Americans who are still capable of being optimistic about the impending presidency of Donald Trump have consoled themselves with the hope that the least-experienced person ever to sit in the Oval Office will, at least, surround himself with a cadre of strong and sensible advisers. The idea is that a solid network of tested policy professionals would serve as a two-way filter screening out bad information before it gets to the president, perhaps preventing some of the President-elect’s own outrageous statements from finding a public outlet.
This weekend, though, it became painfully evident that Trump’s closest advisers and partners in Washington are doing precisely the opposite. Rather than moderating the incoming president’s worst instincts, they are amplifying them. The filter, it turns out, is actually an echo chamber.
Last week, in one of several bursts of intemperate tweeting, the President-elect reacted angrily to the fact that while he was a clear winner in the Electoral College he nevertheless lost the popular vote for the presidency by a considerable margin.
Trump raged on Twitter, falsely claiming that he actually won the popular vote.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he insisted.
And in another tweet, he claimed that voting in three of the states he lost was fraudulent. “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California - so why isn't the media reporting on this? Serious bias - big problem!”
To be crystal clear on this subject: There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in those three states, or in any states, for that matter. Trump’s claim, by any reasonable standard, is a pointless lie. In the end, the popular vote doesn’t actually matter, and there is no credible threat to Trump’s Electoral College victory.
Trump pointed to a scathing Pew Research document in one recent interview from 2012 that could actually support his claim. But three things are missing: 1. That real evidence exists indicating these disparities were used by bad actors to skew the election. 2. That if used, they helped Clinton and not Trump. 3. That evidence exists that these conditions still exist:
- Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.
- More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.
- Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.
On Sunday, three of the people who will work most closely with Trump when he takes office in January were asked to address the fact that the president-elect is using his social media platform to lie to the American public. To a man, they refused to concede that Trump was not telling the truth.
Trump’s incoming vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in an appearance on ABC’s This Week, told host George Stephanopoulos that he found Trump’s willingness to air his made-up grievances “refreshing.”
“It’s his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States,” Pence said. “I think one of the things that's refreshing about our President-elect and one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country is because he tells you what's on his mind.”
“But why is it refreshing to make false statements?” Stephanopoulos demanded.
“I don't know that that is a false statement, George, and neither do you,” the vice president-elect replied.
On CBS’s Face the Nation, incoming White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus likewise refused to concede that Trump’s claim about millions of fraudulent votes is untrue.
“I don’t know if that’s not true, John,” Priebus said, referring to unspecified reports of voting irregularities.
“But you think millions of people voted illegally?” Dickerson asked.
“It’s possible,” Priebus insisted.
Finally, on 60 Minutes Sunday night, in a segment taped earlier in the week, House Speaker Paul Ryan bobbed and weaved in an effort to avoid addressing the issue of the president-elect spreading false information.
Scott Pelley: Trump tweeted, in the last week or so, that he had actually won the popular vote if you deduct the millions who voted illegally. Do you believe that?
Paul Ryan: I don’t know. I’m not really focused on these things.
Scott Pelley: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You have an opinion on whether millions of Americans voted illegally.
Paul Ryan: I have no way of backing that up. I have no knowledge of such things.
Scott Pelley: You don’t believe that—
Paul Ryan: But I don’t-- it doesn’t matter to me. He won the election.
When Pelley challenged Ryan, asking how lawmakers and voters can go forward in working with a president who is willing to traffic in blatant falsehood, Ryan rhetorically threw up his hands, essentially claiming that it just doesn’t matter.
“Look, like I said, he’s going to-- the way I see the tweets you’re talking about, he’s basically giving voice to a lot of people who have felt that they were voiceless. He’s communicating with people in this country who’ve felt like they have not been listened to. He’s going to be an unconventional president.
“I really think we have a great opportunity in front of us to fix problems, produce results, and improve people’s lives. That’s why we’re here in the first place. And so that’s what’s going to matter at the end of the day. Did we improve people’s lives? Did we solve the problems that the American people need solved? Are we addressing the concerns of people who are tired of being tired? And who cares what he tweeted, you know, on some Thursday night, if we fix this country’s big problems? That’s just the way I look at this.”
But there is another way to look at it, and it’s not as cheerful a picture as Ryan paints. What Trump’s top advisers are demonstrating in this latest mini-scandal is that they are unwilling to stand up to their boss over relatively inconsequential false statements.
The public would be more than justified to worry that if they don’t have the backbone to go against the boss on something minor, they’ll fold up even more easily when the stakes are much higher.