Vice President Mike Pence is pretty familiar by now with cleaning up messes created by President Donald Trump’s tendency to say things that have zero factual basis. And yet he doesn’t appear to be getting any better at it.
Take Pence’s failed attempt Tuesday morning to explain away Trump’s truth-free claim that past presidents had told him that building a border wall was necessary.
When Trump made the statement — “this should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me. And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it” — last Friday during a Rose Garden press conference, it seemed odd on its face.
Trump, who prides himself on not being like anyone who has held the office before him and has frosty relationships with the living past presidents, somehow had a conversation with some of them in which it was made plain to him that they knew they should have built a border wall on their watch?
A few calls to the offices of the living presidents revealed the falsehood. All four ex-presidents said they had not spoken with Trump about the wall at all, which makes it impossible for them to have told him that they knew he was doing the right thing with the wall — and that they should have done the same thing.
Enter Pence, who was dispatched by the administration to hit the morning talk show circuit in hopes of tilling the soil in advance of Trump’s prime time address on immigration at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday. Asked by NBC’s Hallie Jackson to specifically name which president Trump was referring to about the wall, Pence punted. Here’s the full exchange:
JACKSON: “Which former presidents told President Trump, as he said, that he should have built a wall? All of their representatives have denied that that was the case.”
PENCE: “I know the President has said that that was his impression from previous administrations, previous presidents. I know I’ve seen clips of previous presidents talking about the importance of border security, the importance of addressing the issue of illegal immigration.”
JACKSON: “That’s different from telling the President, though, right?”
PENCE: “Look, honestly, the American people, the American people want us to address this issue.”
That’s a remarkable bit of spin from Pence. See, when the President said that past presidents “have told me that we should have” built the wall before, what he meant to say was the he was under the “impression” that they believed that.
How did Trump get that impression? And does he understand the difference between a sense or a feeling about something and actually being told it? Pence offered no clues other than to say that he had seen past “clips” of presidents talking about why border security is important.
There’s a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between a past president telling Trump directly that the wall is something that should have been done in the past and the vice president noting that he has seen ex-presidents on TV saying that border security is important. Pence knows this. He has to. Whatever else you think of him, he’s not a dumb guy. And he’s not entirely un-self-aware. He knows how this “defense” comes off. And he knows that it comes off badly.
So why do it? Because Pence also knows that the only audience that matters is Trump. And the only way to please Trump is to defend him — facts be damned. And so, Pence does that — as far as I can tell, because he concluded a long time ago that his only path to what he really wants (being president) is through total and unstinting loyalty to Trump. That’s it. And so that’s what he does.
While Trump’s record of falsehoods — he averaged 15 mistruths or distortions A DAY in 2018 — can lead some people to just dismiss the whole thing under the politicians-all-lie idea, it’s important to note that the quantity and quality of fabrications coming from this President are absolutely and deeply abnormal.
Most past presidents would fudge a stat here or there, cherry-picking a good poll or good economic numbers — robbing it of some critical context that lessened the power of the point they wanted to make. Called on it by the media or their political opponents, they almost always stopped citing it.
That is not Trump. His falsehood about talking to past presidents who told him they supported the construction of the wall is a good example. This is a claim that is EASILY fact-checked. You call the offices of the living ex-presidents — there are only FOUR! — and simply ask them whether or not they’ve talked to Trump about the wall. And once reporters did that, it became abundantly clear that Trump wasn’t telling the truth.
That a president would lie — publicly — about something that is so easily debunked speaks volumes about how Trump views truth and facts. To him, they are fungible things that can be bent (and broken) to fit his purposes because, in his mind, getting a wall built is enough of a good thing that it justifies any means by which he gets that accomplished.
Pence is complicit in that thinking because he, too, is focused on end goals — and not terribly concerned with how he gets what he wants.
All of which continues to the degradation of the idea of objective truth and facts in our culture. And that trend will outlast Trump’s — and even Pence’s — time in national office.