduation date. ICOM has also made significant progress with other hospitals and health systems and will make additional announcements soon.
Idaho still ranks 49 out of 50 in terms of physicians per capita. Our state is growing, and our need for physicians continues to grow. Having an Idaho-based medical school will ensure a steady supply of physicians for Idaho and the region. It will also give local opportunities for Idahoans to go to medical school. ICOM will be a private medical school supported through tuition rather than taxes.
ICOM is on the right track and is making great progress. The process of bringing a medical school to Idaho is a complex and worthy endeavor. It will also bring significant and lasting social and economic impact to our state and region. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of the medical community and of our many friends and stakeholders across the region to help make this a reality.