How Trump Fixes Facts Around Policy

President Trump’s disdain for inconvenient truth has led to the deletion of climate science from the EPA’s web site and other moves to fix the facts around his policies, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Many of us have had more than our fill of the 100-day assessments of Donald Trump’s presidency. Besides the arbitrary nature of this point on the calendar, and besides the sheer overload of the number of attempts at such a first-quarter report card, most of what gets put on such cards does not get at what is most important in evaluating any presidency.

President Trump addressing a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. (Screen shot from Whitehouse.gov)

Heavy emphasis gets placed on legislative acts. Although an ability to work with Congress is one attribute we like to see in a president, it is only one and hardly the most important one. Besides, the reasons for lack of legislative accomplishment are apt to be found less in the White House than in obduracy and dysfunction in whoever has majority control at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The artificial reporting period encourages not only silly claims about accomplishments but also an incentive to give the impression of motion and progress even when substance is lacking. The Trump White House certainly has been no exception to this pattern.

There has been, for example, the counting as an “accomplishment” the appointment and confirmation this early in the presidential term of a Supreme Court justice — without mentioning, of course, that this event was the direct result of the Republican majority in the Senate refusing for a year even to consider the previous president’s nominee (and then expanding the “nuclear option” to shove through Trump’s nominee). Also added to the count are executive orders that only undo something that President Obama did, or, in many cases, that order a cabinet secretary to study how something that Obama did could be undone.

Reading Trump

It’s not just the White House and its supporters who have indulged in the 100-day excesses. There has been much over-analysis, sometimes tinged with either hope or worry, depending on the analyst’s policy preferences, that attempts to discern larger substance and implications from individual actions or exclamations from Trump. Such attempts to extrapolate doctrine and direction from this inconsistent presidency are mostly a blood-from-a-turnip exercise.

The crowd at President Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. (Screen shot from Whitehouse.gov)

Some lessons can indeed be drawn from the first 100 days, but with Trump the lessons are less a matter of either doctrine or accomplishment than of whether the habits, and the character and ability or lack thereof, that Trump exhibited during the campaign and in his earlier business career are continuing while he is office.

One of the best summary observations in this regard is from Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein, who writes on business and financial matters but whose conclusions could apply as well to Trump’s handling of a wide range of foreign and domestic matters:

“What we know, first and foremost, is that it hardly matters what Trump says because what he says is as likely as not to have no relationship to the truth, no relationship to what he said last year during the campaign or even what he said last week. What he says bears no relationship to any consistent political or policy ideology or world-view. What he says is also likely to bear no relationship to what his top advisers or appointees have said or believe, making them unreliable interlocutors even if they agreed among themselves, which they don’t.

“This lack of clear policy is compounded by the fact that the president, despite his boasts to the contrary, knows very little about the topics at hand and isn’t particularly interested in learning. In other words, he’s still making it up as he goes along.”

Reasons to Worry

Many elements of dismay can follow from the fact of having this kind of president. We are apt to get a better idea of which specific things are most worthy of dismay as the rest of this presidency unfolds. I suggest, however, that a prime, overarching reason to worry is Trump’s utter disregard for the truth. Not just a disregard, actually, but a determination to crush the truth and to instill falsehood in the minds of as many people as possible.

A sign at the Women’s March on Washington points out that the demonstration attracted a larger crowd than Donald Trump’s inauguration. Jan. 21, 2017. (Photo: Chelsea Gilmour)

The Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, summarizes the situation by noting that “the pace and volume of the president’s misstatements” are so great that he and other fact checkers “cannot possibly keep up.” Kessler also observes how Trump’s handling of falsehoods is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from the garden variety of lying in which many politicians indulge: “Many will drop a false claim after it has been deemed false. But Trump just repeats the claim over and over.”

It is a technique reminiscent of the Big Lie that totalitarian regimes have used, in which the repetition and brazenness of a lie help lead to its acceptance. The problem is fundamental, and relates to a broad spectrum of policy issues both foreign and domestic, because truth — factual reality — is a necessary foundation to consider and evaluate and debate policy on any subject.

Crushing the truth means not just our having to endure any one misdirected policy; it means losing the ability even to address policy intelligently. To the extent that falsehood is successfully instilled in the minds of enough people, the political system loses what would otherwise be its ability to provide a check on policy that is bad policy because it is inconsistent with factual reality.

Ignoring Climate Science

One hundred days is enough time for the Trumpian assault on truth to start to become institutionalized. The process has become plain at the website of the Environmental Protection Agency. Changes at the website since Trump’s inauguration include not only what would be expected after a change of administrations in keeping any policy statements consistent with the new regime’s preferences; it also has involved expunging the truth.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt

Specifically, a section of the site that had existed for 20 years and provided detailed data and scientific information on climate change has been removed. The deleted site, according to climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, included “important summaries of climate science and indicators that clearly and unmistakably explain and document the impacts we are having on our planet.”

The site was a go-to place for authoritative information about climate change. This is the sort of service one should expect to get from a government agency such as EPA (just like, before I took some recent foreign travel, the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention served as a go-to site for authoritative information about what inoculations I would need). Now that part of the EPA site is gone.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt approved the deletion because, according to an anonymous staffer under Pruitt, “we can’t have information which contradicts the actions we have taken in the last two months.”

So instead of defending those actions in a well-informed policy debate based on truth, the administration’s approach was to delete the truth. If the policy doesn’t conform with reality, then deny the reality and make it as hard as possible for citizens to be informed of the reality.

Orwell’s Ministry of Truth may be closer than we thought.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

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18 comments for “How Trump Fixes Facts Around Policy

  1. Joe Tedesky
    May 4, 2017 at 11:00 am

    I would like to compliment Mr Pillar for being critical of the medias lack of covering Trump’s rhetorical rants of having any substances, while his Cabinet guts the requirements of their agencies to the detriment of the ecological health and safety of our environment and to this Administration’s ignorance displayed towards the gullible public.

  2. exiled off mainstreet
    May 4, 2017 at 11:36 am

    While the article is, unfortunately, an accurate description of the Trump modus operandi and policy, if the other side had won, the practicalities would have been the same, since the global “trade” policies would have put global warming policies under control of unaccountable, corrupt secret arbitration tribunals through TTP, TTIP and other “treaties”. By delaying this policy’s implementation, there is at least the possibility of a post-Trump reset on these issues, though I suspect that the power structure is so corrupt that it will take some sort of revolutionary situation to correct these problems.

  3. Abe
    May 4, 2017 at 11:49 am

    The foreign and security policymaking of Trump and his rely on “open source intelligence” outsourced to a crew of UK-based fact fixers.

    To paraphrase the well-known quotation published in the New York Times Magazine on October 17, 2004, by the writer Ron Suskind, who recounts his discussion with the proverbial “unnamed Administration official”:

    “We’re an empire, and when we act, now Bellingcat creates our reality.”

    Eliot Higgins and his gang of fake “citizen investigative journalists” and “independent researchers” at Bellingcat serve as deception “conduits” as defined by the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Joint Publication 1-02), a compendium of approved terminology used by the U.S. military.

    Within military deception, “conduits” are information or intelligence gateways to the “deception target”.

    A “deception target” is defined as the “adversary decision maker with the authority to make the decision that will achieve the deception objective.”

    The primary “deception targets” for Bellingcat propaganda efforts are key “policy makers” and the civilian populations of the United States and Europe Union.

    The Internet offers a ubiquitous, inexpensive and anonymous “open source” method for rapid propaganda dissemination.

    Propaganda is made “publicly available” via numerous channels

    – privately-owned mainstream and social media
    – fake “reporters on the ground”
    – information released through allied nations
    – “fact checking” and “analysis” of information by fake “journalists”

    These sources are infiltrated to “deny, disrupt, degrade, deceive” by taking advantage of “information overload”.

    A person can have difficulty understanding an issue and making decisions that can be caused by the presence of too much “publicly available” information.

    Information overload arises from the access to so much information, almost instantaneously, without knowing the validity of the content and the risk of misinformation.

    Information overload can lead to “information anxiety”, which is the gap between the information we understand and the information that we think that we must understand.

    Pentagon and Western intelligence deception operatives such as Higgins and Bellingcat position themselves as “citizen investigative journalists” helping to organize and verify information to facilitate clear thinking.

    The actual purpose of these fake “journalists” is to provide a channel for deceptive information to more effectively reach the public and be perceived as truthful.

    Higgins pimped this deception strategy in January 2015 article, “Social media and conflict zones: the new evidence base for policymaking” https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/policywonkers/social-media-and-conflict-zones-the-new-evidence-base-for-policymaking/

    Citing “Bellingcat’s MH17 investigation”, Higgins declared that “a relatively small team of analysts is able to derive a rich picture of a conflict zone” using online information and social media.

    Higgins extolled the virtues of this “new evidence base” of “open source” information – side-stepping the technology ability for deceptive information to be planted online and in social media.

    According to Higgins, the “overarching point” is that “there is a real opportunity for open source intelligence analysis to provide the kind of evidence base that can underpin effective and successful foreign and security policymaking. It is an opportunity that policymakers should seize.”

    Western policy makers like Obama, and now Trump have enthusiastically seized the opportunity to use deception operatives like Higgins and Bellingcat to create a “reality” that allows them to “act”.

    • May 5, 2017 at 10:02 am

      Seriously, dude, do you write this stuff for every single post on this website? Just blog it.

      • Joe Tedesky
        May 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm

        Mr Higgins, what no rebuttal? If I were you, I would openly debate Abe and make my case to disprove what Abe comments too. Seriously dude, I’m kind of impressed to see you post a comment here on consortiumnews, and this is the best you can do, is to tell Abe to post a blog. Although if Abe did write on a blog I’d follow his comments. Please Mr Higgins feel free to tell us what you think. Sincerely Joe

        • Gregory Herr
          May 5, 2017 at 7:01 pm

          He’s busy with counting his blood money. And he doesn’t have the moxie for real discourse.

    • Abe
      May 5, 2017 at 8:28 pm

      Higgins is his own biggest fanboy.

  4. Ol' Hippy
    May 4, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    “The ministry of truth” is so appropriate these days as the Trump regime is rewriting science fact as an inconvenient anomaly to be avoided. Apparently there have been several organizations tasked with saving the digital data from government websites before it’s expunged. No wonder a large portion of the public is still ambivalent on the global poisoning/warming crisis. Like who wants to think ahead when the direct threat of nuclear annihilation may exterminate Earth and most of her inhabitants. Congress seems powerless too to hold the US to higher standards of all types of pollution threatening everything from clean drinking water, bees, drilling in national parks, offshore, the arctic, fracking, etc; they are beholden to the dollars needed to be reelected and forget about whose votes put them in power. Yes, Americans are bombarded by a constant barrage of blatant falsehoods, misinformation, endless propaganda, and even great entertainment, to keep people from realizing how bad things really are and it starts with the leadership and happens to be the reality TV star, Trump.

  5. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Anyone on a mission to find something positive about Donald Trump as president, is on a fool’s mission. In truth there is absolutely nothing positive for this country or it’s people that has been done by Trump, nor is there likely to be anything whatever good about this president’s term. The only thing consistent about Trump is whatever he does is guaranteed to screw the greatest number of people possible. He is the wrong way Corrigan of presidents.

    • Lisa
      May 5, 2017 at 8:38 am

      “to find something positive about Donald Trump as president”

      At least he is not Hillary Clinton!
      If Hillary had made it to the presidency, the US would be totally occupied with the attempts (maybe already success) to impeach her.

      • Jeremy
        May 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm

        I really have to ponder about who is the lessor evil in that duel of the damned. All I can say is Corrupt DNC + collusion to sabotage Bernie Sanders = Donald Trump as the president. Thanks assholes! What do they care, when we are all sitting in dilapidated houses drinking brown water after a 10 hour work day watching the latest episode of Hollywood Hogwash, they will be sitting pretty on the 1% preserved plot of remaining healthy environment on Earth (perhaps by climate controlled bubble). Quality of life is a commodity reserved for only the most wealthy. If you complain about this you are a communist engaging in class warfare. Shut-up and drink your brown water. You want clean water…work harder!

  6. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    It pays to know who your enemies are. Trump is the enemy of the American people, including all those who voted for him. He has been a bad person his whole life, and everything coming from him has been toxic and harmful. Like all sociopaths Trump loves it if you expect something good from him – the better to screw you my dear.

  7. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    Lying is the way Trump’s brain operates. He has no idea what the truth is, and takes every lie he utters to be the truth.

  8. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Those who are unable to realize and criticize their own faults are capable of the greatest evil. See Scott Peck’s excellent book, People of the Lie. Peck was the lead investigator of the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam.

  9. ADL
    May 4, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    Worth repeating – you could easily document & make this point in much harsher terms.

    “What we know, first and foremost, is that it hardly matters what Trump says because what he says is as likely as not to have no relationship to the truth, no relationship to what he said last year during the campaign or even what he said last week. What he says bears no relationship to any consistent political or policy ideology or world-view. What he says is also likely to bear no relationship to what his top advisers or appointees have said or believe, making them unreliable interlocutors even if they agreed among themselves, which they don’t.
    This lack of clear policy is compounded by the fact that the president, despite his boasts to the contrary, knows very little about the topics at hand and isn’t particularly interested in learning. In other words, he’s still making it up as he goes along.”

    • mike k
      May 4, 2017 at 9:40 pm

      Trump has faked his way through his whole life, and now he is trying to fake his way through the presidency. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.

  10. Skip Scott
    May 5, 2017 at 8:11 am

    The propaganda technique of repeating a lie over and over is not something new with the Trump administration. MH17, Assad’s sarin gas attacks, Russia invaded Ukraine and stole Crimea, 9/11, flight 800, babies tossed from incubators, soldiers given Viagra, gulf of Tonkin, JFK, RFK, MLK, etc, etc etc ad infinitum. Trump is horrible, but there has been little truth from the MSM my entire life.

    • Gregory Herr
      May 5, 2017 at 7:04 pm

      Straight from the Nazi playbook. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

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