Language, Truth, and Politics

Despite stepped-up military assistance to Iraq to fight Islamic State militants, and President Obama’s public commitment to keeping Iraq unified, Iraqis have long suspected a nefarious plot by the Americans to break up their country.
Their suspicions are intensified by a century of painful experience with Western intervention.... So when news came out this week that congressional Republicans were proposing to directly arm Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds without the involvement of the Shiite-led central government, it was immediately and widely taken as proof that the American plot against Iraq had entered a new phase. ...
A spokesman for Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which drafted the plan, said that the intent was not to interfere with Iraq’s sovereignty. But he did not back away from the idea, which calls for Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis each to be deemed a “country” to comply with American laws on direct military aid.

- TIM ARANGO, Proposal to Arm Sunnis Adds to Iraqi Suspicions of the U.S., NYT, APRIL 30, 2015

Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, ... was referring to an executive order signed by Mr. Obama last month that called for economic sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials who the United States said were involved in human rights abuses or violations of due process.

The executive order said that Venezuela was a threat to national security and that it constituted a national emergency for the United States.

The language escalated tensions between the two countries and provoked an angry response from President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Even Venezuelan opposition leaders said it was excessive and had inadvertently played to Mr. Maduro’s political benefit.

American officials had previously sought to play down the language in the order, saying that the administration was required by law to make the security threat designation to carry out the sanctions.

But Mr. Rhodes went further on Tuesday, explicitly stating that Venezuela did not pose a threat, adding that the language was “completely pro forma.”

“We, frankly, just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders,” he said.

- White House Seeks to Soothe Relations With Venezuela, WILLIAM NEUMANAPRIL 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/world/americas/white-house-seeks-to-soothe-relations-with-venezuela.html

University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter states that "truth matters little in Washington" in a 2016 New York Times opinion piece.
- Richard Painter, The Real Clinton Foundation Revelation, NYT, Aug. 31, 2016

The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth — indeed, their disbelief in its existence — leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.
- George Kennan's Long "Telegram", 1946

The state of Florida is the region most susceptible to the effects of global warming in this country, according to scientists. ...

But you would not know that by talking to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes.

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

- Tristram Korten, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, In Florida, officials ban term 'climate change', Miami Herald, March 8, 2015

But with officials poised to legally classify smog as a natural disaster by including it in the Beijing Municipal Meteorological Disaster Prevention Statute, not everyone is happy. ...
There is precedent in China for ascribing manufactured disasters to nature. The famine precipitated by the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s campaign to collectivize agriculture and quickly expand industry, which killed tens of millions of people, is known in China as the Three Years of Natural Disasters. ...
Pushing back against the smog-as-natural-disaster argument, the analysis in The Beijing News said: “Human activity is the root of the problem, by releasing large amounts of pollution. The root of smog is pollution. There are essential differences to natural disasters.”
And recently, health officials warned the Chinese authors of a report that concluded that outdoor PM2.5 caused about 51,000 deaths in China from lung cancer in 2005 not to publicize their findings, said one of the authors, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of repercussions.

The revised classification of smog in Beijing could further restrain public discussion. According to People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, “serious consequences caused by mistakes in broadcasting about meteorological disasters will be punished. The draft prohibits organizations and individuals from publishing reports on meteorological disasters, punishable by fines.’’ ...
Research has pointed to the growing risk of mortality from outdoor air pollution in China and elsewhere around the world, though numbers vary. In China, studies have estimated about a million premature deaths a year from outdoor air pollution.
- Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Don’t Call It ‘Smog’ in Beijing, Call It a ‘Meteorological Disaster’, NYT, Dec. 15, 2016

Mr. Macron repeatedly called her a liar during the debate, and newspaper commentaries on Thursday backed him up. “Marine Le Pen: The Strategy of the Lie,” was the banner headline on Le Monde’s front page, which went on to say that the “deliberate tactic was largely inspired by what Donald Trump practiced in the American campaign.”

The newspaper detailed “The 19 lies of Marine Le Pen” during the debate about topics including “Brexit,” the euro, the European Union and terrorism. On all these subjects, the newspaper demonstrated that Ms. Le Pen had put forward half-truths and outright falsehoods.
- ADAM NOSSITER, Marine Le Pen’s Verbal ‘Violence’ in French Debate Shocks Observers, NYT, MAY 4, 2017

The White House confirmed on Tuesday that President Trump was involved in drafting a misleading statement issued by his son about a meeting with a Russian lawyer last year, contradicting the president’s lawyer who repeatedly denied that Mr. Trump had anything to do with the statement. ...
The president’s involvement in the first statement was disclosed July 11 by The Times, which reported that “the president signed off on” it. In the days that followed, Jay Sekulow, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, repeatedly denied that on television.

“I wasn’t involved in the statement drafting at all, nor was the president,” Mr. Sekulow said on CNN’s “New Day” program on July 12.

Appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” the same day, Mr. Sekulow said: “The president didn’t sign off on anything. He was coming back from the G-20. The statement that was released on Saturday was released by Donald Trump Jr., I’m sure in consultation with his lawyers. The president wasn’t involved in that.”

Four days later, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Sekulow repeated the denial: “The president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement.”
The Washington Post reported on Monday that the president not only signed off on the statement but “personally dictated” it.
- PETER BAKER, Trump Was Involved in Drafting Son’s Statement, Aide Confirms, NYT, AUG. 1, 2017

Fox News, he [Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer representing Rod Wheeler] said, “was working with the Trump administration to disseminate fake news in order to distract the public from Russia’s alleged attempts to influence our country’s presidential election.” ...

In the complaint, Mr. Wheeler states that Ms. Zimmerman [author of an article published by Fox news and later retracted] worked closely with Mr. Butowsky, a Trump supporter and occasional Fox News commentator, to push a fake article to advance the president’s agenda. The suit states that in April, Mr. Butowsky met with Sean Spicer, the president’s former press secretary, about the investigation into the death of Mr. Rich. ...

Mr. Wheeler cites a text message and voice mail from Mr. Butowsky as evidence that President Trump had reviewed the article before its publication and supported it. According to the suit, a text message from Mr. Butowsky on May 14 read: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”

Mr. Wheeler said that he was falsely quoted in the article published on May 16 as stating that his investigation found “some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks” and that his investigation showed “someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.”

Mr. Wheeler said Fox News, Mr. Butowsky and Ms. Zimmerman knew that the quotations were fabricated. He said that even though Fox News retracted the article, it did not clear his name or admit that he had been misquoted and that his “reputation as an objective, credible and intelligent investigator with integrity was completely destroyed.”
- EMILY STEEL, Lawsuit Asserts White House Role in Fox News Article on Seth Rich, NYT, AUG. 1, 2017

Has President Trump told you about the time the head of the Boy Scouts called to say his was the best speech ever delivered to the more than century-old organization? What about when the president of Mexico picked up the telephone to let him know that his tough enforcement efforts at the border were paying off handsomely?

The anecdotes, both of which Mr. Trump told over the last week, were similar in that they appeared to be efforts to showcase broad support for the president when his White House has been mired in turmoil. But they also had another thing in common, the White House conceded on Wednesday: Neither was true. ...
Mr. Trump’s latest tangle with the truth began on Monday, when he said at a cabinet meeting that Mr. Peña Nieto had been on the phone to him. “Even the president of Mexico called me,” Mr. Trump said, touting his success in cracking down on illegal immigration. “They said their southern border — very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.”

The Mexican government said on Wednesday that no such telephone call took place. ...

On Tuesday, it was the Boy Scouts’ turn: A leaked transcript of an interview the president had with The Wall Street Journal quoted him saying that the head of the Boy Scouts had called him full of praise for a highly political speech Mr. Trump had delivered at the National Scout Jamboree.

“I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful,” Mr. Trump told The Journal. On Wednesday, the Boy Scouts of America said it was not aware of any call from its leadership to Mr. Trump. In a statement, the organization said that an earlier statement from Michael Surbaugh, the organization’s chief, apologizing to scouts for Mr. Trump’s speech, “speaks for itself.” Mr. Surbaugh had expressed regret to those who were “offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.’’

- JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, Those Calls to Trump? White House Admits They Didn’t Happen, NYT, AUG. 2, 2017

It is surprising that a man [Lenin] who showed no sign of greatness in his youth and wasn’t even interested in politics should have become the leader of a revolution. ...
Contemporary policy wonks will recognize Lenin as the “godfather … of ‘post-truth politics.’” Offer the electorate “simple solutions to complex problems.” Lie shamelessly. Designate scapegoats to explain all misery. Winning is everything, the ends justify the means. In politics, Lenin decreed, “there is only one truth: what profits my opponent hurts me, and vice versa.”
- JOSEF JOFFE, The First Totalitarian, NYT, OCT. 19, 2017

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, acknowledged on Friday that the Republican tax plan might result in a tax hike for some working Americans, saying he “misspoke” days earlier when he said that “nobody in the middle class is going to get a tax increase” under the Senate bill. ...
The Senate bill unveiled on Thursday would raise taxes on millions of middle-class families, according to a preliminary New York Times analysis.
- JIM TANKERSLEY and BEN CASSELMAN, Senate Plan Could Increase Taxes on Some Middle-Class Workers, NYT, NOV. 10, 2017

We applied the same conservative standard to Obama and Trump, counting only demonstrably and substantially false statements. The result: Trump is unlike any other modern president. He seems virtually indifferent to reality, often saying whatever helps him make the case he’s trying to make.
In his first 10 months in office, he has told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly. Obama told 18 over his entire eight-year tenure. That’s an average of about two a year for Obama and about 124 a year for Trump. ...
Trump is different. When he is caught lying, he will often try to discredit people telling the truth, be they judges, scientists, F.B.I. or C.I.A. officials, journalists or members of Congress. Trump is trying to make truth irrelevant. It is extremely damaging to democracy, and it’s not an accident. It’s core to his political strategy.

Earlier in this month of mortification, Mr. Davis was forced to admit that he had actually carried out no assessments on how Brexit would impact the British economy, despite having claimed on multiple occasions that he and his officials had carried out from 50 to over 100 such assessments, which he said went into all aspects in “excruciating detail.”
- SUSAN MCKAY, It Takes More Than Bluster to Brexit, NYT, DEC. 19, 2017

The Republican Party is no longer just obfuscating the truth or defending the president when he is accused of wrongdoing. Rather, Mr. Trump, Fox News and Republicans in Congress seem to be actively using falsehoods to prepare an assault on the institutions that allow American democracy to function. ...
In the United States, the rise of the right-wing news media in recent decades has tempted politicians to play to their own supporters without worrying whether their rhetoric is inflammatory or fair. But the construction of an alternate reality that obviates the very possibility of conducting politics on the basis of truth is a novelty in this country. ...
Once any string of words is considered as true as any other, any course of action comes to seem as legitimate as any other. One moment, Mr. Mueller is a respected civil servant leading an important investigation at the behest of the Justice Department. The next, he is plotting a coup — potentially committing treason, a felony for which the law demands the death penalty. By the same token, Mr. Trump would, at one moment, be scandalously overstepping the bounds of his rightful authority in firing Mr. Mueller or pardoning his closest associates. The next moment, he would be valiantly defending the Republic.
The most puzzling thing about these claims is how patently ridiculous they are. Mr. Mueller, for example, is a Republican who was named F.B.I. director by George W. Bush. And yet he is now being maligned as a Democratic stooge out to sabotage the Republican Party. On its own merits, this is laughable. But over the past months, we have seen how quickly many citizens can come to believe claims that once seemed ridiculous. ...
One person telling one lie is easily shown to be a liar. But a hundred people telling a thousand lies quickly exhaust the ability of news outlets to disprove each claim, and of citizens to keep track of all the real and invented scandals. Overwhelmed by the noise, they take refuge in believing whatever their own team tells them. As a result, the public sphere quickly degenerates into a battleground in which opposing tribes string together words to wield as a weapon. ...
The only effective way to stop the creation of an alternative reality that justifies any action whatsoever is for politicians who are trusted by their own side to call out shameless falsehoods. That is precisely what most mainstream conservatives are failing to do.
- YASCHA MOUNK, The Real Coup Plot Is Trump’s, NYT, DEC. 20, 2017

The American military command in Afghanistan has halted regular assessments of how many people and districts the government and insurgents there control, it emerged on Wednesday — eliminating what has long been an important public measure of progress in the war. ...
“The district assessments highlight failure, which is contrary to the U.S. military’s desired message of success,” Mr. Roggio said in an email. “Make no mistake, if these assessments showed the Afghan military retaking lost ground, the U.S. military would continue to publish the information.” ...
Ending the public assessments is the latest move by the military command in Afghanistan to limit public dissemination of information about the war, which is now in its 18th year. In October 2017, the military stopped reporting casualty figures for Afghan security forces at a time when casualties were approaching what the Pentagon now considers unsustainable levels. ...
Gen. John W. Nicholson, Jr., the American commander in Afghanistan until September last year, told reporters in November 2017 that district and population data were “the key factor that we’re looking at.” He said that he hoped the Afghan government could extend its control to 80 percent of the population by the end of 2019.

The most recent American military assessment, released in January for the three-month quarter ending in October, showed that the government in Afghanistan controlled territory containing 63.5 percent of the country’s population. That represented a 1.7 percent decrease from the previous quarter. ...
The Pentagon said at the time that the assessment was “not indicative of effectiveness” of American military strategy, citing “uncertainty” and “subjectivity” in the data. Mr. Sopko said that had been the first time the military had criticized its own metric.
- David Zucchino, U.S. Military Stops Counting How Much of Afghanistan Is Controlled by Taliban, NYT, May 1, 2019

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