Washington may not have produced a whole lot of useful legislation this year – evidenced by the round of hearty backslapping that took place last week after Congress simply did its job and funded the federal government – but there was something the nation’s capital churned out in abundance: falsehood.
Yes, yes. Dog bites man. We know. But in a democracy, it still feels necessary to point out some of the political class’s most egregious whoppers, particularly heading into an election year.
This year’s crop of mendacity is, as usual, a mixed bag. Some examples have at least the patina of plausible deniability. Maybe a candidate really believed a wildly incorrect statistic. Others, if the listener were feeling particularly sympathetic, might be written off as unintentional exaggeration. And some are no-doubt-about-it, flat-out lies – claims that have been publicly debunked so thoroughly and so widely that no sentient person in public life could credibly claim not to know they are false.
One note before digging in. The fact that Donald Trump was the leading Republican candidate for president complicated the selection process enormously. The former reality television star single-handedly pumped so much falsehood into the public discourse in 2015 that we briefly considered giving him a list all to himself. Or maybe retiring him into some sort of Masters Division to give up-and-coming liars a chance to step out of his shadow. In the end, Trump was granted two entries on the top 10 list, a courtesy extended only to him, to Sen. Ted Cruz and to President Obama.
Herewith, in no particular order, the top 10 political lies of 2015.
Donald Trump: When the World Trade Center collapsed after the 9/11 attack, the mogul said repeatedly, “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering.”
This is, to use a technical fact-checking term, a crock. Trump never saw this because it didn’t happen. The idea that thousands of people – whom Trump identified as “Arabs” in some of his comments – were cheering or, as he also said, “dancing in the streets” is such nonsense that his defenders have had to fall back on the “you can’t prove it didn’t happen” argument, which if not the last refuge of scoundrels is at least the last refuge of liars
President Barack Obama: The Keystone XL pipeline “bypasses the United States.”
For the Obama administration, it has become increasingly difficult over the years to pretend that the failure to make a decision on whether or not to allow the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline was anything other than political. In 2015, one of the president’s go-to lines was this one.
It suggested that the pipeline would carry dirty and environmentally dangerous tar sands oil through the heart of the U.S., only to see it put on tankers and hauled away. Love the pipeline or hate it, there is no denying that as much as 15 percent of that oil would be processed in the upper Midwestern United States, and that a large portion would be processed in Gulf Coast refineries that employ a lot of American workers.
Texas Sen. Cruz: The reason “Obama has not bombed ISIS' oil fields is they're concerned about global warming.”
Maybe you don’t admire the Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate’s decision to misquote a CIA official, which he did with that statement. Maybe you aren’t a fan of his willingness to misrepresent his country’s strategy in a foreign war against a terrorist organization. Given all that, though, you still have to grant that for a GOP presidential candidate, the temptation to skewer the president for failing to harm ISIS while simultaneously ridiculing those concerned about global warming was probably too much to resist. Too bad it was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT): “Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.”
Misrepresenting the history and status of the battle against terrorism in order to press an unrelated agenda is not limited to Republicans or to climate change denialists. Witness Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s top rival for the party’s nomination, discussing terror.
Is climate change actually directly related to terrorism? No, not so much. There is a theoretical argument that the environmental stresses on some populations associated with climate change might drive certain elements of the population into cities, where with their lower educational attainment the members of the displaced group might find themselves more receptive to radicalization … asleep yet?
No, there is no straight-line relationship between climate change and terrorism.
Hillary Clinton: Ninety percent of my emails as Secretary of State were, according to the State Department, “already in the system.”
Clinton, under fire for her highly questionable decision to endanger national security by using a personal email address for work correspondence while serving as Secretary of State, tried to convince a congressional panel that the vast majority of emails that moved through her account were also archived by the State Department.
Except no, they weren’t. Or at least there is no way that the State Department could possibly have known what percentage of the emails Clinton sent and received from a private email server during her tenure at State were captured by State Department servers, because unless they went to State Department addresses, the Department would never have known about them at all.
Jeb Bush: Planned Parenthood is “not actually doing women’s health issues. They are involved in something way different than that.”
You don’t have to like Planned Parenthood. You don’t have to vote to spend government money to fund Planned Parenthood. There are plenty of arguments you can make to support either side.
But over the summer, in response to a set of controversial (and controversially edited) hidden-camera recordings of Planned Parenthood staff discussing what they would charge to cover expenses associated with retrieving fetal tissue for researchers after an abortion, attacking the non-profit for “selling baby parts” became a standard tactic on the far right.
Bush didn’t go that far, but to suggest that an organization that does little except provide health care services to women does nothing of the sort was a clear political pander.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV): Planned Parenthood “is the health care backbone for American women during their lives. In fact, it is the only health care that a significant number of women get. About 30 percent of women, that’s their health care.”
<Sigh> No. This is just not true. Throughout 2015, Planned Parenthood was plainly the subject of a coordinated campaign of disinformation from abortion opponents. The response from the political left was to fall in line and defend the organization, often by pointing out factual problems with some of the accusations.
But here, Reid was pretty plainly making up statistics. Even Planned Parenthood itself only claims that one in five women – 20 percent – visit one of their clinics during their lifetimes.
Donald Trump: “Our president wants to take in 250,000 [refugees] from Syria.”
In the aftermath of the Paris attack of November 13 that left over 120 people dead and scores more wounded, there was a strong movement, particularly among Republican presidential candidates, to promise to keep Americans safe. One of the most common promises was that they would bar refugees fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria from entering the country.
The fear-mongering was widespread and virulent – Trump would eventually graduate to proposing a total ban on all Muslims – but in the early days, most candidates satisfied themselves with attacking Syrian refugees. He made it worse by repeatedly claiming that the administration was planning to admit far more of them, by a factor of 25, than the White House had ever suggested.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas): “Every day, all along border states, maybe other places, there are murders by people who have been arrested coming into this country, who have been released by the Obama administration.”
In a year remarkable for its anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s difficult to identify the worst examples. But this comment from the Texas congressman gets to the heart of the strategy behind many of the political attacks on undocumented immigrants, which are plainly aimed at creating a climate of fear.
Are there violent criminals among the undocumented population? Sure there are. Just like there are violent criminals among native-born Americans. Is the Obama administration releasing violent offenders who go on to kill one American every day? No. Seriously. No. Not even close.
President Barack Obama: After the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, “129 million people who could have otherwise been denied or faced discrimination now have access to coverage.”
Really, in this day and age, what collection of untruths could be complete without at least one reference to Obamacare? The controversial health law has generated an extraordinary amount of nonsense from partisans on both sides of the aisle.
This particular statement from the president makes the cut based on its sheer gratuity. Are there people currently insured who would not be without the provisions of the Affordable Care Act? Yes, without question.
But 129 million? That’s almost 40 percent of the country’s population. It’s true that health insurance was unavailable to tens of millions before Obamacare became law, but it takes a very generous definition of victims of denial and discrimination to get to 40 percent of the U.S. population.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Pete Sessions as a Senator. He is a member of the House of Representatives.)